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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

GEO On Itself: Personal Reflections

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GEO Original
May 21, 2013
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By Betsy Bowman

The 1990s was the decade when I learned about neo-liberalism and globalization; it was also the decade when I was most involved with GEO. I had visited Mondragon in 1989 and fell in love with it. Then I met Len at the Socialist Scholars' Conference in 1991. Invited to Moscow in 1992 to lecture on the Mondragon model, I advanced the global cooperative movement as a solution to the shock therapy imposed on Russia and the structural adjustments programs imposed on the Global South.

GEO was the place where I realized that the movement for self-management was itself part of the anti-globalization and anti-war movement. Researching the Brazilian landless peasants' movement and Via Campesina in Latin America for GEO, I came to understand the crying needs for food sovereignty and land redistribution.

The 1999 Battle of Seattle threw onto the global stage the world-wide movement against structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. I just couldn't understand why "development" entailed greater immiseration for the people. Then I understood: it was part of the project of moving whatever wealth was left to the elites. The World Social Forum, the movement of movements, helped focus the world's attention on the plight of those "helped" by international organizations.

After 9/11, my husband Bob Stone and I decided to leave the U.S., and in solidarity with the global south, move to central Mexico where we founded the Center for Global Justice. We witnessed effects of NAFTA on small farmers, and have organized conferences and educational programs on globalization and neo-liberalism.

Today we provide workshops on how to organize cooperatives and to benefit from self-management. I am more convinced than ever that worker-owned, worker-managed enterprises are the only significant transformative economic strategy that can undo capitalism and return the surplus that we all create to the workers. Nationalizing the too-big-to-jail banks and making them public banks is the only way to tame capital and subordinate it to human need.

What I learned from Len, Frank, Jessica, Ken, John and all the wonderful people associated with GEO – and the International Institute for Self-management – I have retained. We've now begun organizing something like the Caja Laboral in Mondragon in order to provide support and funding for local co-ops. Economic democracy is to me the solution. Writing for GEO about struggles in Mexico, Russia and the US helped me to theorize a solution which I am today putting into practice.

Thank you, comrades. Betsy

Elizabeth A. Bowman, Ph.D.
President and Research Associate
Center for Global Justice
Former editor:  GEO Newsletter
Mexico celular 044 415 114 0107
US VOIP 347 983 5084.

Local San Miguel people give birth to their cooperative Kurate in the patio of the Center for Global Justice, June, 2012. "Kurate" means "cure yourself." They will grow stevia and moringa trees organically. Upper far left, teacher Santiago Cuevas, lower right, Betsy Bowman.

San Miguel women organize in the patio of the Center for Global Justice to form a home health care cooperative in 2009. This attempt was unsuccessful; we learned a lot from this experience.




After Emancipation, had General Sherman delivered to former slaves 40 acres and a mule – as promised – it could have made a lot of difference (especially if co-ops had been encouraged). I became a socialist in 1972 after seeing our civil rights work in Mississippi in 1964 co-opted politically by Southern Democrats, and later, by Republicans, due to 100 years of making sure black folks were separated from the means of production.

Betsy Bowman and I made a life-changing visit to the Mondragon cooperatives in 1989. We saw that relations of production in MCC were socialist, not capitalist. We thought we alone perceived the revolutionary potential of workplace democracy. Then at the 1991 Socialist Scholars' Conference, we met Len and Frank and began to discover/construct our true community of struggle in the Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter.

There weren't many of us in what was then the only nation-wide institution of any kind championing the re-born 1960s U.S. workplace democracy movement. Now we have a national organization – the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives – with three active regional divisions. For years we counted only around several hundred subscribers to the new publication that Len and Frank had started after "Changing Work" – inspired by their work with George Benello.

Around 1993, Frank and Len proposed that GEO produce the first national directory of worker co-ops so the movement could touch itself. "An Economy of Hope" took us a few years but it was a turning point. With its names and addresses, that little blue book led directly to forming the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, and, after contact with Tim Huet on the West coast and Tom Pierson in the Mid-west, to founding our national organization.

In working with GEO I learned, among many things: that for at least 170 years there has been a co-op movement, in most of the world's countries, whose revolutionary potential was clear in the 1840s; that mutual aid among co-ops ("inter-cooperation") is key to a non-capitalist economy; that just democratizing workplaces can't alone effect this change and that a full "solidarity economy" is needed (though in the early '90s we didn't have the term "solidarity economy") to liberate the suppressed power of humanity's cooperative labor in all aspects of making a living, locally and globally.

Betsy and I moved to San Miguel Allende, Mexico in 2003 to start the Center for Global Justice with Cliff DuRand, with whom I helped form the Radical Philosophy Association in 1982. Under the lemma "research and learning for a better world" we have been busy almost 10 years now with public education and travel in English and with helping the local solidarity economy – our two main themes. Our series of tours of Cuba's renewed cooperative movement unites these themes. We are still a sort of "GEO south."


As for the future, a new, multi-lingual grassroots "Economy of Hope" directory of the world's democratic workplaces could help new generations of activists construct through "globalization from below," a trans-national workers' economy. In this way, cooperative labor, developed under capitalism, could at last be liberated to serve human ends rather than capital-accumulation. It might start with the Americas, helping replace NAFTA.


Meanwhile, though I am no longer able to work as closely with you as I would like, I want each of you at GEO – past and present -– to know that working with you over the years has been one of the main joys of my life. Adelante juntos!

Bob Stone


Bob Stone is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Long Island University. He is co-author, with Betsy Bowman, of Sartre's "Morality and History": An Introduction to the Unpublished Writings of the Mid-1960s (forthcoming). Stone has been with GEO since 1992. In August 2004 he joined with others in launching the Center for Global Justice, for research and learning for a better world, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico:



By Jim Johnson

In early 2005, I was in my sixth year with my worker co-op, which specializes in building custom statistical analysis websites. My fellow worker-owners had tasked me to find an attorney that was experienced with worker co-ops, and I realized that this was also an opportunity to do some general networking with other worker co-ops.

So I was surfing around on the Net and found GEO. I tried to subscribe to the print newsletter, but the e-commerce feature of the website was broken. So I emailed the contact address, and Frank Lindenfeld responded. He apologized for the broken website, and asked if I knew anybody who could fix it.

That was it. Within a couple of months I was sitting in a room at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (at Southern NH University that year) with most of the GEO collective, discussing website strategy and proposing a content management system. Only later did I learn that GEO had provided the critical spark that had started the ECWD itself four years earlier.

I never did find that attorney, and we still break the GEO website almost as often as we fix it. But what drew me to GEO, and what keeps me with it, is the experience of a collective of people devoted to furthering a bold vision, something much greater than itself. This is an experience that I've been lucky to have again and again, in various forms, throughout my life, and it continues to be the peak experience that I'm always either having or seeking. Maybe it's something in my hunter-gatherer DNA that gets me hooked, because there's always something downright tribal about it.

And in a way, the more audacious our goals, the better. It wouldn't be the same if our work was easy; somehow it's the struggle that makes it the peak experience that I crave. It seems like we're constantly trying to achieve everything with practically nothing. We're all so busy, we all have way too many projects going on at the same time. I suspect that I'm the collective member who is most guilty of over-committing myself, but others will probably dispute that (especially Jessica).

Yet somehow, that also seems to be the magic ingredient. The GEO collective simply does not have the capacity to be bureaucratic, and that's why it works. There's this special kind of "looseness" about how we do things that often has us teetering on the brink of non-existence, but that also provides the space for truly inspired things to happen. The ECWD, the Ostrom issue, the Education issue, the "Advancing the Development of Worker Co-ops" mini-conference in 2011, the "Worker Co-op Development Models" book...the list goes on and on. How can such a funky process repeatedly deliver such meaningful tools to our movement, right at the time they're needed? (OK, sometimes we're a little behind schedule...)

As I've puzzled this out over the years, one thing I keep coming back to is that GEO is one of the few "pure play" media organs for the movement. Our cause has lots of newsletters, blogs, and websites, but most of them arise from organizations that have their own distinct missions, so those forums have to represent those organizations primarily. GEO's mission is to be a forum, with no other interests, and I suspect that's what makes it one of the most useful and insightful ones.

In addition, GEO seems to have always acted as a "keeper of the flame" for internal movement critiques. Everyone in GEO is so totally committed to grassroots economics, that we're also in a good position to see the tough questions we need to be asking ourselves. When we retreat to work with each other in GEO, we get the chance to step away from the other roles that we play, compare perspectives, and piece together the big picture. This is one of our greatest strengths and contributions.

At the risk of seeming unimaginative, I would like to see GEO keep on doing more of the same. There are so many more people who hear the call nowadays, but their needs haven't changed that much from the folks thirty years ago, because most of these ideas are still new to most of them. We now have many nonprofits and governments as players on the field, but all that means is that our long-standing principles and our lessons-learned are going to need GEO's seasoned advocacy more than ever.

GEO definitely needs more capacity, in some wise way that also maintains our magical looseness, total commitment, and question-raising perspective. As the growth of the movement places more demands on each of us, it's also depriving GEO of some of the energy we used to devote to it. During one of our stronger periods, Frank and Len were each giving twenty-five hours a week to GEO. Can you imagine what we could do with fifty consistent hours a week today, without the overhead of a print newsletter? Perhaps with a broader approach, maybe seven people giving seven hours, or ten people giving five.

So overall, I feel strongly that our traditional approach is still the right balance – we simply need more committed members. We've had some good ideas about how to achieve this, but we've either fallen short on follow-through, or over-strategized and taken approaches that are beyond our capacity. First, we need to get a clearer sense of the kinds of backgrounds and perspectives we want to bring in. I, for one, would love to have one or two more experienced worker-owners in the collective. Then we should set real goals, such as having each collective member commit to recruiting X number of candidates every Y months. It needs to be a realistic rate that is very achievable; some won't be a fit, but others will, if we simply persist. We've done so much good over the last thirty years. Now – finally – there's such a groundswell of interest in grassroots economics, I believe that the best and most important years of GEO actually lie ahead.



When I struck out on my own in the late 70s, I found my first affinity group through my local food co-op. Before long I had joined a DC collective publishing a dissident 'zine, and was organizing punk and reggae benefits and training people for non-violent civil disobedience actions. I got into computers in the mid-80s, and remained involved in many different democratic grassroots activities until the mid-90s, when I decided to focus my efforts more exclusively on economic democracy and website development. This again led me to my local food co-op, and to a local software company that was just beginning to convert to a worker-owned, worker-managed co-op. Through those experiences, my studies in co-op development, and my networking with other worker co-ops, I started working with the GEO collective in 2005, and began to do an increasing amount of consulting to co-ops as well. After 10 years with my worker co-op, I'm planning on more travel, more study, more co-op development, and more work with GEO.


GEO and My Path to Democratic Workplaces and a Vision of a Cooperative Commonwealth

By John Lawrence

My path to GEO started after reading the following quote. "The task for a modern industrial society is to achieve what is now technically realizable, namely, a society which is really based on free voluntary participation of people who produce and create, live their lives freely within institutions they control, and with limited hierarchical structures, possibly none at all." (Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics). I found this straightforward vision of a good society very appealing. I had been an activist primarily organizing against U.S. militarism for most of my adult life. I was frustrated by the fact that progressives were usually fighting defensive battles such as stopping U.S. imperial and proxy wars. I wondered if there was anyone out there trying to create the productive non-hierarchical institutions to which Chomsky alluded.

In my search, I found two books edited by Len Krimerman and Frank Lindenfeld, When Workers Decide: Workplace Democracy Takes Root in America and Essays on Grassroots and Workplace Democracy by C. George Benello. As a consequence of reading these two books, I became very interested in democratic worker cooperatives and subscribed to the GEO Newsletter. Through the GEO mail order system, I ordered copies of Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone's essay Cooperativization on the Mondragon Model As Alternative to Globalizing Capitalism and Frank Lindenfeld's article The Cooperative Commonwealth: An Alternative To Corporate Capitalism and State Socialism. I found the vision of society organized by democratic work and mutual aid outlined in these articles inspiring.

I started visiting worker cooperatives and talking to worker owners about what they were doing. In 1999, my wife and I had the opportunity to strap on our backpacks and travel in Europe. We spent a good deal of time in Spain. We were particularly interested in learning more about the Spanish Civil War, Spanish Syndicalism, and current worker cooperatives. So in our travels, we visited local chapters of the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT: "National Confederation of Labor"), as well as worker cooperatives. (During the Spanish Civil War, the CNT and other anarchist organizations created a revolutionary society based on cooperative principles.) We had the opportunity to visit several worker cooperatives in the Mondragon system, a network of over 250 worker cooperatives with more than 80,000 worker-owners in the Basque region of Spain. Interestingly, at the time, there was little communication between the modern day CNT members and Spanish worker cooperatives.

Eventually, I wrote an article based on the interviews I did on the trip, and submitted it to GEO. I was pleased the article was accepted! After publishing several articles in GEO, I was invited to a GEO meeting in New York City. About 2002, I joined the GEO editorial collective. In addition to writing, I started editing articles, taking meeting notes, and periodically coordinating issues. My work with GEO has been rewarding. I have made good friends, and I have had the opportunity to participate in the movement for a democratic cooperative society.

When I started writing for GEO, there was not much interest in democratic work within progressive communities. However, we at GEO have had a first row seat chronicling the burgeoning of interest in democratic work over the last decade. The foundation of new organizations which foster inter-cooperation among worker cooperatives such as the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, the Democracy at Work Institute, and regional conferences such as the Eastern and Western Conference for Workplace Democracy, have created the institutional foundation for building a democratic workplace movement. In addition, with no end in sight to the current economic, environmental, and moral crisis which has its roots in corporate capitalism, billions of people are searching for a humane, sustainable, emotionally rewarding way to organize work and the economy. In the last 5 years, the number of articles, books, and websites focused on democratic work has grown exponentially.

There are many challenges ahead. Perhaps, the biggest long term challenge to building a cooperative commonwealth is envisioning and creating democratic worker cooperatives at an industrial scale. In the United States, most worker cooperatives are small businesses with less than 50 worker-owners. How do we organize institutions such as hospitals, universities, and industrial factories which involve thousands of people, while retaining real not nominal democracy? Can we convert large corporations into large worker cooperatives? How do we democratically coordinate activity between worker cooperatives? How will we capitalize worker cooperatives? What will be the role of the State in the development of a Cooperative Commonwealth? Despite the rhetoric of the free market, corporations are highly dependent on the state to provide subsidies and the material and legal infrastructure for their survival. To bring the cooperative movement to scale, worker cooperatives will need social policy to encourage their growth. What can we learn from state support of the cooperative sector in states such as Venezuela?

GEO is an important forum to discuss all these issues. The challenge to GEO is to grow our capacity to cover the growth of the democratic work movement. We need new members in our collective, and to develop better publicity and outreach. Do you like to write? Do you have computer  or marketing skills? If so, perhaps you would like to be part of this adventure. You can contact us at, or (for those interested in writing).

John Lawrence


John Lawrence is a professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. In addition to being a GEO member, he is active in Peace Action.



By Michael Johnson

It began at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh on a June morning in 2009, early on the first day of the ECWD biennial gathering. (That's Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy.) There had been a brief meeting of some GEO folks at an earlier conference in 2006, but I didn't even know there was such a thing as GEO at that time. I was still feeling I was a new kid on this block of cooperatives and alternative economies even though it was three years later and I was in my late 60s. Definitely not enjoying this newcomer role anymore. It was early and I was looking for a cup of strong coffee and someone with whom I had at least a nodding acquaintance, or just someone who looked like they might be as unknown and as unattached as me. I also wanted to find someone who could tell me where I could get breakfast.

Turning the corner from one corridor into another I saw Len (Krimerman) heading my way. Ah! Someone I even have a bit more than a nodding acquaintance with. My morning began to brighten. As I began to approach him I noticed that he was on a beeline right for me. Ah! Prospects are getting brighter. Usual greetings: big smiles, cheery hellos and how are you's, shaking hands, pats on the shoulders. Wow! Guess I'm not such an alone wolf after all. Just as I was beginning to feel the ground under me, he popped the question: "Mike, we were just having an early morning GEO meeting, and we were wondering if you would like to join GEO"?

Just like that is how my affair with GEO began: me feeling "found" and brought in from the cold. Ever since, however, it has been an experience of me discovering what an anchor institution of our movement is like. Like a lover, at first thrilled at just being wanted by such a "good-looker," then slowly getting to know her (yes, I'm hetero), learning more and more just who he is really consorting with:

Wow! What a mother lode of information and wisdom! Click a button and there comes a gusher of stories from on the ground experiences. Ask a question of these longtimers, then sit back and just take in all they have to give. Foundational stories from the early 80s in the years of Changing Work, the immediate ancestor of GEO. Characters I would have loved to meet and know.

And getting to know her struggles:

Big challenge shifting to the internet after 20+ years of print. All of us in the Collective are too damn busy! Nothing gets done on time (except my stuff, of course). So much more we could be doing with GEO, if there was just more time. How to attract younger folks to this ship so rich in experience and fit to sail for a long time?

And getting my sails trimmed after rushing in with big ambition-driven ideas much too big for our resources, like becoming a global aggregating center for everything related to Solidarity Economics.

And so on.

Well, after three years the first flush of romance has grown into a deeply satisfying fit for a long haul rather than a fling. And there is a transcending quality to that fit that spans and embraces generations, geographies, and ways of thinking about grassroots economic organizing.

For example, in the last issue (which was dedicated to co-founder Frank Lindenfeld) we re-published one his major articles, "The Cooperative Commonwealth: An Alternative to Corporate Capitalism and State Socialism." Two of us, Bob Stone, one of GEO's elders, and I, a recent partner, both wrote comments – here and here – on the article. Both of us focused on how Frank's conception of a Cooperative Commonwealth is so similar to one of the current new frameworks, Solidarity Economics (SE). Bob and I have met once and never talked about SE. I got my basic schooling in the SE perspective from our youngest member, Ethan Miller (see here and here for some of his basic work). And I helped found the SolidarityNYC project along with two associate members of GEO. Bob and his wife Betsy have moved to Mexico, organizing down there through their Center for Global Justice in San Miguel Allende, and still writing.

So here I am, no longer standing alone on the shore. No longer hot into a fling, but on deck with the Collective in a small sea rich in tradition, filling the in re coordinator role, past editor of an issue on the theory and practice of collective action), and coordinator of GEO's first Advancing the Development of Worker Co-operatives conference in Baltimore in 2011. More importantly for me, here eager to welcome newcomers on board.


Entered a Kansas monastery in '63, left in '66; entered law school in NYC in fall of '67 and left in winter of '67; became an 'outside agitator' at Columbia in April of '68 and discovered that the far left can be as top/down as the middle and right...deeply involved in group dynamics and community organizing in NYC '68-'73...bottomed out in Phoenix '73-'76. A member of the desegregation unit of Austin school system '76-'80.

Co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 30 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective.



By Marty Heyman

GEO, for me, is a group that provides both a perspective on as well as active guidance in a process that is important to me and seems important to the long-term well-being of the "business" my founder-partners and I have nurtured to "success." We built a technology firm around software and services related to that software that has high intrinsic value to a growing number of commercial enterprises, educational institutions, the public sector, and other non- and not-for profit entities. The software is made available as open source software under a very permissive license; this means anyone can get it for free and use it as they would like. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, we aggressively promote free downloads of the software, and are working to make it easier to use and more compellingly superior to other software packages providing similar capabilities (our software performs a highly standardized function unusually well). Our software is included in the operating systems packages for Apple Macintosh® and virtually all the Linux distributions as well. We are a business because the software is evolving, improving, and being actively updated and our added value simplifies those processes and offers our clients access to expertise that would otherwise be costly to maintain by their own staffs.

That background in mind, we struggle with the typical hierarchical management model. Our most valuable and knowledgeable people are scattered "at all levels" of the firm. The difference in skill levels is pronounced, but not nearly as pronounced as is accepted in typical commercial enterprises. We have a very small cadre of super-stars and a collection of very skilled people and no "workers" incapable of understanding the nuances of our various decisions. Everyone feels comfortable sharing opinions about "the work" and many are willing to chime in on "the business" though few are actively engaged in "management."

The traditional "C Corporation" stratification seems like it would fail to bring out the fullest expression of the capabilities of all of the members of our team. It strikes us that it would tend to direct people into more rigid roles than is appropriate in a firm that wants to remain small and highly cohesive. We have been evolving to become more communicative and to improve decision-sharing rather than specializing and compartmentalizing.

All this was rattling around when I stumbled on the GEO web site some months ago. The description in the paragraphs above is partly informed by the lessons I have learned from the Collective. GEO, for me, has been a workshop in which I am learning the language and concepts that our company seems to want to adopt. It is not clear, given the laws of the United States and the various states we might domicile "the business" in, that we will end up with a worker-owned cooperative structure. It is, legally and tax-wise, quite a challenge to get there from here and it is not clear that it is worth fighting "The System" to get there given what it might mean to our very Corporate commercial customers.

However, we are moving quickly to improving the democratic nature of our workplace, to a more even sharing of the real power among our team members so that a better sense of equality prevails, and are inviting more of our team to share the burden of "management." All of that comes from lessons learned from GEO Collective members and from the vast storehouse of experiential reporting from "Changing Work" (the predecessor to the GEO Newsletter) and all of the issues of GEO itself. Because it is so valuable to my personal journey, I have been scanning back issues and have started to look into fully converting the content of the back issues from paper and image-scans to digital and searchable text. The challenge of modernizing the Web site is also part of that mission of bringing all the recent history of the Cooperative, Democratic, and Solidarity impulses more to the forefront.

GEO, the collective, has been an inspiring addition to my personal life. It feeds the needs I talk about above, but it also helps me clarify, articulate, and share lessons I have learned along the way and to put them into a broader perspective. It has been a privilege to help with the work and a pleasure to be included among such great people.

Marty Heyman

Marty Heyman joined GEO in 2010 while living in California. He has been active in the Computer industry since 1967, spending over twenty years with IBM and another twenty or so in smaller firms and start-ups. After two small software start-ups failed around him, he and several friends founded Symas Corporation which supports several Open Source Software projects, offering free downloads and paid technical support. Symas is still a small and open team that is evolving towards a more open and democratic governance model which fits nicely with the work of the GEO Collective.



(2013).  GEO On Itself: Personal Reflections.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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