Learning from worker co-operatives

0218-04By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

The Take, a documentary created by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein and the  Mondragon Cooperative, show examples of alternative business models located in the less-industrialized world. Let’s look at food co-ops, for instance. In North America, urban food co-ops are typically only available to the middle- and upper- classes. At the food co-op to which my family belongs, which is also worker-owned, you have to put in a particular number of hours each month. You can work as a cashier, write for the newsletter, organize meetings, etc. If you decide not to work, you have to pay a monthly fee. So, you need the time or the money to be able to participate in this program which offers fresh, organic, vegan and vegetarian foods, grass-fed beef, and free-range eggs at lower prices than a normal grocery store. Because the kind of co-op that I’m familiar with isn’t, in reality, open to everyone, I was blown away, especially by the documentary. However, I wondered about what sort of inner problems the co-op faced. The Take presented things as very democratic, but with democracy, isn’t there bound to be some infighting? That just seems like the reality of any group or decentralized democracy (or centralized, for that matter). It would have been beneficial to see how those workers worked through that. “Managing Without Managers” by Richard Semler presented an alternative business model that reminded me of the worker-owned cooperatives from The Take, for example. However, in Semco’s case, the workers were given control rather than took it themselves. A lot of the co-operatives (especially those in Argentina) rose out of a sort of revolution on a small-scale. Part of what is keeping the workers together is that they have an opposed force that they all unite against. Semco presents a different route to a similar goal. I found it interesting that Semler gauged Semco’s success on what multinationals it could sell to, meaning that its products are reliable and competitive. However, doesn’t this continue the same cycle of low-wage labour? And perhaps one day Semco will be bought out in part due to the extent to which it participates in an unequal global exchange. Maybe it’s a catch-22 because to survive as a business, you need to build relationships, cooperate and to use Semler’s words build your “international reputation,” but at the same time, some of those relationships are based on strong power relations. In Semler’s guide to stress management, I found it interesting how one of the myths was that no one else can do it better. I went to a conference last year and one session was about community work. The work should be able to be sustainable without the founder. You have to teach others to do what you do in order to sustain your mission.

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