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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Rise of the Co-Ops!
Wednesday 19 May @ 17:18:39
America’s businesses without bosses hold first national conference
by Susan Leem
A labor movement is making a comeback across America. It’s a revival of an older movement in American – and especially Minnesotan — history, nearly stamped out by political fissures and the grip of big corporations on the free market. It is a movement that shows up in restaurants and grocery stores, in conversations like this:
“Hello, I’d like to speak to the manager.”
“Sure, I can help you.”
“Are you a manager?”
“We’re all managers!”
For most Americans, this is not normal. Trading a third of one’s waking hours for a meager standard of living – that’s normal. A business where no one is in charge – that’s radical.
But such companies – collectives and worker-owned co-operatives – can stay stable and prosperous, like the 30-year-old Seward Café in Minneapolis. They have slowly begun multiplying, with almost 30 in the Twin Cities area. Most recently, they have begun forming networks across states and regions, culminating in the U.S. Conference of Democratic Workplaces, the first national conference, to be held in the Twin Cities May 24-26.
Simply put, worker co-ops are business in which the workers are all equal owners, vote on what the business will do and pay people based on how much they work; thus, they differ from the better-known member-owned co-ops. The Minnesota Worker Cooperative web site defines a collective as any “group working without hierarchy toward a common goal,” although workers at local worker co-ops described their businesses using more emotional words. Sustain. Family. Neighborhood. Respect. Democracy.
That last word is the big one. Whenever someone asks why more Americans don’t vote or participate in their country, common wisdom gives many answers; a similarity between candidates, a lack of education, television, general laziness. Rarely does anyone suggest that democracy is a muscle that must be exercised, that people are no more likely to vote every four years than they are to go to run a marathon every four years.
The cooks or counter workers at North Country or the Seward, however, use democracy every day – but instead of voting for the president and letting the effects trickle down, they work together and let the effects ripple out.
Juli Montgomery [right] serves up breakfast at the Seward Cafe, one of almost 30 worker-owned co-ops in the Twin Cities area. Photos used with permission of the Seward Cafe.
Minnesota has a history of farmer co-operatives dating back to the late 1800s, when many farmers banded together to buy equipment and infrastructure they could not buy individually. Finnish immigrants in the timber and mining industries in the early 1900s also formed co-ops to feed their families when they went on strike, according to Cy O’Neil’s Origins and Legacies: History of a Co-operative Movement.
Banks often refused to loan such organizations money, seeing them as radical political groups. So their members began running for office to change politics, forming the Farmer-Labor party that preceded today’s DFL.
Though some co-ops take political stands, “the co-op movement was not built on food policy or even on economic issues — the foundation of this movement was constructed from an almost religious belief in the value of personal and community empowerment,” writes Craig Cox in Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture. Such businesses are rooted in their communities, said North Country Co-op marketing and outreach coordinator Christopher DeAngelis.
“When you talk about a safe community, you’re talking about a neighborhood where there’s [foot] traffic, eyes on the street, and a sense of people knowing each other and not just being anonymous,” DeAngelis said. “A lot of that derives from retail businesses.”
In addition, co-ops tend to give back to the community what they draw in. Even a consumer co-op, which sells participation through membership fees, typically attracts a regional customer rather than a shareholder in a distant city.
“Rather than accumulate capital in one person’s pocket, [money] goes into the workers’ pockets and keeps it in the community — it doesn’t retire and go to Hawaii,” said Tom Pierson, who also organizes new co-ops as economic development consultant for co-operative businesses with the nonprofit Center for Prosperity. “People are able to buy houses and send their kids to college, and reinvest their money in local businesses, so people are paid better, and people can get their services within walking distances from their home… making an area more stable. And you can’t do that with a chain because it’s always taking money out of town.”
According to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 2,560,000 people this April were classified as “permanent job losers.” In America’s current economic climate, the new mantra is, “I hate my job, but I’m just lucky to have one right now.” So what’s job security like for an alternative economic system?
“Co-operatives are there to provide specific community services, like jobs,” DeAngelis said. “So if you’re working for an organization whose mission is to create jobs that people want to have, then you have a lot more job security. Now if you as a worker are damaging the viability of the business and the co-ops’ mission, then you don’t have as much job security. That’s what your ability to hold onto a job is judged on, as opposed to [chain stores], where your job performance has no relation to whether you hold on to a job or not.”
Though North-Country Co-op’s staff has voted to fire people, DeAngelis said such actions are more serious and more thoughtful than in most businesses. “The people who dismiss you are the people who work closest with you who know what type of situation they’re putting you into, weighing the social cost, and the impact on your family.”
Most worker co-operatives and collectives hire, fire and make most other decisions by consensus. The process of being accepted into one can be very thoughtful and rigorous, often involving long probationary periods with lower pay to make sure the worker is a proper fit for the collective and vice versa. Miki Takata, eight-year veteran of the collective Hard Times Café, said the staff asks for a one-year commitment and intensive interviews. The staff, she said, looks for “someone who’s insightful and can take initiative for themselves, who has a balance of what they give and get without resentment.”
The Twin Cities today hums with the clank and sizzle of the everyday activities of these organizers: flipping pancakes off spatulas, pouring your morning espresso, and adjusting the derailer on your bike. The number of people working without bosses is still small, but growing, and includes people of all ages and backgrounds. But as more people join worker co-ops, they must adjust to a new attitude toward work.
One of the 18 members of the worker-owned and operated Seward Café, JoAnn Blohowiak, says egalitarian power can be difficult for new members to handle.
Nilz Collins [left] at the Seward Cafe counter.
“We’re a product of our society,” she said. “We go to grade school and high school, the basis for how we operate is based on hierarchy, how we organize information and how we navigate our way through the world. We’re not given a lot of personal responsibility in general, then all of a sudden you’re in a place where there’s no authority figure.”
So why do members succeed? According to Pierson, who is also a collective member at the Seward Café, it’s because they realize their jobs are interdependent with everyone else’s.
“Lessons in personal responsibility have been important [because] bills have to get paid, other people are counting on you,” said Blohowiak. “The responsibility is high and it forces you to learn, you can’t turn your homework in late.”
While the Seward has 18 members, the 18-month old Matchbox, a coffee shop in Northeast Minneapolis, only has four members. Member John Gerlach “there’s a lot we’re doing that people would say is not the ‘proper’ business way to do it…it is a lax system, but we have our routines and it works.” Their creative business plan includes a pay-what-you-can coffee day last May Day, and a willingness to barter. “I don’t think we’d turn down anyone who would help us out for a cup of coffee.”
The Hub Bike Shop opened in September 2002 as the largest worker-owned bike shop in the Twin Cities and has since hosted community events like free repair classes and talks by bike experts. Co-founder Benjamin Tsai said current Hub workers are working their way up to becoming co-owners through on-the-job experience.
“There’s so many technical skills involved, and the products change every year, so everyone’s continually learning,” Tsai said. “It has been a lot of work to get people up to speed. We do a lot of check-ins on worker dynamics and make sure everyone’s feeling comfortable with [their skill level] at meetings and on a regular day to day basis, and of course try to keep it fun as much as you can.”
The Spokes Pizza Collective is the youngest worker co-op in Minneapolis, at just 8 months old, they’re benefiting from the co-operative spirit and wisdom of one of the oldest worker co-ops in town, sharing a space with the Seward Café. Collective member Sven Lynch, “We appreciate the Seward’s help and documentation of building their business so that we can design our business as we’re running it. Without [their help it] would’ve taken a lot more planning and fundraising and loans, and organization [to start the business].”
Minneapolis organic vegan raw foods restaurant Ecopolitan is in the process of converting their business to a co-operative. Supervisor/Facilitator Cynthia Stutter says that part of the reason the workers want to own the business co-operatively is to set up structure for staff “so that we can work efficiently and on an equal basis where our voices will be heard [regarding operations].”
A recent operational change affecting the group where the staff was not consulted was the installation of a new point of sale system, which, like most workplaces, was handed down from the owner or general manager. The staff members, who before could only do their best to master workplace rules, are now in the process of drafting proposals for new ones.
According to Pierson, one of nine elected board members organizing the conference, the purpose of the U.S. Conference of Democratic Workplaces this month is not only to educate worker members of such soon-to-be as well as established worker co-ops, but also to form the U.S. Federation of Democratic Workplaces. “We will be deciding the shape and function of the Federation, including its name, governance, services, fee structure, membership requirements, and how it will relate to other organizations.”
The conference will host a variety of workshops; how to resolve conflicts in a group, how to train people to use financial reports, how to create strategic business plans. Rainer Schluter, President of CICOPA, a French acronym for International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Co-operatives will be giving the keynote address.
“We’re doing this because we want to pool our resources and provide services of common need to all worker co-ops,” said Pierson. Organizers are expecting people from co-ops with as many as 400 people and as few as three, in addition to related groups like consulting businesses or community developers.
The growth of a national movement begins with the growth of a local movement. Takata’s hopes her co-op, the Hard Times Cafe, “survives and yet is not stagnant and will continue to grow … I don’t have feelings of utopia or anything, but I think you can strive for something where people can come and congregate and express their ideas freely.”
Similarly, Pierson has confidence in the future of the co-operative movement, he said “I want people to be aware that there are other more dignifying forms of work and that they can support people in those jobs with their daily choices insofar as where they shop, and what they spend money on. Business owners should also know that a model exists so that they can sell their business to their employees, and don’t have to worry about who’s going to take the torch.”
According to DeAngelis, “I’ve been ruined, I can’t see myself working in anything but a worker-run business. It boils down to self-determination, living your values.”
The Conference runs from May 24-26th and will be in the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota’s West Bank Campus. More information is available at usworker.coop.
The Minnesota Worker Co-operatives website is mncooperate.org.
Monday, May 24
6:55 p.m. to 8:25 p.m.
A: Building a National Workplace Democracy Movement
Speakers: Richard Dines, National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA); Frank Adams, Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Organizing (SACCO); Stevie Kelly, North American Students of Cooperation; Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, U.S. Conference of Democratic Workplaces planning board
B: Start-ups and Conversions
Speakers: Martha Wold Cornwall, Association of Arizmendi Cooperatives; Dan Bell, Ohio Employee Ownership Center; Loren Rodgers, Ownership Associates
C: Democratic Meeting Process and Facilitation
Speakers: Kirsten Marshall, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative
D: Strategic Planning
Speakers: Beth Doyle, Good Vibrations
Tuesday, May 25
4:10 p.m. to 5:40 p.m.
A: Democratic Workplaces in the Social Justice Movement
Speakers: Jessica Gordon Nembhard, University of Maryland; Andrew McLeod, Olympia Food Co-op; Randy Zucco, Collective Copies
B: Capitalization and Cooperative Financial Institutions
Speakers: Mary Hoyer, Cooperative Fund of New England; Margaret Lund, Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund (NCDF); Newell Lessell, The ICA Group; Peter Hough, Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation
C: Conflict Resolution
Speakers: Betsy Raasch-Gilman, Northland Poster Collective
D: Getting Worker-Owners to Understand and Use Financial Reports
Speakers: Loren Rodgers, Ownership Associates; Dan Bell, Ohio Employee Ownership Center
Wednesday, May 26
9:15 a.m. to10:45 a.m.
Speakers: Elizabeth Donoghue, Elizabeth Travelslight, and Jason Coffee, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative
Speakers: Gordon Edgar, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative; Steve Strimer, Collective Copies; Lisa Russell, Equal Exchange; Hilary Abell, Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES)
C: Passing on Skills, Sharing Power and Responsibilities
Speakers: Tim Huet, Association of Arizmendi Cooperatives
D: Advanced Finances
Speakers: Newell Lessell, The ICA Group
Worker Co-Ops in the Twin Cities
Amazon Bookstore Cooperative
4755 Chicago Ave S.
Minneapolis, MN 55407
514 Cedar Ave
Computer Tech Collective
Hard Times Café
1821 Riverside Ave
The Hub Bike Co-op
3024 Minnehaha Ave S.
Minneapolis, MN 55406
Local Roots Landscapers
1306 NE 2nd St
North Country Co-op
1929 South Fifth Street
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Northland Poster Collective
1613 E Lake St
P.O. Box 8722; 55408
Right Here Media
Roots and Fruits Cooperative Produce
451-E Industrial Blvd NE
Seward Community Café
2129 E Franklin Ave
Spokes Pizza Collective
2129 E Franklin Ave
Umoja Drum & Music Co-op
1920 11th Ave S
Whole Builder’s Co-op
2928 5th Ave
Arise Bookstore and Resource Center
2441 Lyndale Ave S
P.O. Box 19487
Minneapolis, MN 55419
BAT Annex Free School
3042 Minnehaha Ave
407 W Lake St
Grease Pit Bicycle Shop
514 1/2 Cedar Ave
Steven’s Square Center for the Arts
1905 3rd Ave S
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