Co-op Conference review

The Western Worker Cooperative Conference was at Breitenbush Hot Springs, a worker collective and an intentional community in the national forest land of rural Oregon. It’s an amazing, beautiful place and even if I actually think it’s bad for the movement to have the conference there (culturally alienating to many people, hard to get to, not super accessible, hard on the backs of old people like me) I do love going there.

I only took a couple of dips in the hot springs though because, man, it was hot up there. The conference used to be in late October and there would sometimes be ice on the ground. That’s hot springs weather. If I liked the sun and outside temperatures over 70 degrees I wouldn’t live in San Francisco.

But back to the conference. My favorite workshop was the one promoting peer technical advisors sponsored by the US Federation of Worker Co-ops. One co-worker of mine is actually going through the one-year training program right now, but I’ve informally (for Rainbow) been doing technical assistance for 15 years or so. The meat of the workshop involved small groups using the USFWC guidelines to decide how to proceed on requests for assistance sent to the Federation. These were real requests and – as they often come to me – were confused, hopeful, exciting, depressing, revealing, and baffling all at once. One envisions it being clear cut, “Hi, I represent 10 people trying to start a wood-working collective”, but oh, in real life it so isn’t.

I realized that my years of frustration with this was coming out during the workshop. I knew I needed to tone it down when I tried to get to the bottom of the role play by saying to our (role-playing too well a particularly confused) requestor, “What do you want from us?” The kinda-new-to-co-ops person next to me looked at me in horror and said the much nicer, “We really appreciate your enthusiasm but maybe you could narrow down your focus.” That really probably would be a better approach.

Still, I learned a lot and am going to consider applying to the program. If not this year, then maybe the next.

My favorite request for assistance I ever received at Rainbow, btw, was one that was basically, “Hi, we want to start a co-op and after it gets successful we want to hire a bunch of people at minimum wage to keep it going while our co-op shares the profit. Can you help?”

No. I couldn’t help.

I actually didn’t attend many workshops because most were on the same day as my keynote. I was so keyed up after that talk that I just couldn’t do it. I would have either been too dis-engaged or would have tried to dominate the discussion because once you get into entertaining-a-group-of-75-people-for-a-half-hour-by-yourself mode, it’s hard to turn it off. Other folks were there representing the store, after all. I went and sat by the river with my book.

Sorry Sarah Marcus I was in a van with co-workers trying to get back to SF as soon as possible (11.5 hours, not bad!) I really wanted to visit your farm that I basically passed on the road. Next time!

One response to “Co-op Conference review

  1. Hey Gordon, great story. The USFWC peer techincal advisor program now has a website – the Democracy at Work Network at You’d be a great member of the network!

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