Coming Alive In Dangerous Times (1961-1983): Chapter 3
[Editor's note: this is the fourth installment of GEO founding-member Len Krimerman's new memoir. You can read the preface and introduction and the first two chapters here, here, and here. Look for chapter four next Monday.]
A Tumultuous Transition
The segue to the next and final part of this life-period of mine, 1974-5, was a particularly tumultuous time for me. At the end of it, a good part of my life, and my experience of coming alive, would be fundamentally altered. But along the way, I found rare and supportive friends, people all of me resonated with, who made that journey not only worthwhile, but joyous.
This transition began on a night in April 1974, when almost all of the African American students enrolled at UCONN – some four hundred, as I recall – walked in silence from their cultural center into the main library, just before it officially closed for the day. They sat in silence asking only, with a written request, to meet with then-President Glenn W. Ferguson concerning the absence of tenured black professors, and admission policies that were hampering prospective black students.
Ferguson refused their request, and instead called in the state police, who brutally shoved the several hundred silently protesting students outside, threw their books down the library steps, and then hauled them away under arrest for “trespassing”.
The next night about 90 of us, mostly white, used the same non-violent strategy to show solidarity with the arrested students and support for their issues. We were very courteously escorted into busses, and also charged with trespassing. Our charges, and I think, those brought against the students were eventually dropped – it was before the Reagan years. The semester ended, and I quickly headed to California on a previously approved yearlong sabbatical leave.
A few months later, as the fall semester began, I received two messages. The first, from my department back in Connecticut, told me that the university’s administrators had attempted to deny my sabbatical, demanding that the department recall me to face an on-campus hearing about the library incident. It then went on to say that the department had voted to reject this demand, telling the admins that it had assigned me to complete research projects at the University of California, Berkeley that should not be interfered with.
Wow! What an amazing and courageous act of support. I was deeply grateful, and am still ashamed that I did not convey that feeling more strongly to my colleagues.
The second message was more ominous. It came from my IC (Inner College; see chapter 2) students, who had been told that university funding for our secessionist experiment had been withdrawn. This took me by surprise, since UCONN had signed a pledge with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to continue our funding for at least three years after the initial grant ran out in 1974. And I was deeply disturbed by the underhanded way this decision was reached; that is, when I was three thousand miles away from campus, and with absolutely no discussion or input from anyone in the IC.
My response to all this chicanery evolved gradually, and by the spring of 1975, I was still unsure what might be next for me, or what exactly I wanted. In a number of largely unconscious ways, I was already heading for a major life change, and the rest of this decade put me on a new and different road, and away from much of what had previously brought me joy.
In May of that year, I got wind of a conference on “workplace democracy” in Ithaca, New York. It sounded intriguing and would put me close enough to visit my parents, who I had not seen since I left for California a year before. I had no idea where this conference, or better, one specific part of it, would eventually lead me.
George Benello, and Starting From Practice
For the most part, the conference was typically academic: panels of speakers, set up in classrooms, read papers to largely passive audiences. But towards the end, in the middle of a plenary session, a singular person strode confidently to the front of the large auditorium where we all had gathered, and asked whether we wanted to learn about something altogether unique, something real and tangible that industrial workers had put together themselves and were democratically managing.
This person, I learned later, was George Benello, someone with almost boundless energy, imagination, and versatility. Hearing no dissent, George unveiled a fascinating slide show about Mondragon, in the Basque region of Spain, where over two decades a federation of almost one hundred worker owned and controlled enterprises had been formed. Most were highly industrialized, only a couple had failed, and workers in those were guaranteed positions in other cooperatives within the federation. Mondragon had in addition created its own bank, the Caja Laboral Popular (Bank of the Peoples Labor), its own educational institutions and health insurance system, and a wage system with uniquely low differentials between the highest and lowest paid workers – and lots more.
Benello’s slideshow on Mondragon struck me as something utopian; it might have come from an Ursula Le Guin novel, and seemed almost too good to be true. But George had actually been there, and when he announced that he would stay on in Ithaca after the conference to meet with anyone interested in bringing the Mondragon model across the Atlantic, I was hooked.
Later that same year, at his cottage on Cape Cod, George met with a wide range of people – labor and community organizers, civil rights activists, and a few maverick academics. Soon afterward, some of us who had met formed a new organization, the Federation for Economic Democracy (FED), which had chapters in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Boston, Ithaca, and mine in eastern Connecticut. FED’s goal was to help start enterprises – and a movement – based on workplace democracy, with control over all of these enterprises shifted away from those with investment capital to rank-and-file workers organized into democratic cooperatives. If this had been so successful in Mondragon, why not also in the U.S.?
Ultimately, FED was not sustainable; most likely, because it tried to do too much too soon. (It took many years before Mondragon put together its very first worker cooperative.) But George’s dream had plenty of traction, and other organizations with similar goals soon sprung up – among them, the ICA Group in Boston, the first of many U.S. firms aimed at developing worker owned enterprises. Some of these organizations are still functioning, and many others have taken shape in the nearly four decades since FED collapsed.
Gradually, George and I became close friends. I admired his passionate integrity, his protean gifts and ambitions – he once sailed a catamaran into the Pacific Ocean to protest a threatened nuclear bomb test – and his unflappable capacity to begin anew whenever a project fell through. And I was especially drawn to his notion of “working models” as a particularly useful guide on how to make genuine, lasting social change.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, an effective working model is worth at least a thousand pictures.
One of the more thorny challenges facing all of us who want a better world is where exactly to begin. Do we start, e.g., with a theory or vision of an ideal society (community, workplace...), one that has not been built but promises to take us far beyond whatever entrenched injustices we want to displace? But this approach must face a formidable question: how would we know which of the many and incompatible theories or visions to choose?
George’s working model concept offers a way out of this quandary. It starts with practice rather than with theories or ideal visions, with actual cases where longer range goals are being achieved. Of course, for democratic social and economic change, Mondragon has often been the poster child, but it has now been joined by other working models, such as the Emilia Romagna network of cooperatives in northern Italy, and Quebec’s Chantier de l’Economie Sociale (Social Economy Development Organization). As George insisted, all of these are imperfect, but they do work (“deliver the goods”), have proven to be sustainable over decades, and prioritize continual experimentation and refining. And they do all of this without “grinding up human beings”; on the contrary, they foster individual self-development and self-directed activity.
Using working models reverses the common relationship between theory and practice. It’s the latter that shows us where to begin, and how we might devise achievable replications. As George put it so well, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, an effective working model is worth at least a thousand pictures.” Drawing on working models, as George saw it, did not involve rejecting theory. It insisted, rather, that our theory-building be shaped by the wisdom of experienced practitioners.
I appropriated George’s notion of working models in a number of ways over the next few years, and far beyond that. It has continued to help me come and stay alive; in particular, it excited me to think of a kind of philosophizing or theory building virtually anyone could contribute to, and which had its roots squarely, though not rigidly, in the work done by people on the ground, engaged directly with developing humane and just communities.
In late 1975, a chicken processing factory called Menorah Poultry closed down in nearby Willimantic, Connecticut, after a very lengthy and unsuccessful strike by workers for safer, cleaner conditions, and decent wages. It turned out that the Inner College’s WALE program had been tutoring many young students, especially some from Puerto Rico, whose parents had worked for Menorah. Learning this, as part of FED, I offered to hold a meeting with any or all of the workers, to bring a translator, and see what might emerge.
About 50 or 60 actually showed up, but things started off slowly, with little participation from the workers. Finally, I asked the group what they thought went wrong at the factory, and a woman rose – one of the WALE mothers – speaking in Spanish, more rapidly and passionately than anyone had before. She sat down, and the audience exploded with applause. After the translation, which involved a long list of the workers grievances and the company’s abuses, I decided to press the issue by asking “Perhaps all of you, the workforce, could run this plant better than the former owners?” That was then translated and, after a moment of silence, it drew the same heartfelt applause, and the journey of developing a worker takeover began.
What Develops When Workers are Empowered
International Poultry (IP) was our new name, chosen because some workers were Polish, others French Canadian and, most numerous, Latina. Unofficially, we called ourselves, El Pollo Criollo – Creole or Down Home Chicken. What I most recall from IP was its empowering effects on our workforce, or at least, a good many of them. One morning, for example, I found them gathered around a cassette player listening to, and accompanying, Sister Sledge’s “We are Family”. This is our song, they told me, and we want to hear and sing it while we do our chicken deboning. We were, after all, supposed to be a democratically self-managed workplace, so it delighted me – much as did the creative vandals of Philosophy 217 – that the workers felt entitled to make it their own.
Here are two additional stories that point in the same enabling direction. The first centers around a young man – I’ll call him Billy – who was sent to us by a federal agency program that assisted unemployed persons find jobs. At the outset, we explained to Billy that he’d be hired on a trial basis for three months, so that both he and the cooperative could decide whether there was a good fit between us.
Billy was an unusually congenial person, and he arrived every day, on time, and with a happy greeting to everyone in the plant. But he was also known to be subject to epileptic seizures, and could not be trusted on the chicken processing or deboning lines. So when his three months had passed, we were faced with a problematic case. Billy had been assigned to take boxes of chicken out of the freezer and onto our delivery truck, and he had done that job well enough. But could we afford to hire someone who could not produce anything we might sell, and who would draw a salary for a simple task that others could readily accomplish along with their deboning?
The decision on this, like others in this democratic cooperative, was left to the workers, and I was overjoyed with the result. Billy was rehired as a full member of the co-op, on two grounds: first, because he made us feel happier by his congeniality and ever-present smile; and second, because, as Iris, one of the worker owners put it, “If we do not hire him, who would?”
As you may have guessed, Billy was not Puerto Rican, nor was he African-American, French Canadian, or Polish. To us, he was a human being in need of work, and he had become part of our workplace family.
The second story also left me delightfully surprised, and not a little abashed. Its background was a very pronounced difference in production between the very facile Latinas and many of the other workers. The former could typically produce between 30 and 40 pounds of deboned chicken an hour, while the latter had difficulty getting up to 20, and some were mired below 15.
But everyone was being paid the same hourly wage, regardless of their productive output. The Latinas felt this was unfair and, at first, I strongly disagreed with them. We were, I said unnecessarily, a cooperative, and this prohibited any and all “inequality”. The response to me was direct and forceful:
WORKERS: Right now our enterprise is in bad financial shape; it needs more chicken production to succeed. Equality in wages among us may be good once we are sustainable, but it won’t prevent us from shutting down.
LEN: OK, but what’s your counter proposal?
WORKERS: Let’s give a bonus to all deboners who reach 30 pounds/an hour. This may motivate slower workers to become faster and more productive. If so, it might help to keep us from going under.
And it did just that. Virtually all of the workers moved up or over the thirty pound goal. Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist playwright and director, once wrote, “First comes food; then comes morality.” The IP workers had their own version of this: First comes survival, then comes philosophical or egalitarian principles.
What these stories illustrate for me is that real democracy, democracy of the best sort where every voice, every concern, is heard, can bring out the very best in each of us. It allowed us to see one another as part of a caring family, and it enabled subtle and humane ways of thinking. In short, this sort of democracy can help us come alive.
For me and most of the other volunteer organizers, IP was a step towards Mondragon, or at least, should it succeed, evidence that our own native soil was fertile enough to begin creating a Mondragon-like system. We worked long and hard to build a new plant and keep it running, but in the end we could not compete with the likes of Perdue and other large-scale processing plants. After about three years, we went bankrupt, as our main customers for deboned chicken – supermarket chains – could typically find cheaper ways to purchase that product, and none would agree to make long term contracts.
Actually, so we learned later, some of those huge chicken processing factory operations, after losing customers from eastern European countries, had dumped tons of processed chicken on the domestic market at far below ordinary market prices; this caused several small New England processors, along with IP, to close shop.
Why, then, did this worker takeover fail? It was certainly not the fault of either the workers or the organizers; we all put enormous time and effort into making it a sustainable success. We were also able to raise almost $200,000 in start-up funding – quite a lot in 1976. Looking back now, there was only one feasible path to success, and that involved getting government contracts to deliver processed chicken to state or federal facilities, military bases, hospitals, school systems, etc. Such longer term contracts could have aided our experienced workforce to become even more efficient and to survive the ebb and flow of market-based competition. But none of the many state or federal organizations to which we applied with great eagerness was willing to give us that opportunity.
But there is one aspect of IP on which I do fault myself and other organizers, and which I very much regret. Here’s what I wrote recently about this:
...[In 1976,] a support organization (the Federation for Economic Democracy) assisted laid off workers take over a defunct chicken processing plant using a genuinely democratic structure that gave them controlling numbers on the firm’s Board. But this structure, by itself, had nothing to offer them when IP was forced to close due to egregious competitive pricing by multi-national chicken processing corporations. Why not? Because the workers had not been empowered to design ways to continue working together, or even separately, should their enterprise go under. A good structure was not enough.
What we organizers could and should have done, I think, is what some other factory workers in England managed to do. Here’s a bit of their story. It also took place during the mid-‘70s, when an old London plant within the Lucas Aerospace complex discovered that its owners had decided to close it down. Joining with a number of affected unions, they hit upon an unusual strategy, which they called the Alternative Corporate Plan. Its main and most novel feature was a process whereby the entire workforce identified “alternative products” which their skills and the plant’s technology would be able to make and sell. The criteria for “alternative” were simple: not military aerospace (Lucas’ main product), and serving a socially useful purpose or unfilled need. As one worker put it: "Why can we not use the skills and abilities that we've got to meet the interests of the community as a whole? Why can we not produce socially useful products which will help human beings rather than maim them?"
To cut short this good story, over 150(!) such products were designed by the workers and their consultants, from hybrid road-rail vehicles to kidney dialysis machines, and from heat pumps to a hob-cart for children with spina bifida. For the whole campaign, see Mike Cooley’s Architect or Bee, or his acceptance speech for a Right Livelihood Award in 1981. Mike was an engineer at Lucas, as well as a union official and a prime mover in developing the Lucas Plan. Here’s some of his thinking:
It's frequently asked of me, 'Do you really think that ordinary people can deal with these problems?’ I personally have never met an ordinary person in my life. All the people I meet are extraordinary. They've got all kinds of skills, abilities and talents and never are those talents used or developed or encouraged. What we've got to remember, as we're driven down this linear road of technology, is that the future is not out there someplace as America was out there before Columbus went to discover it. The future hasn't got pre-determined shapes and forms. The future has yet got to be built by people like you and I, and we do have real choices. It can be a future in which we are not threatened with mass annihilation through nuclear weapons or ravaged with hunger. It could really be a world in which we treasure all our people equally and get science and technology to serve people rather than the other way round. In a word, we could begin to perform the modern miracle, we could help to make the blind see, the lame walk, and we could feed the hungry.
What was needed, and absent, at IP was something akin to a Lucas Plan, through which the skills and desires of everyone in our initiative could be identified, and plans to cope with a potential shutdown of the chicken processing operation could be developed. But their hidden interests, abilities, and talents were ignored, rather than identified and encouraged to develop. If we had put together our own “Alternate Corporate Plan”, I think the outcome – everyone laid off, our workplace family disbanded – would have been immensely different.
In any case, it strikes me now that having some sort of Lucas Plan would be a great way for any workplace to honor each person’s opportunity to come alive, and remain so.
Frank Lindenfeld, Brother-in-Life
George Benello was not the only, or the closest, friend and ally I found myself working with in the late 1970s. In the final years of this period, Frank Lindenfeld coordinated FED’s Philadelphia chapter; however, I hardly knew him then. But in the early 1980s, he, George, and I attended some conferences on “democratic businesses” and “economic democracy” down at Guilford College in North Carolina. It soon began to be clear that we three shared a lot; we were all very practical anarchists, and we found in Mondragon and other working models both the spirit and some key steps towards a new sort of social change movement, one that was both oppositional and constructive.
Frank and I had both had been actively engaged in free schools, and in radically learner-centered education during the 1960s and 1970s, he on the western coast, and I on the eastern. And when an article of mine advocating worker co-ops appeared in an anarchist magazine in 1980, and was roundly trounced for not being “radical” enough, Frank weighed in to support me, writing:
I endorse and applaud efforts of comrades like Len to help launch self-managed ventures like International Poultry (though I am a vegetarian myself)....The movement toward a more democratic society could be accelerated by the establishment of thousands of democratic workplaces. Such workplaces could organize into regional federations, which could constitute a third economic sector, neither government nor big business. This would constitute a very real step toward a society of substantial empowerment for many.
Moreover, our separate lives seemed mysteriously scripted from an identical story line; we were born in the same year (1934), and grew up in the same city (New York City); as undergraduates in the 1950s, we had attended the same university (Cornell) during the same four years; and, in the late 1960s, we had each been fired from our first jobs as college teachers for teaching by our own lights, and for refusing to acquiesce to overreaching and misguided administrators.
But Frank and I knew nothing of these strange and magical affinities when we initially met in the late 1970s as partners in the FED initiative. It was later in that decade that we bonded together (and with George), to bring more and more workplace democracy and practical anarchism to an America that in the Reagan years seemed increasingly willing to give its future and democratic integrity away to a third rate actor.
Somehow that did not deter us. Though physically separate – George in Massachusetts, Frank in Delaware or Pennsylvania, and I in Connecticut – we communicated constantly. Frank and I were on the phone daily, or so it often seemed. Mainly, we listened patiently and gave support to each other’s endless plans and projects to build a more grassroots democratic economy – whether through our college teaching, our local town organizing, or more widely. The two of us both felt, I believe, as if we had found a missing brother, someone it was always easy to talk with, and whose wisdom and intuition resonated with and enhanced our own. Frank died much too soon, in 2008, at only 74. Here’s a poem I wrote for his memorial:
Irreplaceable, Inseparable Brother-in-Life
Some give us light, others love,
For decades, without effort, you gave me both.
Some are the backbone, others the heart,
You were both, of all our fantasies,
Our insubordinate plots and reckless plans.
Today I started to phone you, yes, once more
As I may have done a thousand or ten thousand times.
To hear that always welcoming, always patient, voice.
To laugh together again, to share our crazy dreams,
To comfort each other when those dreams crash
To feel the wild joy of them spreading now like dandelions.
But no, I brokenly thought, you would no longer answer.
Where does one turn to replace the irreplaceable?
How does one twin survive the loss of another?
I will find a way, but not without you.
Drawing on what you gave, light and love
Laughter and comfort, wild brotherly joy
I will still hear your calming voice in my sorrows and defeats
Your hopes will guide and enrich my dreams, as they always have.
Death can no more separate us
Than a song can be erased by a censoring pen
Or a book by a burning fire.
I will see you in every place our agitation and enthusiasms reach,
Find you at my side whenever a gentle word is needed,
Or an authority?s presumption needs challenging.
We will walk, we will talk, suffer and delight, together
Though my eyes will not always be dry when we do.
By 1983, George, Frank, and I began to think about weaving more of our energies together, through developing a new magazine focused on chronicling and supporting grassroots efforts to build a new economy and a new society. By 1984, Chuck Turner, then the ICA Group’s educational coordinator, had joined us in putting together a prototype for this magazine, which we called Changing Work, A Magazine for Liberating Worklife. Some twenty activists, researchers, workers, poets, and artists, some from outside the USA, had contributed to CW’s pilot issue, and in a motel room we hurriedly assembled dozens of copies to give away and draw support at a Washington, DC conference on employee ownership and workplace democracy. The response was very positive, so we went on to re-edit the prototype and get several thousand issues printed.
Today, both George and Frank are gone, but CW is stronger than ever. Way back in 1992, we changed its name to GEO, Grassroots Economic Organizing, and it is now mainly available online and free of charge, at www.geo.coop. But its mission remains constant, and still reflects the editorial preface to our first issue:
“Why another magazine? How will Changing Work be different?....
[It] has distinctive aims: to provide a forum for sustained dialogue on the goals and strategies of reconstructing work (e.g., on how worklife can be made not only more democratic, but a source of joy and creativity); to help build solidarity among the often disconnected groups seeking to increase democracy at work; to foster alliances between these groups and others with allied goals, such as labor, ecological, and health care groups; and to develop collaboration on changing work across national boundaries.”
When I look back on this period, I see both continuities and discontinuities with those that preceded it. But some of the latter have had a longer lasting impact on me.
Yes, I did contribute to both the IC and IP as a “developmental leader”: I listened as much or more than I instructed, relishing the chance to assist others find what made them come alive, and helping them use their voices and abilities to shape the directions of our common initiatives. But at the same time, I began to withdraw my energies from academic life — not entirely, but substantially.
In a way, this was a kind of personal secession. Once again, a university, or its admins, had shown itself unable to countenance constructive resistance. This time UCONN had reneged on its pledge to the federal government to fund the IC once our grant run its course. They had tried to take away my tenured position, and when that failed, they eventually blocked me from ever receiving merit increases.
On a more positive note, through working with Frank and George I found myself drawn more and more to the development of hands-on working models, and less and less to theorizing or teaching about them. My friendship with these very experienced peers, with whom I resonated in so many ways, was something new to me. They needed no mentoring from me; they were already exemplary “developmental leaders”. The multiple synergies between us created bonds stronger and deeper than I had experienced before.
Changing Work was a tangible product of our collaboration. And it too offered me a different way to come alive. The magazine’s primary goals included opening its pages to practitioners engaged in bringing a new economy to life who wanted to write about their experiences, and to offer them both editorial and comradely support. Very quickly I found a new passion in editing and providing supportive feedback to such newcomer writers.
Given all of this, I made a bold decision, and shifted voluntarily from full-time to half-time status at UCONN. The loss of income, I told myself, would be more than compensated for in two ways. First, by having a good bit of additional time free from the oversight and demands of university admins.
And second, by the joys of collaborating in the birth of a new economy in this country, one in which workplaces of every sort were created and run far more equitably, and by those who labored within them: an economy built in the spirit of the Mondragon or Emilia Romagna cooperatives. (I had a hard time convincing my Dad, who worked as a salesman in a dressmaking factory, about this; but Mom accepted it well, telling me that if this decision made me happy, she was happy with it.) Today, more than three decades later, the dreams of people like Frank, George and several other pioneers for a new and democratic economy, are blossoming in ways we could not have then imagined. But that’s a story for another time, or memoir; ongoing elements of it can always be found at www.geo.coop.
One lesson of this turbulent period is clear to me: if others invalidate or undermine your current form of coming alive, secede, and find a new venue for it. Secession can often elude or displace domination.
But enough of me, and my adventures. It’s now time for you, a reader who has stayed with me this far, to consider writing your own coming alive memoir. And that’s a journey we can begin to take together, in the chapters that follow.
Go to the GEO front page
Len Krimerman (2015). A New Journey with New Allies: Coming Alive In Dangerous Times (1961-1983): Chapter 3. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/new-journey-new-allies