The past week, I had the pleasure of joining Gilda Haas and her students as they toured worker cooperatives and collectives in the Bay Area. We all had a great time learning from the leaders of Arizmendi Bakeries, Design Action Collective, Phat Beets, Democracy at Work, Project Equity, Movement Generation, and Recology (which uses an ESOP model for its business). We covered a lot in 36 hours in Oakland and San Francisco!
Needless to say, I was excited to join the trip because amid the cool policy and economic development projects we have going on at LURN, I often feel like something is missing. I feel like we’re swimming upstream on almost every socio-economic front. Housing is too expensive. Wages are stagnant. Food is contaminated. And the list goes on…
I think part of the answer for these issues lies in crafting alternative economic systems that truly serve us. The trip reaffirmed for me the importance of working to make sure the communities we serve actually own things (you can’t get pushed out of your neighborhood if you own the property, right?), and that through that process, we plant inspirational seeds so others can think about how they can the resources they need to live the life they want and deserve.
From the leaders we met with, I took away the following:
1. We have to control capital. It takes money to make money, and without a source of capital, good businesses won’t see the light of day. The leaders we spoke to found a variety of ways to finance their projects: working extra hours at an existing job and saving the proceeds, asking for personal loans from local supporters, and taking out loans from other more established cooperatives. But these methods seemed at times as “one-off” because there wasn’t a clear “go-to” source for cooperative financing. Even banks that were founded on the premise, were no longer offering those loan products to cooperatives.
This particular insight also got me thinking about the importance of not only finding a consistent source of financing, but also thinking about how one can acquire the “means of production” too (shout to all the Marxist friends). Some worker cooperatives were already thinking about how they can acquire other business along their production chain to help lower costs (ex: the bakery considering how they can partner with or acquire a flour mill). It reminded me of an article I read on Delta Airlines: one way they came out of bankruptcy was by acquiring an oil company so they can control this major cost.
2. Not everyone is meant to be a worker-owner. We heard some fascinating stories of folks who were interested in the idea of a cooperative, but ultimately could not keep up with the commitment needed. I think we often fall in love with what we believe a worker cooperative is, but we fail to realize the amount of work it takes and the extraordinary commitment that is needed from those involved. Cooperatives are businesses just like any other one, but it also requires disciplined cooperation with all participating worker-owners. This high level of cooperation comes only with high degrees of trust and mutual understanding on all expectations. (We learned that it also requires a ton of patience because of all the meetings!)
3. Some worker cooperatives are not meant to be job creators. In the same we could get caught up in our utopian visions of what a worker cooperative is, we also fantasize that they’ll create a ton of jobs that’ll solve our unemployment crisis, allow us to take back our neighborhoods, and free us to live happily ever after. That’s not always the case according to some cooperative practitioners. The reality is a lot more nuanced; some are structured just to employ small teams, while others are really focused on demonstrating a different way of operating a business in hopes to influence our larger capitalist system. To these folks, participating in a worker cooperative is more political than economic.
4. If you don’t know, figure it out. I was so reassured to hear the resourcefulness of the worker-owners we spoke with. In all cases, worker-owners received mentorship, training, or other resources from more experienced cooperative owners, but there was a high level of ingenuity on each of their parts without it. (Indeed, there was even a small discussion about the value of formal trainings) Even the veterans at Arizmendi spoke about having courage to take on something they had never done before and learning by doing. They were all figuring it out, building the plane as it was flying, or “making the road by walking it.” I think in the “nonprofit industrial complex,” we paralyze ourselves with our doubts. We project our insecurities on our work and many funders contribute to it by asking for academic studies, thorough business plans, and cost benefit analyses, all in order to decide whether or not you should try it. Sometimes you have to say “fuck it,” and do the work!!!!
I didn’t leave the Bay Area feeling like worker cooperatives are THE answer to all our social ills, but I believe they are part of it, and more so, I was inspired but what they were trying to prove: that there could be a different way of doing business, you can make money by treating your workers like humans, and the current system is seriously failing a majority of society and we’d be stupid not to try something else.
I think that if we put more energy into exploring these “alternative” economic structures and focus on ways to help people become owners instead of renters (literally and figuratively), we can begin to find ways that will help us battle poverty, racism, and gentrification.
A poster in Recology’s break room.
A photo from our lunch with Bay Area worker-cooperative veterans.