(Originally published with a cool drawing of the cat on the Socialist WebZine, http://www.socialistwebzine.org/2010/08/bread-without-bosses.html.)
The mascot of the Alvarado Street Bakery (ASB) is an orange and black cat, with a swinging tail and a sly grin. Perhaps his feisty smile is the result of good working conditions. ASB is the worker owned and run cooperative featured in Michael Moore?s recent film Capitalism: A Love Story as an example of economic democracy. ASB is based in Petaluma, California, but ships nationally through their website. In this interview, Joseph Tuck of ASB tells The Socialist about the company?s practices.
The Socialist - Can you describe how your cooperative works? In particular, how are the big decisions made about what is produced and how much and how are the small day-to-day decisions made, how fast and how much people work, breaks, etc.?
Joseph Tuck of the Alvarado Street Bakery - Generally in our worker cooperative all large decisions that impact the cooperative are decided by the worker/members at our quarterly membership meetings. Our by-laws specify these as
(a) approval of new members and membership criteria
(b) approval of by-law changes;
(c) approval of annual business plan;
(d) approval of annual budget;
(e) commitment of resources greater than the amount allowed in the policy adopted from time to time by the membership;
(f) setting of wage policy;
(g) setting of major policies on hiring and firing;
(h) determining product line produced; and
(i) election of the board of directors.
The day-to-day affairs of the cooperative are coordinated through our management structure. My position (I am hired by the board) coordinates departmental managers who do things like scheduling, setting of breaks, line speed, determining the amount of product to be made on a day, etc. We, of course, use worker input in these types of decisions, as they are the experts in their particular discipline.
TS - What do you see as the advantages of this non-traditional way of organizing your company?
ASB - The economic advantages of being a worker cooperative stem from the fact that workers decide the fate of the cooperative and reap the rewards if we do well. This tends to build more trust internally in one another and less of a need for managers for issues such as oversight etc as traditional organizations may have. Workers get that they are the sole benefactor of the company doing well. The transparency in financial statements etc. allow everyone to know and feel like a stakeholder. If we are not doing well everyone one knows it and knows the reasons for the situation. In our group, there is peer pressure for everyone to do their best. Our workers do not tolerate well their co-workers not putting in effort.
TS - What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome in setting up a workers? co-operative and how did you address them?
ASB - The largest hurdle for us to overcome was the lack of access to capital when we were a young company. Though this is a universal issue for companies starting out, our being a cooperative made it more difficult as there are no guarantors in a cooperative for loans (as there are no real owners in a worker cooperative). We initially resolved this issue by some small personal loans along with years of delayed gratification (sweat equity) in terms of what we paid ourselves. We finally had stand alone financial strength to be considered for a loan without a traditional guarantor. We also structurally evolved in the thirty years we have been in business in ways that helped us continue to grow and prosper. Our initial collective form (and low flat pay for all) needed to evolve to the system we now employ. This was necessary for us to do to stay in business. All changes were not universally agreed upon and in fact, there were some very fractious years during the time of change. It was not easy for the membership to change wage policy or delegate power. However, these changes are the real reasons why we all have prospered as a worker cooperative.
TS - You were featured in Michael Moore?s Capitalism: A Love Story how has that effected your operation.
ASB - The impact of the film on our business was in reality fairly negligible. There are certainly some more customers buying our bread due to the film, but not in such quantities that we see it in our sales numbers. It was great internally and made us all proud of what we represent. It has had more interest put on worker cooperatives in general which for us is a great thing.
TS - Why organic ingredients? How did you balance the desire to provide good food with the motivation to lower costs for your business?
ASB - Organic was part of our original philosophy when we formed the cooperative. We wanted to create a business that did not exploit workers or the environment and provided health to the community. There is always a balance between such goals and, of course, there are trade offs. We found that in our world technology, expertise, and a lack of bureaucracy has allowed us to provide ourselves a good standard of living while providing the community with whole grain organic baked goods at a reasonable price. We are one of the lower priced breads in the whole grain category (including the large companies such as Oroweat).