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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Movements Moving Together 7

July 21, 2014
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Please, for the sake of our movements, some humility and self-criticism.

Every movement for social change involves  long periods of great frustration that can even lead to despair as well as sudden moments of breakthrough opportunities that spur hope and confidence. Unfortunately these moments of breakthrough also produce star-struck fantasies of unrealistic expectations. Such fantasies and mis-visions are a major way we shoot ourselves in the feet. Often, even, shoot our feet off.

I see two major ways this is currently happening: 1) the star-struck fantasies drive, and get driven by, media hype, and 2) elevating one way as the vehicle that will save us all obliterates awareness of the real strategic work we need to be doing. Right now our opportunities for realistically developing our awesome worker co-operative model are being severely threatened by this kind of hype and reification.

One blog that recently appeared on Shareable.Net embodied both of these threats. I am going to discuss the false claim made in this blog and critique what I feel is an egregious misuse of the “ecosystem” metaphor.

Before hand I want to make three points. First, I’m a major advocate of co-operative economics. By the end of this month a book I have co-written about regional co-operative economic development will become available for sale: BUILDING CO-OPERATIVE POWER!  Stories and Strategies from Worker Co-Operatives in the Connecticut River Valley. (Yes, I am promoting the book.)

Second, I consider Shareable.Net a social change partner. They have supported GEO in very substantial ways, and we scour their website regularly for articles to cross-post. Further, they work closely with another organization I am involved with, SolidarityNYC. Nor do I expect them to review the blogs they post. That’s the responsibility of the blogger.

Third, I believe that our movements must “speak truth” to ourselves more than to the established systems. I have no interest in any kind of personal attack on the author. I hope that she receives my criticism as thoughtful reflections on her work, and uses what she finds of value and discards what she feels is not useful.

Now to the major false claim, which is the smaller of the two problems I see presented in this blog. However, examining how it came about provides some valuable context for the second and much more significant problem.

I think the author does not understand that are several kinds of co-operative business models. She tends to conflate all of them into the worker co-op model throughout the article. This led her to making a false statement:

According to a University of Wisconsin study, nearly 30,000 cooperatives operate within the United States at 73,000 places of business, own over $3 trillion in assets and generate over $500 billion in revenue annually. Worker cooperatives employ over 2 million people and pay out an estimated $75 billion annually in wages, according to the study.

The claim made in the italicized portion has been deleted from the blog. I am assuming this happened as a result of comments posted by Mark Dworkin of Shift Change and myself, and this should be applauded. Since there are only 4-500 worker co-ops with only a few thousand worker-owners at most, this was an enormous overstatement.

However, the conflation of the different kinds of co-ops still permeates the article, primarily because 1) it doesn't name and spell out the differences between worker, consumer, and producer co-ops, and 2) keeps referring to "worker co-operatives" and "cooperatives" interchangeably. I am speculating that more than a simple misreading of the Wisconsin study produced the false claim. If one is reasonably informed about the co-operative movement, one is simply not going to make such a mistake. If my speculation is reasonably accurate, then we have a situation in which someone is beating the drums for worker co-ops without knowing they are seriously uninformed.

We could say that this is just one person. Is it though? We all know from personal experiences how hope leads to wanting to see what we want to see when it is not there. This is very human.

For example, I was dying for Obama to win the presidency in 2008. I soared when he won. Then he appointed his team of economic advisors. Who! I thought, and soon let my dismay drift away. Then I heard he got rid of Howard Dean who had been moving the Democratic National Committee toward being a fairly bottom-up organization. What! I reacted, but let that roll off my back. Then he dismantled the grassroots organization that got him elected. What! Why!, and...  I went on like this for some months before I allowed myself to accept that he was part and parcel of the neoliberal game. Maybe a lite version, but fully integrated into that network.

Denying reality is very destructive to what one is trying to accomplish. Parents who want their children to become the best usually end up producing serious problems their children have to cope with for the rest of their lives. 70-year old men having chest pains but “knowing” it can’t be a heart problem are another example. (I got to the ER in the nick of time because my partner at the time wouldn’t take no for an answer.)

The second problem—the glorification of the worker co-operative business model—comes in large part from the same kind of wishful thinking. We want— even desperately want—something that will turn the awful political economics of our lives around. And we want it to happen fast. In my opinion this leads to profound mistake in strategic thinking for our movement.

This mistake is manifested in the very title of the blog: It Takes an Ecosystem: The Rise of Worker Cooperatives in the US. Well, ecosystems are comprised of many different kinds of living creatures interacting with each other. To suggest the idea that one kind of cooperative can make an "ecosystem" is like advocating that all we need for a new kind of ecosystem are a variety of trees. Or we can have an orchestra with only cellos. Different kinds of trees are great for an ecosystem, but they can’t thrive without a rich diversity of living creatures. In the case of community-based and democratically-oriented enterprises this kind of diversity is essential as it is being demonstrated across the world in Brazil, Quebec, Emilia-Romagna, and many other countries. The wants and needs of the many people such a regional system requires is light years beyond the capacity of a single model.

I am dismayed by the number of articles hailing the wonders of co-ops that do not take the time to find out and report on the many problems of the projects and enterprises mentioned in them. Some of these problems and failings are quite shocking, mostly because they are being hidden behind hurrahs.

Steve Dubb and Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative note this danger in their Foreward to the Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale report by Hilary Abell:

Yet with all of this attention and activity, a central fact remains—worker cooperatives in the United States are exceedingly rare, with fewer than 5,000 worker-owners nationwide. Moreover, using worker cooperatives as part of a broader community wealth building strategy focused on stabilizing disinvested, low-income neighborhoods, (a central concern of The Democracy Collaborative), remains even less common.

I added the emphasis. I appreciate their cautionary note. But, in my opinion, our movements need loud and bright warning signals. No movement can survive blatant disregard of self-reflection on what isn't working. Doing this just sets hopeful people up to become quite disillusioned when the negatives start coming out. It also deprives us of the information we need to learn from our mistakes, which is some of the most valuable learning we can get.

Our tendency to glorify any model drives and is driven by the media. Across the landscape of the entire cooperative movement there are serious failings. Our need to reify and sanctify any kind of “saving” model or strategy means we cannot allow ourselves to see those failings for what they are, come to understand and learn from them, and then make the changes we need for moving forward. Reifying anything produces the notorious boom-and-bust cycle we are trying to move beyond.

One last word on this tendency to see what we want to see. It seems a lot of people are now claiming that worker co-ops were designed to help low-income people earn good wages. They were not designed to do this. Rather, they were designed for workers to create their economic alternative to the capitalist system being imposed on them as the Industrial Revolution begin to hit full stride. They are now being adapted to address the needs of specific populations of low-income and migrant workers, but this is very recent. (To be accurate, the Shareable blog makes this difference very clear.) And that effort is just beginning. This means they are an experiment, and experiments are trial-and-error processes. We need to promote them as such, and be realistic about our expectations and the expectations we generate.

Please, let us recognize that we are as prone to producing the same kind of mistakes as the capitalist systems. If you have any doubts in this matter, read The Corrupting Role of Corporate Co-ops by Carl Ratner, a relatively short article on GEO, as one example. All of us are culturally permeated by these kinds of values and practices. Knowing that is the first step in transforming those tendencies.

NOTE: Wow! My plea for cooperative self-criticism and humility got a big boost almost immediately. Shortly after I posted this blog Neal Gorenflo of Shareable.Net contacted me to say that they were reviewing the article to see where they needed to make changes. He also said that they weren't being the wild-eyed optimists I focused on in m blog. I agree. The article did an excellent job in covering the realities of starting worker co-ops. I also re-read their blog and made two corrections in my blog. This is how we need to be working together with our eyes open and wanting to make things work well.

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