Local cooperatives connect with Venezuelan counterparts

In 2008, Dane County established a Sister County relationship with the Municipality of Andres Eloy Blanco in Venezuela (the capital city of the region is Sanare). Milwaukee also established a sister city relationship with Carora, Venezula in 2009. Sister relationships are designed to build global cooperation, promote cultural understanding and stimulate economic development.

In order to move toward those goals, representa­tives from MadWorC met with representatives from the Venezuelan Consulate, Jesus Rodriguez Espinoza and Mariela Alburges, at the UW Memorial Union on Friday, September 23rd. Also in attendance were representatives from the UW Madison Center For Cooperatives, the US Federation Of Worker Cooperatives, Madison area housing cooperatives, the Liberty Tree Foundation, Family Farm Defenders, and others.

The purpose of the meeting was to establish communication between cooperatives in the Madison area and cooperatives in Venezuela. Jesus and Mariela were advocating building a relationship where knowledge, ideas and technology will be openly shared to stimulate economic development for both areas. The attendees agreed that this relationship will be beneficial for both areas and we should work to get co-ops in contact with each other. To facilitate communications, the PosiPair website was chosen as a tool to assist each coop to identify areas where they are have strengths they can contribute (“haves”) and areas where they would like to improve (“wants”). Coops will be able to view this information via the PosiPair website and communicate with each other to strengthen each other and the cooperative movement as a whole. Cooperatives that are interested in participating in the project should begin by creating an organizational profile on the PosiPair website at http://posipair.com. Please contact MadWorC at madworc@gmail.com for more information on how to proceed from there.

This project embodies several of the seven Cooperative Principles – the 5th (Education, Training And Information), 6th (Cooperation Among Cooperatives) and 7th (Concern For Community). More information on the seven Cooperative Principles can be found at: http://www.ica.coop/coop/principles.html.

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MadWorC brings its message to the downtown Madison Farmer’s Market

MadWorC has been spreading the word about worker cooperatives at the Farmer’s Market on the square every Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in front of the Camera Shop. Every week, we meet many people and have interesting discussions about what exactly worker cooperatives are. We also are one of the few groups on the square Saturday mornings actively supporting protest activities. We distribute literature, make buttons to give away, and collect donations to support our education and outreach activities. We’ve tabled at the WORT Block Party, various protest activities, and will also be tabling at Fighting Bob Fest on September 17th and the Co-op Connection fair at the Monona Terrace on October first. Stop by, and let’s talk co-ops! (photos by Martha Kemble)

US Steelworkers embrace worker-owned cooperatives

In 2009, the US Steel Workers (USW) announced it was forming an alliance with the Mon­­dragon Cooperatives. This collaboration would bring together the strength and organization of the union and the workplace democracy and employee ownership of a worker co-op.

On a recent trip to the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, I was able to see first-hand how this relationship could work. The first day of the conference in Baltimore started with tours of local worker cooperatives and employee-owned businesses. The very first business we toured was the “Maryland Brush Company,” and that was all it took to convince me how beneficial this new collaboration could be.

The Maryland Brush Company actually opened for business way back in 1851 as a manufacturer of paint and industrial steel brushes. The company was acquired by PPG in 1901 and continued to do business in the same industries into the mid 1980s. At that time – the age of shipping our manufacturing to other countries – the parent company decided to close the plant in Baltimore and move the paint manufacturing out of the country. The industrial brush division was deemed “not profitable enough” and was just going to be closed. All 400 workers were going to lose their jobs.

This is when the US Steel Workers Union steps in. Everyone that worked for the industrial brush side of the business was a member of the union. Obviously, the USW did not want to see these people lose their jobs.

The USW worked with the management at PPG to allow the employees of the Maryland Brush Company to buy out the industrial brush portion of the business. This was not an easy task – it wasn’t just jobs, it involved equipment, several big buildings, patent rights, etc… More importantly, where could a group of union members get the capital to finance this whole adventure?

Again, the USW stepped in. The union came up with a plan to allow the union members to either borrow against their pensions or buy out their pensions to purchase stock for the new company.

The Maryland Brush Company is now an ESOP that functions very similar to a worker coopera­tive. Decisions are made democratically, and the employees own the business. The company is known for its quality and has a strong position in the marketplace.

That brings us up to the day – just before Labor Day – the US Steel Workers passed Resolution No. 27 at their 2011 convention. This resolution is almost completely written for their new effort towards worker ownership. You should read this document if you have any interest at all in the development of a new economy using worker cooperatives. Although we can’t reprint the entire resolution, we would be remiss if we didn’t at least highlight the last paragraph of the document:

(Excerpt from USW Resolution No. 27)

Workers’ Capital, Industrial Democracy and Worker Ownership

(4) Our Union will continue to promote and develop unionized, worker-owned cooperatives, as well as other forms of worker-ownership, as a profitable and sustainable means to create jobs and invest in our communities.

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.