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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

2024 Reflections from John McNamara, Ph.D.

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GEO Original
June 6, 2024
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[Editors’ Note: John McNamara is an important player in the US worker co-op movement. For our coverage and reflections on 20 years of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, we naturally asked John for his thoughts. He willingly gave us an interview and filled out our survey (see below).

We’d also like to call your attention to John McNamara’s own blog post from 2010, reposted in GEO at the time. He wrote reflections on where he thinks the worker co-op movement should be in 2040. It is still relevant, brilliant and insightful today. So we remind you of that, and below we supply John’s answer to our survey questions (there is still time for readers to fill it out here). After that we share John’s 2023 interview with us about the history of the Democracy at Work Network.]


Survey Questions

What were your hopes for the worker cooperative movement at the time that you first became involved?

John McNamara: I had been a member of Union Cab since 1988 and served on its board, but didn't really get involved until the Midwest Worker Co-op Conference in 2003 in Madison. I saw, then the value of building a larger movement, but also the need for it to be both aspirational and grounded in creating a new model of economy that met both practical needs of workers while also building solidarity.

In what ways have those hopes been realized? In what ways haven't they been?

John McNamara: There are more worker co-ops than ever, but they still tend to be focused inwardly and aren't really connected in a meaningful economic system. There are some successes, definitely, however, on the whole the networks are more informal than in linking economic power (like forming a bank of worker co-ops or solidarity fund).

What has your experience been with national and regional worker co-op organizations? In what ways have they been beneficial for worker co-ops?

John McNamara: At the national level, the USFWC has made great strides and its offering of transactional benefits is so important. The material benefits (health insurance) and the Co-op Clinic has provided support to worker co-ops across the country. The national network has also, through its councils helped elevate the national discussion on worker co-ops at the policy level in DC and with labor councils.

What would you like to see national and regional worker co-op organizations do going forward? Where do you think their focus should be?

John McNamara: Regional networks that can provide policy support in the statehouses, create solidarity funds, and find ways to link co-ops into a coherent economic system that can challenge the better funded actors in the economy. At the national level, keep working on the national policy, support the regionals, and start building infrastructure to link the regionals economically.


GEO Interviews John McNamara on DAWN, The Democracy at Work Network

[Thanks to Megan McGee for making this happen.]

GEO: Thank you for giving us this interview. I first have some questions about your experience with DAWN. Then I’ll ask some questions about what you think would be needed for future worker co-op peer support efforts. Because in recent discussions about the history of DAWN, people who had not been familiar with it before were enthusiastic about it, and felt we should create new services like it. So, tell me how and why you became involved with DAWN and what your role was in it, and what expertise you brought to it?

John McNamara: I got involved with DAWN right near the beginning, I think. It was right as the federation was getting formed. There was talk about creating the Democracy at Work Institute and also this need to create a technical assistance program and its original name, I think was the “Worker Co-op Peer Technical Assistance Network,” or something like that. The idea was that in the co-op development world at that time, there were very few, if any, co-op developers that were really familiar with worker co-ops. They were pretty much all from the agricultural co-op sector or consumer co-op sector. And there was a feeling that this is a serious gap because those co-op sectors are not necessarily thinking about the needs of the employees -or workers.

GEO: What sectors are you talking about, explain the gap?

McNamara: Consumer and agricultural co-ops. Co-op development and co-op research before the 2000s were mostly focused on those two sectors. The idea was that we (worker coop members) needed to train up and increase the information about and technical assistance to worker co-op development. We were particularly interested in members of worker co-ops provide peer assistance to other people in the worker co-op community and to provide valuable peer to peer education to help start up worker co-ops. It's sometimes it's very hard to solve a problem when you're inside the middle of it. Having that outside voice with people who've been trained and learned from other cooperatives really brings that in. So that's a big part of why I got involved in the Democracy at Work Network. We were part of the initial group that developed the peer to peer training protocols. We held a number of meetings around the country. I think a two-day session in Madison in 2008 really cemented the idea of creating the program; and then from that, building what a certification process looks like. As a member of Union Cab of Madison Cooperative, I definitely saw the value of technical assistance. We had worked with advisors in the traditional business sector who understood co-ops, but they weren't worker co-op developers. And so the idea of being able to actually create something very specific for worker co-ops was really exciting to me.

The old DAWN website, via the Wayback Machine.
The old DAWN website, via the Wayback Machine.

GEO: How do you think peer to peer support differs from other sources of technical assistance available to people looking to start worker co-ops?

McNamara: I think because the peers and have been in the trenches, they've already seen most of what they're dealing with – they have the exact experience to draw on. Even today, as someone who is a professional, cooperative developer with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, I rely so much on my time at Union Cab and what I learned as a worker-owner there. I bring those experiences to my work today - for over ten years. And I think it gives a certain amount of authenticity to developers if they have that actual experience of working in a worker co-op. There are things that you just can't get from textbooks or from going to training sessions. There's really something significant about seeing the theory break down and the practice of lived experiences, especially in the worker co-op community. So many of us have a fair amount of trauma from growing up in and living under a capitalist system and that makes building strong cooperatives more difficult in the worker co-op world than in other co-op sectors where the members are generally external to the actual labor that creates the co-op value. That's where having that peer relationship is really important. Peers in the movement have likely had experience with a similar conflict that they can talk about with the worker members; and can help them to figure it out, and help them develop a way to correct it.

GEO: What are some specific anecdotes or accomplishments that you feel exemplify how DAWN contributed to the worker co-op movement?

McNamara: I think definitely we built some networks. One was creating a training program for a small low frequency radio station. In that process, we created a great training module that would allow people to really consider how worker ownership and control contribute to a healthier workplace. Also, by working together as a team, which was one of the formats of DAWN, being able to really share that information with each other, and then also bring it out to the general public, was powerful. I'm trying to think of other aspects. A big part of the power of DAWN was some of the internal training we did, and led. The co-ops had members participating in and benefitted from being a part of DAWN. We peer trainers could bring some of those lessons back directly into our own co-ops. At Union Cab, for example, we were able to build off of what we learned from the DAWN training process to help flatten the hierarchy at Union Cab, and make it more democratic in terms of its management structure.

In addition, some DAWN members went on to be engaged in bigger and bigger projects. By helping with and working through DAWN, people like me were able to gain that experience that they needed to really excel. Some impressive people were involved with DAWN, and it's great to see everyone still working in this world and doing great things.

GEO: What are your thoughts on DAWN's relationship with the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives?

McNamara: I think DAWN was orphaned first by DAWI and then by USFWC. I think DAWN really deserves to be its own entity. I think there should have been a way to stand it up as its own organization. I have nothing against the USFWC’s Co-op Clinic that replaced it, but it's not the same as DAWN. In addition to providing technical assistance, DAWN also provided a training and certification program. I think it would have been more valuable if DAWN could have continued with its own grants and some funding to be able to continue to do the peer-to-peer work. And it would have had more autonomy. I think it would have survived. For whatever reason, without a lot of discussion, it was deemed to have outlived its usefulness. And I don't think it did. I still think today DAWN would be very valuable.

GEO: And can you talk about your experience of how DAWN ended?

McNamara: Well, the way I found out was by email the night before the 2018 National Worker Co-op Conference in L.A.. There was no discussion about it. It was just an email that got sent out saying, this is what is going down. So, I didn't think it was very democratic or open or transparent.

GEO: And what do you remember about the events that led to it?

McNamara: Well, I had not been as involved for the previous year or so. So I don't know everything, but I know that there was some discussion about the costs and management. And this was after it had been taken over by the Federation. It's always a problem when a new program is added to an organization because you're adding something that may not sync with what the organization is already doing or within its strategic plan; and there is not necessarily funding for it. So, I understand that it was probably something that was taken on in good faith by the Federation. But, you know, ultimately adding new programs need a lot more work than just taking them on. There needs to be set up a real strategic plan and funding source. I wasn't in on those meetings. I had stepped down from the board of governors like the year before it all kind of shifted. That’s as much as I know.

GEO: What specific decisions do you think board members could have made differently to avoid the dissolution?

McNamara: I think DAWN could have become its own501C3, for example, it could have become its own co-op development center. That would build into its model of having peer advisors who are either active or recently with worker co-ops. It could have been done without necessarily a lot of staff time from either the U.S. Federation or the Democracy at Work Institute, its research arm. I think that there was interest from some of the governors that I knew in doing that, and it could have been the third leg of the stool: DAWI, USFWC, and then DAWN. That is how I think a lot of us always envisioned it. That was an opportunity that was missed.

GEO: And how inclusive and accessible do you feel DAWN was to diverse groups of people in terms of race, gender identity, socioeconomic status, age, geographical location, in terms of both membership and services?

McNamara: All. In terms of membership, I think there was a lot of openness and willingness to engage. I think it probably could have been more diverse. The entire worker co-op movement itself was struggling to be diverse, including the Federation. The Federation looked a lot different than it looks today in terms of its board makeup and membership. When we started it was hard to try to be doing everything all at once. And so DAWN may have suffered from us not always paying attention to diversity. But I think it was also an organization that if people were wanting to get involved and stepped in, they would have been more than welcome. But, there are also a lot of systemic issues with that as well, especially with volunteer time and who is able and feels welcome participating. Something that I think about is had DAWN been able to stand up as an autonomous organization, it might have been able to really build that in and really engage and even grow with DAWI and the Federation as they have and become more diverse and inclusive and engaged around social justice issues (just as both DAWI and the USFWC has). But it wasn't really at the point where it was able to even get on its own legs.

GEO: Is there anything else you can say about what you think DAWN contributed to the worker co-op movement?

McNamara: It really contributed some great documents around training. We were part of the overall development process where we were able to create a pretty broad sort of training program for how to become a co-op developer; and then we had our own certification process. The certification was very important. I think that's still something that's valuable and could be used to create future programs.

GEO: What do you think are some lessons the movement could learn from law and how it went?

McNamara: I think a big one that I thought a lot about is, and this is probably DAWN's big problem, is that in the United States, at least, there is a very strong sort of do it yourself attitude, especially in the worker co-op world. Mainly, I think that comes from a history of being so isolated, and not having developers that understood groups of working people. This created a situation where it can be very difficult to get cooperatives to understand the value of working with a co-op developer and actually paying for that work. And it's interesting because sometimes I think about that in terms of the idea of decolonizing corporate cooperative development. That do it yourself attitude is a kind of colonize the frontier mentality. And it doesn't really help either the co-op or the movement as a whole. We need to create this idea that it is better to have paid outside facilitators come in, whose labor is valued for their knowledge and experience and skills and coaching and training. That co-ops should be engaged in developing themselves as not just a businesses, but as social justice enterprises, and as cooperative enterprises that have that relational aspect to them around their communities, their members, the environment. This isn't something that you can just do it yourself, that it really does need to bring in other people. This not only helps that individual cooperate, it helps their co-op and the movement as a whole, because more knowledge gets out to the greater community and there's a better, stronger network in that. Co-ops should not be isolated; we don't have to be isolated anymore. There are now hundreds of co-op developers with specific worker co-op experience and knowledge. Also, a lot of our work is done by grants, but we need to see this co-op development, as valuable labor to be supported/paid for. Peer to peer training is something that will help make the co-op difference come alive!

GEO: What do you think the state of the movement is now, and what has been DAWN's role or lack of role in it?

McNamara: I often like to say that there's never been a better time to start a co-op than today compared to even 15 years ago, especially 20 years ago. There are so many resources out there. There's so much more infrastructure between the Federation, DAWI, and Cooperation Works! - and a number of local and regional co-op development centers and community development organizations that use cooperatives, now exist. There are an amazing number of people out there helping, working to help worker ownership through cooperatives. Congress has passed two or three laws since 2018 around employee ownership that affects co-ops or different states now have specific laws around employee ownership. It's just amazing how much of that is because of DAWN, especially because the people that were in DAWN are actively involved at the level of the Federation, and at different co-op development centers. They've gone on to do a lot of other things. Some of them, I think, have even been engaged in some of the political discussions to create better policy. So, you know, I think DAWN was definitely part of it. We're kind of in a golden age for co-op development. Even during the Knights of Labor in the 1880s they didn't have the infrastructure or the laws or the things that we have today. So, the next decade or two, as we're dealing with climate change and the continued erosion of our economies under capitalism, will see co-ops coming into their golden era.

GEO: Is there anything I haven't asked that you think is important to know about DAWN's history?

McNamara: For me, it was definitely an incredible moment of working with people across the country from different communities, rural and urban, and from different backgrounds and cultures. It was just an incredible bringing together of people who were really interested in thinking about co-ops at a time when other things were happening. There's nothing, there's not like a hidden story, I think most of it's out there. It’s one of those really great moments when you can have that time to actually think about that longer strategy and then move toward it.

GEO: Let's talk about a future of peer support efforts. And what specific steps do you think we could take to ensure the sustainability of similar efforts in the future?

McNamara: The co-ops I work with really think about the funding model and how is that going to support what the group is trying to do. It might have been in a national organization too big to start out with. Maybe it starts regionally, although there is a lot more competition there. There's lot more people out there doing this now, even at the national level. Is the moment still there to have a peer network that is going to be able to function alongside the other groups that are acting regionally and nationally? I think that would be one of the first things to really have a discussion about and especially on the funding model. Also, we need to be doing an analysis of where people are not getting support and why, and other gaps that are currently existing in the in the worker co-op development world.

GEO: How do you think incorporating similar peer support efforts as official entities might lead to a different outcome this time?

McNamara: Whenever you have autonomy over your work, it gives you more of an ability to make the changes and decisions that are going to create more sustainability in the long run. You're not dependent upon another group's agenda. You can focus on your own agenda. And I think that will always make for a stronger organization. It's one of the core concepts of autonomy and independence as a co-op principle.

GEO: And how else do you think we can ensure that these efforts are truly autonomous and self-sufficient?

McNamara: I think definitely by working for it to be either its own organization outright, or if there are supporting organizations that truly provide a supporting role, and are not controlling or defining. Maybe there's some role for large organizations just to help stand up the organization, but they should definitely be in the support role, not calling the shots. And if there's any funding involved, it should be clear about how that plays in terms of voice within the organization. Make sure that the funder’s voice is limited and that the agenda is still controlled by the people who are going to be doing the work and the governance of it.

GEO: And how do you think we might fund these efforts differently?

McNamara: The idea to me would be that worker co-ops should be funding this work; whether that's through regional, local networks that have been shoring up, or whether it's through some sort of national campaign. They should be funded by co-ops paying for the services or for services as part of strategic planning or other activities the co-ops have in their budgets. Co-ops should also support a pool of money, a fund to help pay it forward for co-ops that may not be able to immediately afford the services, maybe working with some of the national lenders like Seed Commons and Shared Capital to be a preferred vendor for providing technical assistance as part of their loan packages.

GEO: So what kind of knowledge and experience would you like potential members to bring to peer support efforts?

McNamara: There should be some training (including adult education), like what Cooperation Works! does. Maybe we should re-invent the DAWN certification program to help train up people that want to come in and do the work as peer advisers. You know, the idea of the peer advisor was really that it wouldn't necessarily be someone's full time job, that they would still be with their own co-op. I still think that's a really neat idea. Part of that would be developing the training again, but also maybe working with groups like Cooperation Works! that are already doing the training. And seeing if there could be a partnership. I should say, just as a disclaimer, I am on the board of Corporation Works!*.

GEO: And how do you think these peer support efforts can be inclusive and accessible to diverse groups of people in terms of membership and services?

McNamara: Working with those communities. And their co-ops to help build it out. We need to keep organizing in the co-op world. To me, I don't believe in the top down model. I think it needs to be definitely of the grassroots. So putting together any sort of steering committee or an organization that would begin looking at sort of re starting DAWN would need to really think about those communities somehow and make sure that they're there - that they're participating. It's about doing what you can to make the organization as open and inviting as possible.

GEO: Is there anything you'd like to add before we finish?

McNamara: I think it'd be interesting to have conversations again about DAWN and peer to peer training. One of the first steps would be to discuss how it's going to be different and how the landscape has changed. I think that's always important to consider. If there's energy to start thinking about it, although I'm co-director of Northwest Cooperative Development Center, I would probably not be part of the peer network, but would definitely be happy to support where we can.

GEO: Thank you so much for doing this interview and giving us and our readers your time.

McNamara: Thank you.

*John’s board term with CooperationWorks! ended in December, 2023.

Header image: John (left) with Sam Green (Co-Executive Director, NWCDC), Soichiro Maeyama, (Fukuyama City University), and Diane Gasaway (former Executive Director of NWCDC).



John is a Co-Executive Director of the Northwest Cooperative Development Center and also teaches Strategic Advantage with the International Centre for Co-operative Management at the Sobey School of Business. Prior to joining NWCDC as a co-op development specialist, he spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison, serving in a number of roles. He also served 4 years on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and currently services on the Executive Committees of both the Policy and Advocacy Council and the Union-Coops Council. John  was a founding member of the Democracy at Work Network and just recently completed a term on the board of CooperationWorks!. He serves on the WA State Employee Ownership Commission and on the Steering Committee of the WA State Center for Employee Ownership. His dissertation examines how the style of management in worker owned or controlled co-ops may assist or deter alliance with the Cooperative Identity by the ability of workers to be engaged in the governance and operations of their cooperative.


John McNamara, GEO Collective (2024).  2024 Reflections from John McNamara, Ph.D..  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).


Margaret Bau

Great reflection piece John. I remember DAWN fondly - it truly was an extensive training and certification process.

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