This discussion aimed to investigate the factors that help and discourage cooperative success. Each of the panellists has direct experience in cooperative groups and the time is divided so each has separate time to explain their own experiences. This post is a live-blog of the session, which is a part of the 2015 Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School, NYC.
Moderator: David Morgan
Esteban Kelly: Distinguishing Among the Various Cooperative Forms and Understanding How to Choose the Best One for Your Endeavor
[Notes to follow]
US Federation of Worker Coops
Principles of Cooperativism: Does it operate for member and community benefit?
Do the people who do the work own it and control it?
Omar Freilla: The Co-op Academy
‘Making 1000 worker co-ops bloom: Creating the Co-Op Academy in the Bronx’ by Green Worker Cooperatives
Freilla introduces himself as the founder of Green Worker Cooperatives, a group founded to help bolster green business. The initial approach for the group was to start one co-op at a time, but they found that this was unsustainable. With inexperienced start-up management, sales lagged and the economy tanked causing them to rethink the co-op infrastructure.
The next move for the group was to focus on economies of scale and spread the risk. Through the partnership, crowdfunding and volunteer assets the team had, the group wanted to bring together new ideas. Drawing a team together, they built the Co-Op Academy, bootcamp style, bringing people together to follow through a cross-section of ideas simultaneously.
The groups have grown through the formation of a brand as a collective. The pull of individuals’ embedded within the community they are interpreting helps each co-op group take off with a distinct entrenchment within the needs it is representing.
The big change in the approach of the academy drew from the tech start-up world, as the traditional business planning approach was not working. So Co-Op Academy ‘2.0’ is now bilingual (Spanish and English) and focuses on the development of the business model by taking into account flexibility and responsiveness to user needs.
Co-Op Academy ‘3.0’, coming this fall, borrows this quick prototyping and testing idea. Seven different teams in the academy will be launching projects from schools to urban farming. Co-Op Academy help facilitate the cross-fertilisation of ideas between members, as well as coordinating partnerships with other groups from graphic designers to local council groups.
It is important to Freilla that the cooperatives function as viable business models, as he believes this is the only way they can transform the economy.
Q&A: How do you fire someone?
This can be replaced by a solid structure of accountability. Worker-owned cooperatives have a sense of investment that requires etiquette, and Freilla has been impressed by people’s drive to self-rely on their cooperative work.
Kelly wants to add that accountability is two ways, and the idea of firing is a concept from the traditional worker model. The question should instead be ‘how can the cooperative set everyone up for success, including training and support?’ Accountability in this sense can be nurturing, investing, and training: something inherently positive. These problems can be insulated and carefully negotiated in the by-laws of the cooperative.
Q&A: How do you talk about the economic benefits of investing time in co-ops?
Shares and membership are used very loosely, and they often don’t involve any say in the running of the group or corporation in question. Cooperative work means you get a share in the profits and a share of say in the business based on a one member one vote principle.
Emma Yorra: Scaling Cooperatives Through Platforms?
Yorra introduces herself as a member for the Centre for Family Life, a 37year old social service agency based in Sunset Park which is a traditionally low-income immigrant neighbourhood. The Cooperative Development Program emerged in 2006 through the adult employment program, as an attempt to challenge the illegal ‘gig’ economy to provide dignified, living-wage work in the case of wage-exploitation and dangerous jobs.
Currently working with 9 cooperatives and 1 cooperative network, the demographic is primarily Latino women with education levels of high-school or less. From house-cleaning to pet care, the cooperatives aim to disrupt the economic system that pushes those most marginalised and with the highest barriers out of the economy.
Marketing and reach remains a problem for the groups Yorra seeks to incubate, especially in light of the increasing need to compete with venture capitalist backed firms who are moving into the new service spaces. For Yorra, cross-pollination could be a great place to achieve greater economies of scale and reach by teaming with similar cooperative services across New York City.
The Robin Hood Foundation approached the group this year to create a platform with students from Cornell in order to rival capitalist services. The working name is ‘Coopify’ and initially it will address just residential cleaning, allowing users to book and pay online. For the cooperative group Si Se Peude, most customers come from community review services like Yelp. As such it is important for Yorra to attempt to replicate that across the platform, with wireframes signalling a referral function on the client facing side, as well as an in built translation service between Spanish and English for both the client and worker facing sides.
Issues that have arisen for the team have included the lack of tech background among the staff who mainly come from social services. The team are also worried they lack the foresight to be able to build something with long-term sustainability, particularly when looking at the owner structure of the platform. Yorra finishes by mentioning that they are currently hiring a Coop Platform Developer as part of the initial feasibility study, which will last until June 2016. Anyone with ideas should send them to email@example.com
Q&A: It sounds like a top-down rather than bottom-up process -does this harm cooperative values?
Role as incubator, so they run the cooperatives and we just provide them specialised consultation.
Q&A: What are the major things preventing cross-pollination?
Accountability and standard reassurance between groups; but potential to share office space and administrative services and so on. Dialogues are beginning to happen, and this project is a good excuse to bring the groups together.
Q&A: Half members/Full members, how do the groups decide on voting power between different working structures?
Candidacy or full membership which equals one vote. They have a trial period where the standard of work is compared and assessed, and then to confirm membership they must pay fees and attend meetings and so on.
John Duda: Anchoring Cooperativism
Duda introduces himself as the Communications Director at the Democracy Collaborative.
He begins with a critical look at cooperative history. The wave we’re in represents the ‘disillusionment with capitalism, post baby boom’ trend, but the wave before was born from same generation of the early internet.
Both leant on the basic impetus of engagement with solutions through atomised consumer decisions, whether it’s corporate Compuserve or decentralised food co-ops of the 1960’s counterculture. The conversations about how to challenge ownership and wealth distribution have been going on for generations.
Duda’s group, the Democracy Collaborative worked with the Cleveland Initative ‘Community Wealth’ to create 3 Evergreen Cooperatives, where a non-profit corperation would assist profit-based worker owned cooperatives. This helped tackle issues of mass incarceration in the area.
Looking at the successes and failures of others, the Democracy Collaborative found key principles to empowering individuals within cooperatives were a focus on organising and a focus on pedagogy. Emphasis was on investing in people.
Duda turns to the Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx as the largest co-op in the US, with over 2000members. However, unlike the common striving for technological based solutions, CHCA moved digitally backwards and removed direct debits so members had to come in to pick up their pay cheques. This created a need to engage and learn with the space, and fostered a sense of community. Underscoring this point is the idea that there are other solutions beyond the digital agenda that can be utilised for cooperative movements.
Duda poses that the question now becomes how do we scale up these cooperative groups and movements up. The turn to cooperatives, in small and experimental ways, show communities attempting to turn to locally routed jobs that redistribute wealth and ownership.
Q&A: The Next Economy Project -where are the connections between the micro (local) and macro (national)?
Important to link them both infrastructurally for effective change
Q&A: How does the emphasis on the importance of pedagogy effect those who have traditionally been disempowered?
Relating the concepts of cooperativism to people’s lives so they can see themselves in the system. Using creativity to move away from class-based language and into visual cues and games to engage people.