The United Nations declared 2012 “the Year of the Cooperative,” and since then there has been an itchy rash of interest in the subject amongst the progressive media and internet. Many articles and documentaries uncritically espouse the supposed virtues of cooperatives without any real investigation into the problems which often arise. I have been a member at a successful cooperative for over a year and half now. When I first began, I was very idealistic. Experience has given me more perspective.
Worker–cooperative business models offer many economic advantages. They are more resistant to depression. Sometimes, they offer better wages and benefits to workers overall, depending on the industry and success of the business. They are often eligible for certain tax breaks thanks to The New Deal. Shared property and ownership is certainly different than private property and ownership; intra–cooperative cooperation is more comparable to the collusion between global corporations than the one–against–all competition most small businesses engage in, and often more profitable. Economic incentives aside, I would like to examine some popular myths about worker cooperatives. I am not seeking to write a scathing exposÃ©, but merely to start a more realistic discussion about these unusual workplaces.
Myth #1: Worker Coops are Radical Spaces
This one came as something of a shock to me. In my experience, most people who work in coops are centrist, vaguely progressive or not politicized at all; many have absolutely no interest in discussing things on a historical scale. I had more political conversations at my previous jobs in kitchens with fellow workers, laughing over ovens with a boss in the office we all hated.
Many people are not trying to change anything by being a part of a worker coop â€” they are simply showing up to a job. Perhaps a more troubling pattern I have noticed is the de–radicalization that happens to worker owners who are politicized. One can easily pour all ones energy into a coop, to the exclusion of one’s outside life. Perhaps a certain complacency sets in. One wakes up and realizes that they’ve quietly joined the middle class through a back door, without ever having intended to.
Myth #2: Worker Coops are a Way out of Capitalism
Profit is the primary goal in business. Many customers assume that all worker cooperatives have their best interests at heart. I have heard people insist that cooperatives are inherently more inclusive, more “just” a way to “save the economy and save the Earth.” This is absurd. Worker coops are businesses and often function in the same ways that all businesses do â€” reinforcing privilege, cutting corners, producing excess waste and using disingenuous advertisement. At my workplace, we cut many corners simply because everybody is stretched thin and exhausted. Worker cooperatives are arguably a more “sustainable” version of capitalism â€” a model of private, group ownership rather than private, individual ownership. Coops do not pose any threat to the atrocities of capitalism and often engage in systemic exploitation as well.
This need not necessarily be the case. I do think there is potential for worker cooperatives to have a more aggressive stance that actively confronts capitalism. We certainly have the capabilities to re–write our bylaws as long as they adhere to certain legal standards, and experiment with entirely different ways of “doing business.” There are limitations, both legal and economic, however most of the limitations have more to do with how indoctrinated we all are into systems of oppression. Imagine a restaurant that had a permanent free item on its menu or a machining coop that refused to serve oil or natural gas companies. Worker coops do offer a direct way of confronting these issues and examining ones attitudes, desires and assumptions about what business is.
Myth #3: Coop Owners Share Fate, Equal Power and Equal Pay
Coop owners do not share fate if they are just showing up to a job which they have every intention of leaving within several years. Coop owners will never have equal power because all people have unequal faculties, capabilities, charisma and foresight. Larger coops generally do not have equal pay nor power; they simply use more “equitable” pay scales for executives and workers, all of which receive share of the corporation and the right to vote. I strongly recommend reading up on the Mondragon Corporation, self–proclaimed leader of the cooperative movement which employs over 83,000 people. That number does not include the multitude of Chinese factory workers that manufacture parts for them oversees.
On the other end of the spectrum, some cooperatives are beginning to pay based on need rather than work â€” perhaps a genuinely radical idea. Persons with dependents are automatically placed on a higher pay scale. How one perceives “need” could become a difficult determination to make, however I feel that need–based pay is an exciting idea worth exploring.
Myth #4: Individuals Cannot Control the Business to the Detriment of Other Members
Modified consensus may ensure that one person cannot make a large decision unilaterally. However, it does nothing to protect members from the inevitable and constant struggles, manipulation and almost Machiavellian power dynamics that can come into play. True, an individual does not have control, but they do have the power to coerce.
At best, coercion is the only way to get anything done at a coop. At worst, members seize and guard responsibility for administrative tasks that make others dependent upon them, i.e., payroll, then use their position as leverage by threatening to leave if something fails to go their way. Some coops have neatly defined political parties with a few strong leaders. Some are defined more by individual leaders which vie for favor using everything at their disposal. Some coops are small enough that these problems never really blossom into clear patterns; however, I would imagine that they do in any group over eight members.
At my coop, most work is accomplished through empowered committees. Perhaps because it is so impossible to get things done in a larger group, having small voluntary groups is absolutely necessary. Some committees are more effective than others but we all seem to have a lot of fun. All my favorite moments have been working closely with one to three other people. In these smaller groups, honest communication and transparency is easy. We support and know one another. We share a clear common aim and trust one another’s autonomy.
Myth #5: Democracy is Good
The best possible compromise leaves everybody slightly dissatisfied. Participatory democracy is often more swayed by social pressure than deliberate decision making or consent. Making decisions at a glacial pace, the modus operandi of coops, causes as many problems as it avoids. Often, by the time people are able to meet, the subject at hand has become irrelevant. When a decision is made, it is often never followed up on, enforced or even remembered. When consensus is reached, it is often simply half–hearted rubber stamping. At my coop, people tend to agree with anything, listlessly holding their thumbs up while glancing at the clock.
When people do act with agency, they may be punished by being socially ostracized and alienated from others regardless of outcome. More often than not, people desperately rely on precedent, perhaps out of fear, as if it were a law to rule our actions. We often say, “The more you stick your neck out, the more you get your head bit off.” It is something we accept about our situation like gravity. A poster we have on our office wall sums it up well.
SIX PHASES OF A PROJECT
4. SEARCH FOR THE GUILTY
5. PUNISHMENT OF THE INNOCENT
6. PRAISE AND HONORS FOR THE NON–PARTICIPANTS
Like the many crumbs left along the trails of institutional memory, nobody knows where this poster came from, how long it has been on our wall nor who put it up to begin with. The ink is red and it is stained a blotchy tea–brown color with age. Nobody likes it, yet nobody takes it down. Perhaps as much as we resent it, we also have a certain love for it.
As much as we all seem to dislike our coop, and often dislike one another, there is a current of “familial” affection that is undeniable. I think the only thing that prevents somebody from burning the place down and running off with the insurance money is that we actually do have genuine love for one another. I feel that this is rather unique in a workplace. Cooperativism has many problems, but it might create more space for fierce loyalties, close bonds and even begrudging acceptance of one another’s faults, by forcing us to take a little responsibility for one another’s well–being.