MadWorC member co-ops exchange Board members

Since every worker co-op is a work in progress, and no two do things the same way, MadWorC thought it would be a valuable learning exercise to encourage participating members to attend the board meetings of other local co-ops. The hope was that processes and procedures used at one co-op might help other co-ops solve similar problems, since we all face similar challenges.

The first exchange took place in March at Isthmus Engineering where members of four other worker co-ops and the UW Center for Cooperatives sat in with 28 Board Members of Isthmus at a regular bi-weekly Board meeting. After the conclusion of the open portion of the meeting, which lasted about an hour and covered committee reports, spending decisions and updates on workloads, a round of questions and an­swers followed. The observers wanted to know more about the membership process, the function of the general manager, stock purchase require­ments and the role of the board. A question about performance evaluations, and the challenges of peer review, elicited a vigorous exchange be­tween Isthmus board members and the observers.

The second exchange was in April, at Union Cab, with four guests from Isthmus sitting in with their Board. Items of particular interest to the guests inclu­ded the process Union uses for internal conflict resolution, which seems to be a perpetual headache for all co-ops, and the fact that, in spite of major differ­en­ces between Isthmus and Union, the day-to-day problems of running a business are very similar.

The third exchange took place on August 15th, at Community Pharmacy, when they opened their doors to other worker co-ops to attend their monthly board meeting. Again, it was interesting to note that even though our organiza­tions perform completely different functions, we can have very similar issues. One of the issues of the day that we will all have to work with is the new “Concealed Carry” law in Wisconsin. A discus­sion ensued with more ques­tions than answers; none of the participants have arrived at a final outcome.

So far, all participants in the ex­change have been excited by the experience and are interested in repeating and expanding the pro­cess. Six different organiza­tions have participated in the ex­change so far, including the UW Center for Cooperatives. Other regional organiza­tions for worker cooperatives on both coasts have expressed interest in the outcome of our exchange and they are now planning their own local ex­changes. From what we have seen so far, just learning about the different facilitation methods has made the entire exchange worthwhile.

We need to more effectively publicize the Wisconsin struggle

Originally in The Progressive magazine

By Rebecca Kemble, July 11, 2011

Most of the 200-plus participants in the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy held in Baltimore in July would identify their politics as somewhere between progressive and radical. They are also people who tend to be well-informed. It was surprising, therefore, to find that many of those attending the session “Lessons from Wisconsin: Work­er Co-ops and Labor Unions in Solidarity” had such sketchy knowledge about the right-­wing attack and the popular fight back in our state.

Together with John McNamara, comrade and colleague from Union Cab of Madison Cooperative, we developed a slideshow presentation detailing the role of Madison area cooperatives in the Fitzwalkerstan Resistance over the past five months. Our intention was to spark a larger discussion about the increasing role of worker co-ops in the U.S. labor movement, and to explore new openings for public education and outreach initiatives.

The political and economic forces rolling through Wisconsin do not stop at her borders. We hoped to give other worker cooperators a sense of the possibilities for building resistance and solidarity when union-busting and public sector austerity come knocking on the doors of their states.

Much to our surprise, our typically media-savvy audience had a very rudimentary grasp of the facts on the ground. We spent most of the session filling in the gaps. “Supreme Court Justices choking each other? You’re kidding, right? He’s still on the bench?” and, “I’ve heard incarceration rates in Wisconsin are high, but school districts contracting for prisoners to maintain buildings? Really?” were just a few of the incredulous responses to our slides.

We never did get around to speaking in any detail about our conversations with rank and filers about how to reinvigorate grassroots democratic practices within unions. Nor did we delve too deeply into the ways in which the United Steel Workers is venturing beyond the world of Employee Stock Ownership Programs and dipping its toes into actual worker ownership.

It became clear that there is little or no accurate, up-to-date reporting on the particular ways in which the corporate agenda and the resistance to it are being played out in Wisconsin. The down and dirty details of what state senator Bob Jauch called “dictatorial madness” and State Representative Tamara Grigsby dubbed “a disgusting level of arrogance” by the governing class in Wisconsin are largely unknown to those outside our borders.

Corporate control of mainstream media is the big problem. For those of us unwilling to completely cede the realm of public debate and opinion, it is even more important to support community-based and independent media. Additionally, we need to create new ways of producing and distributing critical, on-the-ground reporting.

The first session I attended in Baltimore was entitled, “Building a Cooperative Media Network: Questions and Lessons for Participa­tory Demo­cra­tic Journalism,” and was led by Dru Jay of Media Co-Op (mediacoop.ca). This project is built on the collaboration of four autonomous reporting cooperatives in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Media Co-op is com­mitted to “covering stories from the perspectives of those who are most affected by those issues,” by reporters who are rooted in their communities.

As resources for conventional reporting dry up in the United States, this is a model we should definitely explore.

Symposium presents a range of contemporary worker-ownership research

By Trevor Young-Hyman, August 14, 2011

While worker ownership, in its many forms, informs the practices of businesses and receives increasing attention from policy makers, academic attention on the topic remains somewhat underdeveloped and dispersed across a range of disciplines. This discrepancy is all the more striking because the practitioners of worker ownership can benefit from both research that conceptualizes the various potential forms of worker ownership and research that tests the effects of worker ownership. By bringing together a diverse set of academics and practitioners to discuss the challenges and opportunities of worker ownership, the Beyster Fellowship Symposium provides a unique and valuable environment for debate and exchange.

The 2011 Beyster Fellowship Symposium was held between June 26th and 29th at the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, California. Since 2009, the Foundation for Enterprise Development has organized an annual meeting to bring together scholars and practitioners of worker ownership for idea exchange, networking, and presentation of new research. During the mornings, researchers presented continuing and recently completed research by academic attendees. In the first afternoon, attendees met in small groups organized around common interests including democratic governance, stock options, ESOPs, motivation and ethics, and public policy. During the second afternoon session, attendees participated in a simulation exercise about strategic decision-making and equity compensation for workers in the soft­ware industry. Mid-day and evening meals served as opportunities to establish contacts, discuss research, and learn about novel approaches to employee ownership.

Attendees are invited by the Foundation for Enterprise Development and some participants receive invitations as elements of fellowships or grants for research on employee ownership. At the 2011 event, scholars hailed from universities across the US and Canada, and from a range of academic disciplines. Scholars ranged in age and experience, and older scholars expressed a clear desire to encourage research on employee ownership and foster a new generation of researchers. Among the practitioners in attendance were representatives from national organizations like the Employee Ownership Foundation and the Global Equity Organization, and principals from public and private consultancies like the Ohio Employee Ownership Center and The Menke Group.

Research presented at the symposium illustrated the diversity of topics that contemporary scholars of worker ownership are exploring. Using large datasets that chart the economic performance and business practices of firms with elements of worker ownership, from stock options to worker cooperatives, scholars are testing the various elements that may impact firm performance. A paper by Francesco Bova of the University of Toronto found a relationship between employee ownership and financial disclosure and transparency, which may address the commonly held concerns about access to capital for worker-owned businesses. Adam Cobb, from Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsyl­vania, presented ongoing research suggesting that both ESOPs and profit-sharing retirement plans may both have positive effects on firm performance. Other scholars presented research using case studies and ethnographic methods to depict and conceptualize the experiences of various workers in employee-owned businesses. Joan Meyers of Rutgers University presented research on the differing effects of workplace organizational structures on workers of different races, genders, and class backgrounds in worker and non-worker owned businesses. Lily Song from M.I.T. presented a comparative ethnography of the experiences of immigrant groups participating in urban economic development programs, offering preliminary findings that cooperative ownership may enhance access for disadvantaged groups. Other unique research included efforts to understand the political context for the emergence of worker ownership through historical research and a project using GIS mapping software to identify and categorize clusters and industry concentrations of worker ownership in the United States.
Ultimately, the diversity of research presented at the 2011 Beyster Fellowship Symposium illustrated both the range of exciting topics available to scholars of worker ownership, but also the varied meanings and interests that scholars attach to the concept of worker ownership.

More information on the Beyster Fellowship Symposium can be found here:http://fed.org/advancing-research-beyster-symposium

Worker cooperatives stand with Wisconsin!

Why do worker cooperatives support labor? One simple reason: we are labor. Photo by Gabrielle Fine, as are most of the ones below.

Multiple times in February and March, Union Cabs paraded down State Street to the Capitol Square to enthusiastic cheers from other protesters.

Community Pharmacy supports the workers and unions of Wisconsin. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Gabrielle Fine of Community Pharmacy, who took all the photos except this one and the last one.

Casting a vote every few years for corporate-sponsored candidates is not what democracy looks like. Nor is taking orders from a boss. If you want democracy, go co-op!

Seen here: two representatives of Isthmus Engineering, one from the UW Center on Co-ops, and many union members.

Worker co-ops are businesses, but we oppose corporate control of our society. Is that a contradiction? Not for businesses that are run democratically.

Worker-owners from Community Pharmacy decided that a copy of WorCPlace News makes a good protest poster.

Your humble editor, from the Interpreters’ Co-op, un­char­acteristically takes the mic to tell the crowd that not only should they support co-ops, but they can form worker co-ops them­selves. Photo: Carlos Miranda.

MadWorC steps up its outreach to prospective worker cooperatives

Madison Worker Cooperatives (MadWorC) exists both to support existing worker co-ops and to encourage new ones. We feel like we’re doing a reasonably good job on the first part, and now it’s time to turn our attention to the second part.

With that in mind, an Outreach Committee has formed. It began as a loose network that emerged from a Union Cab Solidarity Committee meeting attended by members of other co-ops. Over the next couple of weeks, volunteers met to sketch out out a direction for the committee. At the following MadWorC meeting, its charter was accepted, and its work began in earnest.

As its first and most visible activity, the Outreach Committee has had a table at the last several Farmers Markets on the Capitol Square. We talk to the public, hand out buttons and fliers about worker cooperativism, and gratefully accept donations of any size. We plan to continue this indefinitely.

The Committee is also actively pursuing any leads on people who want to form a worker co-op. We’ve heard from three nascent projects already, and are very interested in finding more. As we come across them, we will guide them to our Development Committee, which is so new it hasn’t even been fully formed yet. That’s the Outreach Committee’s next activity.

The general public can follow our discussions on our website,http://outreach.madworc.org. However, only committee members can actually participate in the discussion. Our face-to-face meetings are being organized on an ad hoc basis at this point — usually via the website. New folks are welcome to attend, but please be respectful of our meeting agenda.

If you’re someone who has a serious interest in forming a worker cooperative, and you meet the requirements listed to the right, contact committee member Steve Herrick at steve@interpreters.coop. The Outreach Committee is here for your benefit, so don’t be shy about talking to us.

What does it take to start a worker co-op?

There are many steps to getting a worker co-op up and running. MadWorC, especially its Out­reach and Development Committees, can help you with most of them. What you need is three things:

  • An understanding that a worker co-op is a small business. You need to be strongly committed to the product or service you plan to provide.
  • An understanding that worker co-ops are profoundly democratic. Worker-owners do not give or take orders. We vote.
  • Four other people who understand these points.

Co-op Spotlight: Ithsmus Engineering and Manufacturing

Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing was found­ed as a partnership in 1980, and has always been located in the city of Madison. Our organiza­tion became a worker cooperative in 1983 after searching for a better structure and seizing on the model of the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain.

The origin of the name “Isthmus” was similar to many other companies in Madison, and was derived from our first location between lakes Monona and Mendota. Through the years, we have called several locations home in Madison, including leasing space on East Washington Avenue, and then owning a building on Progress Road. In 2005, we moved into our current 60,000 square-foot facility, which is located on the southeast side of Madison on Owl Creek Drive.

We are an organization of 50 people, and our membership includes engineers, electricians, machinists, mechanics, and administrative personnel. We are 100% owned, operated, and democratically managed by our workers, with each member having one vote. Our structure differs significantly from many other worker co-ops in that all of our members sit on the Board of Directors instead of having a small elected Board.

Workers at Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing hard at work on something or other. Photo by IEM.

Our worker cooperative serves the manufacturing sector of the economy. This differentiates us from most other worker co-ops in the U.S., but makes us similar to many located across Europe. We design and build automated equipment that is used by our customers to make everything from toothbrushes and water filters to solar panels and automobiles.

Throughout the years, the worker coopera­tive model has served us well. Using this structure began as an experiment, and to this day, it continues to evolve and change. We will never say that it has been easy — at times it is a testament to our perseverance — but it would be difficult for any of us to work under a different structure.

Starting in 2009, we made an aggressive effort to pursue work in the alternative energy market. That effort paid dividends in 2010, when we received several orders to build equipment for the solar electric market. We continue to search for work in this industry and we hope that our country will maintain an effort to reduce carbon emissions and stop using fossil fuels.

We are active participants in MadWorC (Madison Worker Cooperatives), the USFWC (US Federation of Worker Cooperatives), and the NCBA (National Cooperative Business Administration). We hope to learn from, and help strengthen, other organizations that have taken on the worker-cooperative model.

Our business today is strong, and we are optimistic about the upcoming year.

We invite you to learn more about us. www.isthmuseng.com

The staff of Isthmus Engineering and Manufaturing. Photo by IEM.