"If I want time off, I just write to my co-workers and tell them," the woman told me with what seemed to be a mix of bemusement and pride. We were chatting in the hallway as the Philadelphia edition of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) wound down. She lacked the harried gleam of the more activist conference-goers. It turned out she had just been hired by a worker co-op after working for years in another business, and had come to learn more about working in a democratically run, worker-owned business. Up to now, she had only worked in traditional, hierarchical firms; this was her first experience in the co-op world, and her attitude struck me as one of cautious optimism.
This woman was in some ways the opposite of most of the people I had been interviewing for the past 48 hours. The folks I had been talking to probably have over a century of co-op organizing experience between them. Many of them have a sense of the their movements that reaches over a century back and a decade forward. Because she didn't have any of that, the new worker-owner in the hallway came to represent, for me, the main hope and the principal challenge that the worker co-op movement faces.
Will ordinary workers see the benefits of owning and running their corner of the economy, and will these workers embrace the entirely different way of relating with their peers, colleagues and investors that the co-operative economy implies? Our passing interaction provided no answers, but it brought the attendant hopes and fears into focus. The stakes are high.