Tag Archives: co-ops

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!

There’s always one

Often, when I represent my co-op at events, there is one audience member who insists on being annoying. It usually has to do with their discomfort at the existence of an actual large democratically-run institution that is somehow at odds with their fantasy idea of what we should be.

Our existence by itself is political but that is often not enough for armchair philosophers. I suppose its fair for people to be mad at decisions we make, but in a democratic workplace of 230 people, I can’t give a definitive answer for why we made a decision, I can only say what issues some people brought up and that the majority decided. People, even leftists, buy-in subconsciously to the spin-speak of places with huge PR budgets. We are a democracy: messy, opinionated, and sometimes wrong. It’s unwieldy at times, but it is also our strength.

Recently, after being on a panel discussing alternative workplaces and the philosophy behind them, I was confronted by an audience member.

“You said you pay a living wage, how do you figure that?”

“Well, our starting wage is a couple of dollars over the official SF hourly rate.”

“San Francisco doesn’t have a living wage ordinance, it has a ‘minimum compensation’ ordinance* according to my calculations, a living wage would be $18 or $19 an hour.”

I pointed out that we have an unbelievable health plan free to workers, real profit sharing, discounts on food and numerous other benefits that make our wages even higher, but none of that was really the point and he didn’t seem interested. Because I was representing the co-op, Mr. Leftist simply couldn’t speak to me as a worker, he was speaking to me as the boss. He probably felt brave speaking truth to power and all that except that he wasn’t speaking truth and he wasn’t speaking to “power”.**

Of course, I was also exhausted since I had been working at 7 AM that morning and this conversation happened after 10 PM. You gotta love a conversation about work where it goes on too late for most people who work for a living to attend.

At another talk – actually one where I was doing a reading from my book –someone confronted me about “a friend” that once worked there and got fired and how they had all these criticisms of the co-op. Of course, I was at a disadvantage because 1. I didn’t know who they were talking about, 2. Even if I did, I might not know the situation and, 3. Even if I knew both those things, I certainly couldn’t talk about it in a public setting because it’s illegal. There are one of two cases in my 17 years at the co-op where the folks got fired and I disagreed with it, but in most of the other cases, people had it coming. If someone gets caught padding their timecard***or stealing they aren’t going to tell their friends that. They are going to say, “It’s not a real co-op.” “It’s a popularity contest.” Or some version of “I spoke truth to power.”

The funny thing is that there are certainly valid criticisms of our co-op. We have no real models for what we are doing and have made stuff up as we went along. We could have better systems for some things and we could have more actual democracy in some cases. One of the reasons I finally came around to opposing coupons**** is that I felt like it was affecting our internal democracy. Everyone was too tired and too busy to go to meetings.

But the bottom line is that we are not a philosophical wet dream of a worker co-op. We are an actual worker-coop: the biggest retail worker-coop in the country. I’m proud to work there, warts and all. It’s not a workers’ paradise, it’s a constant work in progress.

*I looked it up later and this is true. At the time of its implementation, the term “minimum compensation” was substituted for “living wage”. However, according to the we are still well above the number calculated in SF for a single person.
**To be fair, he was speaking to 1/230th of the power in the store.
***We operate on an honor system in many ways so offenses like padding time cards, giving out discounts to people not approved for them etc. are firing offenses.
****When I represent Rainbow publicly, discussions of why we stopped coupons are totally the new “Why don’t we boycott Israel?” And no I won’t discuss the second question here.
*****Clearly this whole entry (and anything on this website) is my opinion and I am not speaking for Rainbow here.