Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.

Reflections on the 2018 Worker Cooperative National Conference

By Ricardo Samir Nuñez, Director of Economic Democracy

     This September we hit a milestone: the ten year anniversary of the 2008 financial crisis that crippled the global economy. Institutions of international capital crumbled while the housing market collapsed. We had come as close as ever to proving that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The systems that extract wealth from our communities proved incredibly resilient. It is only now, ten years on, that people are starting to see what a world beyond capitalism could look like.

     That’s why spaces like the Worker Cooperative National Conference (WCNC) are so critical: they help expand the frontiers of our collective imagination and show us the future of work in action. These spaces show us the many paths being forged for a future where workers are compensated fairly and encouraged to show up as their fulls selves at work. The voices and stories I heard at the WCNC provided a radical vision of a future of de-commodified labor and comfort that we are a strong and growing movement.

NoBAWC members representing at the Conference!

     On September 14th, almost 10 years to the day after the global financial crisis, worker cooperative members, advocates, technical assistance providers, and, yes, those coop-curious members of the public, came together at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College for three days of deep conversations, reflections, and trainings on worker cooperatives. Hosted by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI), the conference provided a space for members of the USFWC, which is itself a controlled democratically by its members (like a cooperative), to come together to make real it’s mission, “to build a thriving cooperative movement of stable, empowering jobs through worker ownership.” It was an extremely moving experience for me and many others. Below is a short reflection on the celebrations, conversations, and trainings that I had the fortune of participating in with this beloved community.

What’s a Conference Without Some Awards?

     At the conference, there was an awards ceremony to recognize the values and actions from USFWC members who have moved forward its strategic vision of advancing worker-owned, -managed, and -governed workplaces through cooperative education, advocacy and development. As USFWC Board President, I was honored to announce the recipients of the Cooperators of the Year awards:

     Elizabeth Arredondo of TeamWorks Institute received the Outstanding Leadership within the Movement award for her courageous leadership supporting the development of worker cooperatives in immigrant communities, in the home cleaning industry, and as a board member of DAWI.

     Mai Nguyen of the National Young Farmers Coalition received the Worker Co-op Torchbearer award for deepening the conversation about what a just labor system in the agricultural industry should look like (hint: democratic worker ownership!), their work in organic and regenerative farming, and for their advocacy and organizing with farmers of color.

     Yassi Eskandari-Qajar of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (yes, that Sustainable Economies Law Center) received the Champion of Worker Co-op Advocacy award for her policy advocacy leadership on the local, regional, and national levels by stewarding the New Economy Coalitions Worker Coop Policy Platform, leading the Law Center’s Worker Cooperative Policy Brigade to train worker owners on how to be policy advocates, and stewarding the Berkeley Ordinance for Worker Cooperatives over the last three years!

     I was also honored to announce the recipients of the Cooperatives of the Year awards to:

     Caracol Language Cooperative was honored with the Commitment to Social justice award for being deeply involved in New York City cooperative policy advocacy (where the city has committed millions of dollars per year for the past three years to worker cooperative development), providing peer training and ecosystem development, being passionate advocates for language justice, and being an immigrant and queer led cooperative.

     PV Squared received the Principle 7 Leadership in Community award for receiving national recognition in their field by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, an award to companies that meet a rigorous set of standards regarding installation, employee training and qualification, safe work practices and customer accountability and their work with Amicus Cooperative to provide solar power to communities in Puerto Rico.

     Metis Construction won the Conversion of the Year award for wholeheartedly engaging in the worker cooperative ecosystem and the USFWC in order to help inspire other companies to convert to democratic worker ownership.      

     Last but not least, the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative was honored with the Labor Advocates award for their tremendous work organizing inside and outside the cooperative and union communities from hosting the Union Co-ops Symposium in December 2017 to their partnership with Tech Solidarity, a group of tech workers out of Silicon Valley to fuel their work on Care Share childcare co-op.

     I felt overwhelming joy when I was giving out these awards. It reminded me about the importance of shaping our own narrative as a movement and lifting up the stories we want to be told about our communities. These awards help redirect the story that is told about who cooperatives are for and how they can be used to transform not only our economic systems, but our relationships to each other and the planet, as well.

Deepening Our Understanding: Conference Sessions

USFWC Members of the Racial & Economic Justice Council
Members of the Racial & Economic Justice Council meeting to discuss strategy... and take selfies.

     One of the hardest parts of the Worker Cooperative National Conference for me is trying to choose which amazing workshops and presentations to attend. I mean, Growing the Future of Food with Cooperatives,” “Solidarity Los Angeles: Countermapping the Solidarity Economy,” “Facilitation In Motion: Using Movement, Visuals, and Games to Facilitate Group Decision Making…” I WANT TO GO TO THERE! Luckily for me, the pre-conference Friday session was an easy choice. I attended the  alumni gathering of DAWI’s Fellowship program facilitated by the extraordinary Rebecca Bauen and Jonah Fertig-Burd.

     DAWI organizes periodic fellowship programs geared toward addressing needs within the worker co-op community, such as training cooperative developers, members of local worker coop chapter networks, and peer advisors in marginalized communities to catalyze our movement. This alumni gathering was a deeply reflective and intimate space that provided us with a reality check of where we are as a movement and how the work we do impacts us on a personal level. It was incredibly moving and the conversation grounded me in place and in community. To give you a taste, alum were asked to reflect on this quote:

“In a murderous time

     the heart breaks and breaks

          and lives by breaking.”

     I was humbled to be sharing space with such profoundly thoughtful and impact oriented individuals. The people in the room showed me the courage it takes to work day in and day out holding the constantly multiplying contradictions of creating businesses and organizations that are meant to both confront and exist within a system premised on the hyper-exploitation of poor folks, indigenous communities, and communities of color.

     We were also presented with some inspiring examples of worker cooperative development focused on scale. We heard about the amazing work being done in Central California with California Harvesters, where a labor trust was created to supplant the existing labor contractors in the agricultural industry. We were taken on a tour of Maine (you should really visit Maine! It looks beautiful!) and the cooperative development initiatives and partnerships being driven by Cooperative Development Institute in housing, workplaces, and with immigrant communities. Finally, we were shown how one of the leaders in coop development, the Center for Family Life, is evolving their model to create an integrated support network of cooperatives to solve the problem we all wish we had: too many community members trying to start and join cooperatives!

     While the other sessions were not as personally introspective, they were still educational and moving. At the workshop, “This is How We Do It: Project Management for Co-op Success” by Brian Mueller of Isthmus Engineering, we went through how to map out projects using innovative tools that could be adapted to projects with varying levels of complexity. Many of the questions from the audience revolved around how to operationalize accountability and transparency in different aspects of project management, for example time-keeping and setting clear expectations and understanding how much information is shared with different members of the cooperative, such as the board.

Tim Palmer
Tim Palmer helping us understand the foundational research DAWI and others have been performing for our sector.

     At “Current Research: State of the Worker Coop Sector and the 2017 Individual Member Census,Tim Palmer of DAWI took us through the research that is making the foundations of how we will reflect our impact as a movement and in industry. For example, over the last few years, there’s been a shift from start-ups to conversions,  75% of workers at worker coops are “happy” at work, and the major industry sectors of US economy are the major industry sectors of worker coops. We’re not all bicycle and coffee shops! One more take away from the research turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Many believe that worker cooperatives are primarily populated by white, college educated individuals; in fact, our movement is majority (66%) female and majority (69%) people of color!

Thanks, Obama!
One of my favorite slides from the entire conference from the brilliant Bruce Mayer

     Finally, the last session I attended as a participant was “The New Tax Law and What It Means for Worker Co-ops” presented by Bruce Mayer, CPA at Wegner and Associates, went through the basics of how the new tax law passed in 2018 might change how cooperatives make financial decisions and operate their business. One take away for me was that corporations making under $90,000 in profits per year are now paying more in taxes because the new law went from a graduated tax system to a flat one. As Bruce put it, “Basically, if you’re a real estate mogul, you got a lot of benefit from the new tax law.”

Innovating Pay Structure in Our Workplaces


     I co-facilitated a workshop during the last session of the conference, “Innovating Pay Structures in Our Workplaces,” where we shared approaches to democratically designing a pay structure that allows all workers to thrive while upholding values of equity, transparency, and solidarity. AORTA member Marc Mascarenas-Swan shared their “thriving pay scale” which takes into account years with AORTA, prior experience, regional cost of living, and reflects cost of living adjustments and annual increases going forward. It also includes a dependent care grant system. Then, Leslie Leyba from Rainbow Grocery shared the story of how Rainbow, with 230 worker-owners, democratically self-managing through elected committees, decides pay. For example. Rainbow members voted to adopt a policy that allows participatory budgeting for labor costs using a simple formula.  This is one way they used their democratic process to create a collaborative solution to the problematic issue of cost management and profitability vs. workers’ well-being.

     Finally, it was my turn. I told the story of how the Law Center rooted our equal pay structure in guiding principles, tied our pay to the area median income, and are still working to evolve our pay structure and approval process. One idea I tried to leave participants with was this: we, as members of democratic workplaces, need to continue questioning our assumptions and deepening our political, social, and economic analysis of how our policies interact with our members’ lived experiences. It is only through this deep, collective reflection that we can  continue the process of constantly becoming, allowing our cooperative workplaces to evolve in ways we couldn’t previously imagine and allow our worker-owners to show up as their full selves.

     The conference was another fantastic experiment of collaboration, centering racial and economic justice, and providing a space where we could be vulnerable, admit our mistakes, and build from a place of solidarity. It reminded me of the quote from Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe." At the Worker Cooperative National Conference, you didn’t have to listen carefully for that world. You could hear the song of a beautiful future.

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