Co-op spotlight: Interpreters’ Cooperative of Madison

It isn’t hard to guess what the Interpreters’ Cooperative of Madison does: we provide interpretation for individuals and groups. However, we also do written translations of all descriptions and lengths, from half-page meeting minutes to 300-page books. And you might not guess that we also have experience with things like subtitling, voiceovers, website translation, and more.

Our co-op started off as a list. The Workers’ Rights Center found itself in need of interpreters on a regular basis, so it kept a list handy to call down. Over time, the list become a group in its own right, and eventually decided to form itself into a worker co-op. It took considerably longer than expected, but in October of last year, we were formally incorporated. Now we have a clear identity, with business cards, a website, and even a Facebook page!

Adam Trott of Equal Exchange (left) announces an award at the recent conference of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (see other article), as ICM member Martin Alvarado interprets into Spanish. Photo by the author.

As far as we can tell, we’re currently the only interpreters’ cooperative in the US, and possibly in the world. Organizations with similar purposes exist in several places, but as volunteer collectives and/or projects of non-profits. However, we’ve had contact with a number of people in different parts of the country who have asked us for advice on starting a co-op like ours.

Locally, a number of things set us apart from other interpreters and translators. First is our price range. We aren’t the very cheapest option available, because a lot of volunteer interpreters exist. But interpreting tends to be the sort of thing where you get what you pay for… up to a point. That point is where the big, corporate interpreting companies come in. They outsource all jobs to contractors, who do roughly as good a job as we do and end up taking home about what we do. The big, corporate interpreting companies, however, are charging their clients outlandish prices, and pocketing the difference. As worker-owners, we cut out the middleman, which means we’re affordable to organizations that operate on a shoestring. We also have a scholarship fund to support people who can’t afford even our lowest rate.

ICM members Graciela Laguna (in the black shirt) and Patrick Hickey (red shirt) serve patrons at a scholarship fundraiser thrown for us by Willy Street Cooperative at their not-even-open-yet store in Middleton. Photo by the author.

The next difference is our experience. Every one of us has been interpreting and/or translating for more than a decade, and we are all comfortable with simultaneous interpretation (in which the speaker does not pause, and the interpreter listens and speaks at the same time). Most of us have lived for years in Latin America. Most importantly, we all know firsthand what it’s like to work for the kinds of clients our co-op works with: community organizations, non-profits, small businesses, schools and government agencies, unions, other co-ops, and individuals.

As important as experience is, there’s always more to learn about a second language. We have three native Spanish speakers and five native English speakers, and we are constantly comparing notes on the best way to handle words and phrases. When we translate written documents, no matter how small, the final draft is always proofread by a native speaker of the target language. That’s because the best translation is one that doesn’t sound like a translation.

It bears mentioning that we do not interpret in court or in hospitals. Those needs are being pretty well met in our area. But that doesn’t do much for people who are healthy and not appearing in court. Note that we are still available for legal consultations outside of a courtroom setting, and to translate medical documents.

You might be wondering what languages we work in. Good question! Spanish is our biggest, by far. All the worker-owners of the co-op work primarily or exclusively between Spanish and English, and one also works in Italian. We also have associates who speak Hmong and Russian, and we have contacts who speak Portuguese, Croatian, and American Sign Language. Other languages have been more challenging for us to track down, such as Mandarin, Japanese, and Haitian Creole, so if you are an experienced interpreter of those languages, we’d be interested in talking to you.

You can find us on the web at, or email us We’d love to hear from you — in any language.

MadWorC goes to California to move with the movement!

Don’t be fooled — the last thing these folks are doing is sitting still. These are the movers and shakers of the worker cooperative movement. Photo by GEO.

Jim Hightower complimented the worker cooperative movement for being a “movement that actually moves.” Over the first weekend of August, hundreds of worker co-op activists met in Berkeley to discuss our co-ops and how to move our economic model from being an “alternative” to the standard in the United States.

The theme of the conference was “The Work We Do Is The Solution.” We learned a lot solutions being developed across the nation:

* The Cleveland Model (the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative), which is using the worker co-op model to revitalize an economically devastated neighborhood in Cleveland, OH.

* Toxic Soil Busters, who use plants to manage lead remediation in their Worcester, Mass., neighborhood. This worker co-op consists entirely of 14 to 18-year-olds who make all of the decisions.

* EdVisions, in Minnesota, which is a worker-coop charter school that has created a dynamic democratic educational plan to go with their democratic workplace.

The author (John McNamara) gives a presentation at the conference on “Market­ing the Co-op Advantage.” Photo by GEO.

The workshops focused on a lot of “nuts and bolts” lessons from “How to talk to a lender” to “strategic planning” to “marketing the cooperative.” The energy, however, was about building infrastructure to improve accountability and responsibility, measure our co-ops against ideals, and manage conflict in our organizations.

The Regional Caucus met. We had no nominations for the Regional Director, so that seat remains vacant. If someone is interested in serving, please let me know and I will forward your name to the board— although we already have two seats on the board. We discussed holding a Midwest conference next year and how to build closer ties between Madison and the Twin Cities, as well as working with co-ops outside of major metropolitan areas.

The northern regional caucus meeting. The three people on the right side of the photo are Steve Herrick of the ICM and John Kessler and Ole Olson of Isthmus Engineering. Photo by GEO.

Kristin Forde was awarded the Local Hero Award for the Northern Region for her work in getting MadWorC up and running. Other winners included Erbin Crowell and Adam Trott from the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives (VAWC), Dan Thomaseses for his work with NoBAWC, and Frank Adams for his lifetime of work in worker cooperatives. The Cooperative of the Year went to the youth movement Toxic Soil Busters, while the first Cooperator of the Year was granted posthumously to John Logue of the Ohio Employee Ownership Center for his lifetime of work and the creation of the Evergreen Initiative.

A special thanks to the Madison Interpreters Cooperative for provided what many described as excellent interpreting services.

A lot of folks were talking about replicating their models (WAGES, Toxic Soil Busters), and even more were talking about the importance of regional organizing to build capacity for education programs and other mutual benefits. The other theme was building the capacity of our organizations to offer a true difference by creating systems for accountability, education, and humanity.

Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) organized a team to blog on the proceedings. These posts are at

Co-op Spotlight: Union Technology Cooperative

MadWorC is pleased to announce the arrival of Union Technology Cooperative to the Madison area!

Union Technology Cooperative (UTC) is a worker-owned and operated IT services cooperative. UTC was founded on September 23rd, 2008, by five member-owners to create sustainable, compassionate jobs for IT professionals who serve the greater good. Union Technology Cooperative is a not-for-profit entity; an organization designed with the heart of the community in mind, allowing UTC to provide its clients with a more ethical, uniquely efficient, and personalized service experience.

UTC has a diverse menu of technological services it offers to the community. Each technician has the experience and confidence to assist with even the most difficult crisis situations. Whether the problem is with Windows, Mac, or Linux, Union Technology Cooperative is ready to serve every type of market sector, including community, education, business and residential.

UTC is in business to help the entire community. Therefore, they offer reduced rate services to those in need. A discounted service rate is available to cooperatives, 501(c)(3) non-profits, as well as K-12 public schools, public education employees, seniors 65 and over, and clients with disabilities requiring a nursing home level of care. Union Technology Cooperative is also passionate about helping its clients reduce power consumption through a variety of methods; reducing utility bills and reducing your carbon footprint go hand in hand!

Union Technology Cooperative begins work relationships by documenting and diagramming the client’s network in an initial assessment, creating a document to assist with planning and future decision making. UTC believes if a network is owned by their client, their client has every right to all of the information related to it. UTC feels that going above and beyond is essential to providing the best service possible.

UTC technicians don’t just work with computers; in addition, they design, install, add on to, rebuild, and reinvent some of the most simple and most complex networks. Feel free to give them a call at 1-608-616-9925 with any question no matter how small or large. Operating hours are Monday through Friday: 9AM-5PM. UTC technicians are also on call outside normal hours for emergencies. You can visit them on the web at

Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Workers during the Industrial Revolution in an unknown city. Taken from No credits or copyright information given.

My mission: to research and write a history piece on Worker Cooperatives. To complete this task, I was hoping to find juicy stories of worker strikes, political upheaval, or something flashy enough to interest my drama-starved mind. What I found was the English town of Rochdale, England.

Rochdale of Lancashire, England holds the title of the birthplace of the modern cooperative structure. The Rochdale Principles, a group of rules written in Rochdale in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society have served as the moral and structural basis for the cooperative movement ever since.

The Rochdale Principles, as they have since become known, were a compilation of principles tested since the cooperatives movement’s birth in the mid 19th century. The birth of the movement was a direct result of pressures imposed on society by the Industrial Revolution.

A “spinning mule.” Taken from No credits or copyright information given.

Two main contributors led to these imposed pressures: the invention of the “spinning mule” and the steam engine. These technologies created a huge boom in textile production in cities across England. Increased production coupled with a reduced need for skilled labor led to population increases in cities and a reduced standard of living. As a means to increase their standard of living, the concentrated populations of laborers working in the factories began to organize. This led to the development of cooperative societies, which would turn into what is known today as the cooperative movement.

What the Rochdale Pioneers formed, though, would not be easily recogniz­able in today’s cooperative movement. What they formed was called a Cooperative Society. Their overall goal was “as soon as practicable, this society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words, to establish a self-supporting home colony of limited interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.”

James Watts’ steam engine, from 1769. Taken from No credits or copyright information given.

The Rochdale Pioneers were never successful in their attempt to create a self-sustaining colony, although their initial retail store was a great success. Since Rochdale, the movement has seen similar achievements; cooperatives serving many segments of society have found great success in many forms — consumer, housing, producer and worker cooperatives. But has the move­ment yet succeeded in producing a Cooperative Society? What role do I play in this process? What do I add or take away from the gains achieved since 1844? What can I do to create unity?

It seems my homework to research and write about Worker Cooperative history has created more questions than I started with. I will leave now to ponder them.

Co-op spotlight: Union Cab

For over thirty years, Mad Town residents have enjoyed the cooperative difference in taxicab service. Union Cab organized in July 1979, and began operations in late October. Its mission is to create jobs at a living wage or better, in a safe, humane and democratic environment by providing quality transportation to the greater Madison area.

The Mayor, the late Jeff Erlanger (chair of the Committee on People with Disabilities) and John McNamara present Madison’s first Wheelchair Accessible Taxicab — a great example of Union’s “concern for community,” the seventh principle of cooperatives. Photo by Bill Knobeloch.

Union Cab organized after a decade-long struggle for economic justice in the traditional labor movement. After the second attempt to enforce a contract, the owner shut down the company, and organizers turned to the cooperative model. It took a lot of help from supporters and a ton of sweat equity to get Union Cab off of the ground. As is so often the story with cooperatives, they also had a bit of luck. City bus drivers went on strike just one week after the only other meter cab service shut down. Union hired striking drivers to help meet demand and show solidarity with the workers.

The co-op experimented with other services in the ’90s, but pulled back after deciding the business was too reliant on large contracts. The cooperative does operate two wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Flash forward to the present. Union Cab has over 200 members and the largest fleet in the city. Drivers enjoy some of the best working conditions in the industry, including access to health care. Union Cab has offered health care to its membership since the mid ’80s. In the mid ’90s, the cooperative began paying a percentage of an individual’s premium. Union Cab has also been the technological leader in the taxicab industry and maintains its own Information Services department. This spring, the cooperative will be setting the bar even higher by offering on-line ordering to the general public, as well as other programs designed to improve the work life of the members and the experience of the consumer.

Union Cab has provided leadership to the national worker-cooperative movement. It has held a seat on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives since January 2007, and helped MadWorC form. This spring, Union will offer a discount to members of any of the area’s co-ops in a show of solidarity with the cooperative movement. After thirty years, Union Cab continues to reinvent and revitalize itself through the energy of its member­ship.

MadWorC goes to school!

MadWorC is excited to work with UW CREATe, (Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology) located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is an organization consisting of students studying engineering, occupational therapy, business, and design studies (both grad students and undergrads). This group uses their talents to design equipment for individuals with disabilities also with efforts in biomechanics and orthopedic implant systems. This is a non-profit team that uses their new skills to help an underserved population in our community.

Jay Martin, the director for UW ARTe Design group (“Assistive and Rehabilitative Technology,” part of UW CREATe), recently met with MadWorC because he is interested in having the center become a worker cooperative. Because the group already practices most of the seven co-op principles, the structure of a worker co-op seems like a natural progression. Most of their projects require more then a semester to complete and the sustainability built into a worker cooperative lends itself to the needs of the group. Functionally, the individuals are much more then students taking college classes -– their projects have the potential to really change peoples’ lives.

The mission of UW CREATe is to engage in engineering research, design, and education that will assist in providing additional independence to individuals with disabilities.

Skis designed by UW CREATe participated in the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, WI, this year. Photo by Ole Olson.

Some of UW CREATe’s past projects have been a huge success. You might recognize one of them if you spent any time at Madison Winterfest – the “sit-ski.” This device allows an athlete with disabilities to cross-country ski. Now, 150 sit-skis have been manufactured and shipped across the United States using UW CREATe’s design. The US Paralympic Committee was so excited when they learned of the initial 150 sit-skis that they are providing funding for an additional 100 sit-skis. Before this project started, there were only 50 Nordic sit-skis in the entire country and they cost over $2000 each. Because of this project, by the end of 2010, there will be an additional 250 sit-skis being donated at no cost across the country. UW CREATe’s current projects also include a wheel chair accessible crib for mothers with disabilities and a self-powered wheelchair lift used to climb small stairways.

One of the biggest challenges for the organization will be how the new UW CREATe worker cooperative is integrated into the University system. Jay has met with Anne Reynolds, the Assistant Director of the UW Center for Cooperatives, and they are working on proposals for the legal relationship now.

Student-led businesses are a new thing for UW Madison, although they do exist at other universities. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst has a well-established group of small worker cooperatives that are led by students. U-Mass provides assistance in the structure and guidelines for these companies, and the students do the rest. These businesses include coffeeshops, bike shops and a copy and print shop. What will make the UW CREATe program unique is that the students will be starting a business where they can actually work in the disciplines they are studying.

For more information on UW CREATe, please visit