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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

We Have To Overcome

August 13, 2010
David Wilson
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At conferences it is always refreshing to meet great and inspiring people who are creating the change the world needs. Listening to the brass band on Saturday night and chanting "no bosses" was invigorating and refreshing. Thank you to all I had the pleasure of meeting.

At many workshops though it was apparent that some cooperatives are experiencing painful conflicts amongst their members. It is difficult enough just to stay in business, but these conflicts are draining away the energy of members. These problems compound business problems. In what is supposed to be a liberating business model, some worker cooperatives seem to be chained in personality problems. We still have not been able to work it out. Until we do, worker cooperatives' potential to create truly humane workplaces will be unrealized.

This is just not a worker cooperative phenomenon. The activist community that I am involved in where I live has destroyed itself from within. It is already small, but it has been fractured about as much as it can possibly can be fractured. I always just imagine those in power pointing to activists and then howling as they watch in-fighting whittle the movement to barely a whimper. They often do not need to do anything, they just need to sit back and watch the bad soap opera. To my surprise it was not just a local phenomenon. Whether in Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Minneapolis, or San Francisco it is pretty much the same broken record. These same problems have plagued cooperatives since Robert Owen's utopia experiments like New Harmony (and for that matter movements before and after it). When are we going to learn?

To my dismay, I have seen collective initiatives turn into authoritarian structures or become the tension filled workplaces that they were supposed to be liberated from. Whether tired, passive or bound by ideo(ill)logical ideals, we have been unable to summon the energy to effectively deal with these conflicts. Or perhaps we are just perpetuating ingrained patterns that we have learned over time that are difficult to acknowledge and even more difficult to change. Many of us don't have these skills, but do we have the willingness to learn these skills?

To its credit, the USFWC conference had a number of related workshops on this topic. The key will be what the follow-up will be after the conference. We have to overcome persistent and troubling conflicts in the workplace if there is any chance of worker co-operatives one day becoming mainstream. We have to acknowledge what we are doing can be improved upon. The problem within needs to be overcome before scaling up and transforming the problems of capitalism. We need to implement theories, learn, and share best practices to help create workplaces that truly are humane, respectful, equitable, democratic and great places to work.

There is an abundance of literature on effective governance out there. What we need to do is create an abundance of literature on actual real life effective workplaces. We need to teach new cooperatives effective policies and procedures before they open their doors. We need to help current cooperatives effectively deal with their conflicts.

The USFWC's peer support program is a great start. More resources will be needed though. Peers with experience can only do so much volunteer wise. We either need to pool some worker cooperative sector profits to adequately pay these peers if it is going to be sustainable or successful cooperatives need to pony up and lend a staff person for a period of (paid) time to provide peer support to new and existing cooperatives. Those peers with great conflict resolution skills must be identified and be put to use for the greater good of the worker cooperative movement. These skills need to be passed on.

We also need to create an easy to read (and find) manual to distribute to worker cooperatives with strategies to avoid conflict in the first place and how to effectively deal with conflicts as they arise. This manual needs to be constantly updated to include real examples of what to do and not to do. Of course new and existing cooperatives need to use these resources with an open mind or else it is just a big waste of time and money. In the spirit of Yoda talking to Luke Skywalker, we "need to unlearn what we have learned" in order to learn how to treat each other better, to work better together and to create a kick ass worker cooperative movement that advertises itself through its healthy, equitable, democratic and fun workplaces.

The challenge is great and we are stubborn as billy goats, but we must learn how to work together better so that we can overcome.

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