On today’s show, we have guest host Rebecca Kemble who is a worker-owner at Union Cab. Joining Rebecca to explain coops is MadWorC Coordinator Rek Kwawer and The Real News Network reporter Jaisal Noor. In the hour they explore how cooperatives work across the country and dive deep into worker exploitation.
Jaisal Noor is Senior Reporter at TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent.
Rek Kwawer has been MadWorC’s Coordinator for the past year. Prior to coming to MadWorC and the worker co-op world, Rek worked for the North American Students of Cooperation, focusing on student and affordable housing cooperatives.
Allen Ruff: Hi, this is Allen Ruff, the Thursday host of A Public Affair, if you have a moment and the resources, remember to support the station and if you will head over to wortfm.org to donate and to see what else is going on at the station.
Rebecca Kemble: Good afternoon. And this is Rebecca Kemble, filling in for Allen Ruff on Thursday’s A Public Affair. Today we’re going to talk about worker cooperatives we have with us two guests today, Jaisal Noor and Rek Kwawer. Jaisal is a senior reporter at The Real News Network. With his expertize in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland College Park before joining the Real News Network. He contributed print, radio and TV reports to free speech, radio news, Democracy Now and The Independent. We’ll be discussing with him his recent documentary, Worker Cooperatives Proves Your Job Doesn’t Have to Be Hell, in which he features and explores how eight worker co-ops have weathered the COVID 19 pandemic. We’ll also be joined by Rek Kwawer. For the past year, Rek has worked as the coordinator for the Madison Area Worker Cooperative Network, known as MadWorC. Prior to coming to MadWorC and the worker co-op world, Rick worked for NASCO, the North American Students of Cooperation, focusing on student and affordable housing cooperatives. And I’m Rebecca Kemble, former Alder for District 18 on the Madison City Council, and current and twenty one year veteran worker-owner at Union Cab Taxi Cooperative. I’ve also had extensive experience and background in national and international leadership in the worker cooperative movement, and I’m really, really excited to have this full hour to talk about one of my biggest passions in life with two people who are are coming to the movement from different points of view. And I hope we can generate a really great discussion this hour. We’ll be opening the phone lines in a little bit for questions and comments. The phone number’s 608-256-2001. But first, let’s hear from our guests. So Jaisal, how did you become interested in worker co-ops and what led you to make this documentary?
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, so I was a New Economy Fellow a couple of years ago, and you know, as someone that has known about co-ops for some time, I got to see just how vast the cooperative ecosystem is in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live. And to be clear, when we’re talking about co-ops specifically right now, I think we’re talking about worker run businesses that have some democratic form of governance and where the workers are the owners, and generally take part in profit-sharing. And I just want to throw that out there because there are energy cooperatives, there’s grocery store cooperatives, there’s REI, which is like a department store. There’s different forms of cooperatives, but specifically worker-owned businesses. And Baltimore actually has a really interesting cooperative ecosystem because it gets basically no support from the local government, but cooperatives have been able to self-finance for the past few decades. And just looking at how COVID devastated working people, especially in frontline industries where people couldn’t work from home — I was lucky enough to be able to work from home but I know a lot of folks we relied on to get through the pandemic weren’t as fortunate — to see how workers had to organized in places like Amazon that are sort of being held up as success stories from the pandemic, when tens of thousands of their workers got sick and had to really organize and fight for better working conditions. So I thought it would be interesting to look at how businesses where the workers control the business, how they responded to COVID, and how the systems they had in place, what impact that would have on on the decisions they made. And you know, while while Amazon makes gets a lot of headlines for their their profits and how the wealth of their founder, Jeff Bezos has grown and grown during the pandemic — something like $50 billion has been added to his wealth — you don’t often hear about hear about the economy from the workers perspective unless we’re talking about a worker shortage, which is something that I could touch upon as well. But you know, the pandemic from the eyes of the workers I thought was a really important topic to discuss — and workers where they didn’t have to fight for basic rights, where they were in the driver’s seat, I think was definitely worthwhile because I had not seen a whole lot of reporting on that.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah, not at all. And thank you so much for your work on this. Rek, tell us about your history in the cooperative movement in general, and then your more recent role in MadWorC and how it’s been. You basically got hired at the beginning of the pandemic, how that’s been for you, working with worker co-ops in Madison and this last year?
Rek Kwawer: Yeah, so I got involved with co-ops when I was in college and sort of stuck with them when I left school. I wanted to be involved with co-ops, so I got involved with some co-op development in Boston. And when I moved to Madison, I looked into what the co-op scene was here, and it’s been a really interesting year. Starting a new job during a pandemic is, of course, a strange experience. But starting with MadWorC has been a really fascinating experience because of how differently the pandemic has impacted worker co-ops as opposed to other businesses. There’s been a really wide variety of how Madison’s local worker co-ops have been impacted, and some have really struggled. Some have had really successful years. And so it’s been really — I don’t know, it’s been an interesting experience to see how co-ops can support each other both within Madison and nationally. I’m hearing about, like in Jaisal’s film talks about co-ops that switched to making PPE for other co-ops. So there’s been a lot of inter-co-op support that I think is really impressive.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah. Thanks, Jaisal, for talking about the variety of co-ops, and let’s just get a real basic definition of worker co-ops out there. It’s a business that is democratically owned and controlled by the workers. So it’s a business in which there’s one worker, one share of the business, and one worker, one vote in the business. So it’s both of those things. Now recently, there’s talk about a broad category of employee ownership, of which worker co-ops are one segment. But there’s some lack of real clarity in discussions of worker ownership about what those differences are. So one form of worker-ownership is ESOP an Employee Stock Option Program, which many of our local businesses — one of our big grocery store chains in the Madison area in southern Wisconsin, Woodman’s, is an ESOP, and that’s where workers can own some stock in the business. It’s basically a retirement plan, but it’s not democratically owned. It’s not one worker, one vote, one share and it may or may not be democratically controlled. Most of them aren’t. So what we’re talking about here are cooperatives, as Jaisal said, where the workers are the members and are equal partners in the business and have an equal voice in electing the board of directors. Some worker co-ops are more horizontally organized where everyone in the co-op is on the board of directors and everyone participates in all governance decisions. There are other co-ops like mine, at Union Cab where we have almost 200 members and we vote for the board of directors, and then governance kind of devolves into committee work. So there are many opportunities for leadership development and decision-making for members to serve on both governance committees as well as management committees. So we are also democratically managed. So, for example, I serve on the Accident Review Council, which is a council of members who, if there is an accident involving one of our cabs, we meet, talk to that worker who was involved in that accident. And we have a well-defined policy and point systems for what kind of accident it was, was it their fault or someone else’s fault? What kind of damage was involved? I mean, it’s a very complicated policy, but it’s all written out and workers administer this for their peers. So just as an example. Jaisal, you talked to a number of cooperatives who use a consensus-based decision making process. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? And have you talked to co-ops that have other kinds of decision making processes?
Jaisal Noor: Yeah. So, several of the smaller cooperatives where I spoke to workers do use consensus, and that can mean different things for different cooperatives as well. Red Emma’s — which is a worker-owned restaurant and bookstore and coffee shop in Baltimore — they have about a dozen worker owners, and they’ve been around for about 20 years now, and they use a consensus-based decision making process, which means all major decisions are — they have discussions about it, and the idea is to build consensus. You have discussions, if you have an issue with something that’s being considered, then the idea is every worker can can chime in, maybe make suggestions. If one worker is opposed, they can block a decision. And I asked some of the workers, because the argument against this type of model is that in a business you have to be efficient and you have to be able to act strategically, and so I asked the workers if they felt that this slowed down the decision making. And they said that when when people have moved to block things, it’s been for a good reason and they have generally been able to work through their feedback or criticism and come out stronger because of it. I know in Emma’s case, they call it a consensus-based decision making model, but there is a mechanism if one worker is blocking something, there is a mechanism if you have substantial debate that they can still proceed, so it’s not going to completely deadlock operating their business.
For another business, the Taharka Brothers, which is a decade old ice cream making company, they really actually like consensus. They actually like their decision making model. They’re sort of a modified consensus where they have heads of committees which ultimately make the decisions, but they encourage everyone to participate, workers and non-workers. And for them, one of their committees is a flavor committee. So you need some type of order in a flavor committee. But you do want a lot of feedback. You do want to have a finished product, or you want a flavor that appeals to as many people as possible. So I think the bottom line is businesses have these really strong values, which work and make their products stronger, make their business stronger. But they do end up adapting to the need for efficiency and the need to get things done. So yeah, I think for the most part, I spoke to smaller cooperatives, but some of the larger cooperatives like Rebecca was describing, we do have what they call more of a republican model where they have management, and they hire boards to oversee the management, and the workers still get to vote on major decisions. But if you have, for example, Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, they have a thousand worker owners. And so having a thousand people weigh in on every day-to-day decision is just not practical. And that was something they had when they started off thirty five years ago. But you know, when you get to dozens of members it’s not practical for every decision. Like I said, for the major decisions, you’ll often have all the workers weigh in.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah, and thanks for raising the issue of values. So there there are a set of seven internationally recognized cooperative principles that come from these internationally recognized values that have been developed well over 100 years in the International Cooperative Association, which boasts something like, they say, over a billion people are part of a member organization of the ICA. So this includes, mutual insurance co-ops, agriculture co-ops, banking co-ops, all kinds of co-ops, consumer co-ops, food co-ops, worker co-ops. So if you think about in the whole world, a billion people are, in one way or another, involved in a cooperative. But these principles are really touchstones to guide and ground co-ops in in the values that make us different. And let me just say non-exploitative and potentially anti-capitalist, although we do exist in capitalist society now. But these values, I always say that they are our structure for existing in any kind of economic system, and I’m just going to read them.
Cooperatives principle number one is voluntary and open membership. That means they’re open to all persons able to use their services, and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination. Democratic member control: organizations that are controlled by their members who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions. Number three, member economic participation: members contribute equitably to and democratically control the capital of their co-op. At least part of the capital is usually the common property of the cooperative, and that’s really different. That really gets to starting to talk about reviving the Commons and instead of just extracting all the wealth, reserving wealth to build for the common good. Really important, number four is autonomy and independence. Co-ops are autonomous self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including government, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy. Number five, really important, education, training and information. Co-ops provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-ops. Number six: cooperation among cooperatives. Co-ops serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-op movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures. And concern for the community: co-ops work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members. And so the idea of sustainability, when you’re talking about efficiency of decision making, there’s this balance that we in co-ops deal with, which is efficiency versus sustainability of long term decisions. So you can be efficient in a decision and then next week situations change, or as you said, Jaisal, someone who had a concern but didn’t raise it that might have blocked that original decision, that concern might become even more important, and all of a sudden you have to revisit and shift.
So, one story. Really, the experience that got me so into worker cooperatives was about six weeks after I started driving a cab at Union Cab back in the summer 2000, the company was going through an existential crisis. It had a paratransit division, a bus division and a taxi division, and it had gotten into some difficult contracts, especially with the bus and paratransit, and they were deciding, do they keep those divisions or do they ax them? And that’s how I came to that decision. They were deciding, but all of a sudden I was being — as a six week worker there — I was being asked to weigh in on this decision and I was like, holy moly. I think we were about one hundred and eighty five members, all different backgrounds, all different levels of education and non-education, in a membership meeting trying to deal with this hairy question of a $6 million company, right? And over the course of a couple of meetings, we were able to make a decision where everyone felt whole, were the workers in the transit and bus were offered positions in the taxi division. And it wasn’t pretty. There were long, hard conversations over a couple of meetings. But we made a decision that was that was sustainable and here we are.
I feel like I’m talking for a long time, so Rek let’s bring you a little bit more into the conversation. How has it been for you working with the various worker co-ops in a network? You know that principle six, cooperation among cooperatives, being a really critical value and principle for a movement.
Rek Kwawer: Yeah. So I think in Madison, we’ve definitely seen some cooperation among cooperatives throughout the pandemic, with co-ops supporting each other, including some of the newer co-ops in Madison, started with some hopes of providing services to other co-ops. So there is a bookkeeping co-op in Madison that provides bookkeeping services to a number of the other co-ops. So there’s a lot of cooperation between cooperatives in that sense, but there’s also less formal cooperation. So we hosted a couple of different social events that were not meetings with agendas. There was no decisions to make. It was an opportunity for people to come together and hear about what was going on in each other’s cooperative lives, and really discuss what was happening, what they could use support with. And it’s those kinds of person-to-person conversations that I think have been really meaningful, and I think that really informed the theme of our recent two day Regional Rendezvous, which was the role of worker-owners in co-op development, which focused a lot on the peer-to-peer aspect of co-op development, and how members of cooperatives can support other members of other cooperatives in both formal and informal ways.
Rebecca Kemble: And can you talk about some of the working initiatives that came out of that meeting?
Rek Kwawer: Absolutely. A few different initiatives came out of that. It was a regional event, although people did come from all over the country and, in fact, other countries as well. People wanted to have liasons from the different cooperatives to maintain contact throughout the year so that it’s not just coming together on an annual basis and not having any communication in between. So that’s one initiative that came out. Two other initiatives were a goal of creating a more formalized peer-to-peer support network throughout the US, so there’s a number of people who are going to be working on that. And then finally, inspired by an initiative in the U.K., there is something that’s being called the Dollar-A-Week fund, which is the idea that everyone puts a dollar a week into a fund that can support co-op development, co-op sustainability. And that it’s these small amounts of money coming from large numbers of people that can really build the financial backing that is needed to support co-ops.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah, that’s great. Wasn’t there also like a tech school curriculum?
Rek Kwawer: Okay. Yeah. So MacWorC has been working for the last year on trying to create a curriculum for trade schools, to help trade school students learn about how to start their own workshops. Because trade schools are preparing students for careers, but usually those are careers working for other people. And when a worker co-op, you’re working for your own organization, and you’re one of the owners. You have that control over the business, which is really important, and really empowering, and really gives people a lot of control over their work that you don’t have when you’re working for somebody else. So there is definitely a number of people who were at this event in May who are interested in helping out with creating that curriculum and finding out how they can implement it in their areas.
Rebecca Kemble: So, Jaisal, in your documentary, the the idea of networks came up and the idea of co-ops helping co-ops came up, especially in Baltimore, as you said, has a really strong system. Could you talk a little bit more about that? And also about — I’m just sparked by Rek’s comment about the theme of this Regional Rendezvous, which was peer-to-peer worker co-op development — do you know how the co-ops you talked to, how were they developed and what kind of supports did they need?
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, so I think one thing that’s really important for people to understand is that worker cooperatives don’t have access to typical bank loans from the bank, because, as you mentioned, cooperatives have egalitarian structure, where every worker has equal equal amount of power. Which is significant because if you try to get a loan from the bank, they want someone to co-sign. They want an individual to put up collateral, and that goes against a fundamental principle of worker ownership. So because of that reason, because of that challenge, that obstacle, it’s really difficult for cooperatives to access the capital they need to expand. And that’s an issue to expand or grow or to even sustain living wages. And so that was a challenge.
Red Emma’s had for, I think, over a decade of their existence, they needed money to make more money, and they couldn’t get a loan. And so they ended up turning to an organization called The Working World, which at the time primarily provided sort of micro-loans, extractive-free financing, primarily in Latin America — and doing some loans in the US — but places like Argentina, where they have a rich history of worker cooperatives, businesses without bosses. And in Argentina, during financial crises, the bosses of factories would just leave town and take all their money with them, and the workers would restart the businesses because they were doing all the work anyway. But they needed money to do repairs, to get the business going. And so the type of finance has existed in other places for a long time, but Emma’s was able to access money from The Working World to buy, I believe it was a coffee roaster, so they could start roasting their own coffee in-house and they’re able to pay that loan back through…So essentially, it’s not a non-extractive method, which means you only pay the loan back on the increased profits that loan is helping you produce, and the loan is paired with technical assistance too. Like they help you make a business plan ,and figure out how to make this investment sustainable.
And so, The Working World, based in New York, helped out Red Emma’s and then Red Emma’s wanted to take more businesses to The Working World — more local businesses that were trying to convert to worker ownership — and The Working World is like, “We know this isn’t something we can really do. It’s not really what we do, but we will help you create your own revolving loan fund, and out of those discussions came into existence in Baltimore, it’s called the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy or BRED, and nationally it’s part of a national network called Seed Commons, which is a group of, I believe, about two dozen revolving loan funds in different cities. And basically, they’re able to accumulate some capital, and some of it is the reserves or extra profits that cooperatives have, and they put it into a pool and businesses can apply for those loans on favorable terms. And then once that money is repaid, they’re able to give it out to other businesses. And so far in Baltimore, BRED has worked with about 20 businesses that have needed that money.
You can’t start a business without money, so they got that money able to start off. Taharka Brothers, which got BRED’s first loan seven years ago, finally converted to worker ownership in December. So this is not like an easy, simple process. This can take years to happen. But Bloomberg Businessweek just recently called Baltimore one of the best places to start a co-op, and that’s without any — you know the city has given us fifty thousand dollars to support cooperatives. This has all been self-financed and, you know, slow hard work, but they’ve been able to really build up a really supportive ecosystem. And it’s not just money, it’s technical support. It’s community support, because of this cooperative ecosystem.
For example, during the pandemic, when all the businesses were forced to shut down, they started a cooperative general store. So you could get just about anything you needed: food, groceries, meals, coffee, you could have that delivered to you all from cooperative businesses. And a lot of people turned to that as a way to help sustain their local businesses and give back. And you know, and I think it’s especially important in places like Baltimore where there is a massive wealth gap, where African-American neighborhoods and communities have been robbed of wealth for generations. We’re talking about billions of dollars, and so how do you start a business without money? How do you start a business without community wealth? And cooperatives have found a way to help do that. And you know, the worker-owners are really honest about it. Worker ownership isn’t a path to get rich overnight, but it’s a way to get those skills, to get the financial knowledge you need to get in those networks, and to have ownership and have wealth in places where that’s normally very hard to come by.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah, you’re probably not going to get rich at all in co-ops, and if your goal is to get rich, co-ops are not for you. But if your goal is to meet a community need, and if your goal is to provide work with dignity and provide needed community services, in a way that respects the humanity of the workers, and the customers, and everyone in the community, then co-ops are for you.
You know, you raise the point of the creativity and the flexibility of co-op networks in times of crisis. And I think a lot is made of, ‘oh co-ops emerge’ — and a lot of them have historically emerged — ‘in times of crisis.’ The strongest cooperative regions on the planet, in the Basque region of Spain, and in northern Italy and Spain, they emerged out of the Spanish Civil War — in the middle of the Spanish Civil War — and grew and flourished under the shadow of fascism. And so yes, they respond to crisis, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only context in which they can exist. And I think once people get an experience of sort of being reeducated from a capitalist competitive mindset, to experience a cooperative culture in their workplace, and a cooperative culture in their community, and understanding the value of building common wealth, not individual wealth, but community wealth, so that you’re not just relying on your own personal social connections for a safety net. Because in this country, let’s face it, we don’t really have a national safety net, but we can build that collective wealth, not just in money, but in terms of resources, land to grow food, on access to water, access to food. You know, there’s so many things that we can build wealth-wise collectively with this cooperative form.
Sorry, I’m going on again. I’d like to get you, the listener in on the conversation. Please give us a call with your question or comment for our guests, Jaisal Noor and Rek Kwawer.
So, in talking about these values, there have been some critiques of worker cooperatives as just a way to make capitalism more palatable, as a way to own your own sweatshop and exploitation. And you know, honestly, when you own a business, whether it’s individually, or in partnership, or collectively in a cooperative, you do put a lot of yourself into it. So let’s just talk a little bit about how are we exploiting ourselves here? Aren’t we exploiting ourselves? Or what’s the difference between between exploitation and actually investing in a community, basically a community asset? Rek, do you have any thoughts on that?
Rek Kwawer: I think it’s a both-and honestly. I think there are ways in which we can exploit ourselves, and I think, it’s true co-ops do exist within a capitalist system. And so as businesses, we need to make profits. We need to able to pay people a fair wage, and that does mean playing into the game of capitalism at the same time. I think for a lot of people, the experience of owning their own business, and the experience of working with the other people who co-own the business, can be really revolutionary, because we live in a very non-cooperative society. We live in a very competitive society. So just the change from competing with each other for scarce resources, to working together to try to grow those resources, I think can be really — I know it’s a really big growth experience for a lot of people. It changes your mindset a lot. But I do think there is something to be said for the fact that we do still exist within a capitalist system. And so it’s hard to avoid that. I think the best we can do is try not to exploit ourselves, and try to make sure that we are treating each person, each worker, fairly. And that means both wages, but also just how we treat each other in the workplace needs to be an equitable situation. Again, it’s one worker, one vote. That doesn’t just mean that when it comes down to voting, everyone gets one vote. It means that in the discussion, everyone gets a say. It means that everyone is treated as an important part of those decisions.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, and you know, you hear a lot about small business owners oppose the minimum wage, it’s going to kill their business. Small business owners opposed to government lockdown because it’s going to kill their business. Well, you know, if your business model depends on paying people substandard wages or putting people’s lives at risk, then your business doesn’t need to exist. And the other part of that, too, is that if you pay your workers sub-living wages, they’re going to rely on public subsidy. So you’re really being subsidized by the taxpayer anyway. And that is sort of like how every discussion about businesses gets framed. And so that’s why I think worker cooperatives are really important to talk about, because they prove that you don’t need that. That model isn’t the only way to exist. You can have a successful business that pays a living wage, where workers have control over their workspace.
A lot of people like to reminisce of the time when we had a lot of industry in this country that were building middle class union jobs, and that’s gone. That’s probably never coming back. Most of the jobs that are being created today are in the service sector, and that is the reality. And cooperatives have proven that they can take a job where workers — and you know Rebecca, as you talked about, a lot of co-ops are in industries where there is heavy exploitation, and not all of that is going to be erased by a worker cooperative. But you can still have a job with dignity, and you can have a job that puts out a good product, and treats people with respect, and pays a living wage, and is sustainable. So I think that says a lot. And you know, fundamentally — I think it’s really good to have discussions and debate on these issues — but I think fundamentally what they’re doing is they’re making people’s lives better.
One of the worker-owners I talked to was working in the home care field for 17 years, and that is one of the most exploitative industries in the country. We have very few workplace protections. The average wage is $12 an hour nationally, so a quarter of homecare workers are working and living in poverty. And during the pandemic, huge numbers were being sent into work by their agencies without PPE. And so that is a pretty low bar to try to pass, but at a cooperative you get PPE. At a cooperative you have recourse. You control your work. You control your work environment. And you know you’re not going to have to deal with abusive bosses or abusive management. And so for some of the worker-owners, it means their life isn’t hell, and that means that they have time to go back to school, they have time to spend with their families, and figure out what’s next for them. You know, living in this low-wage grind, it’s really hard to get out of that if you’re working 60, 70 hours a week. When do you have time to organize? You know, when do you have time to build a better world? And I think I think that’s by design. And so that is another important role I think cooperatives can play.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah. Excellent points. Join the conversation about worker co-ops. We’d like to hear your voice. If you’re a worker co-op member, if you’re interested, if you have comments or questions of our guests, Rek our coordinator for MadWorC or Jaisal Noor, a reporter for The Real News Network.
So you both just touched on this aspect of personal transformation as a result of working in a workplace with dignity and with control. And that really ripples out into the community, and ripples out into how we are as humans, how we build our relationships in the community, and how we value relationships in the community. And so for me, working at Union Cab as a weekend night taxi driver for 20 years — well, yeah, 20 years. Last year during the pandemic, we were laid off for a bit, but — the experience of serving on committees, on education committees, planning committees, showing up at board meetings, being part of decision making processes where you might think you have a great idea, but you you realize that no idea is so great that it can’t be made better by the perspectives of other people weighing in on it. And maybe by the end of this whole process, that idea has completely changed and it is something even more magnificent. And just having that experience repeated over and over again helps you as an individual, build trust in others, build trust in process, and not be so competitive. And for me, it gave me the confidence to actually run for an elected position on the City Council, and to have made really an impact, I would say, on the last six years in the city in a much bigger way based on cooperative values. So those effects really spread out.
And so while you might not be able to quantify how worker co-ops are transforming the economy or society in a way with numbers or whatever, in places where cooperative culture is growing — I mean, it’s still not very well-developed in most parts of this country — but in places where that’s happening, we’re shifting the culture in our communities to be less exploitative overall. And I think slowly by slowly, as we build trade networks, as we talk about the commons, and commonwealth, and cooperating with other organizations that have similar values, working on housing issues, working on food access, working on whatever as we come together, we really can transform our communities based again on those values.
So just getting back to that finance point that you raised Jaisal, we’ve had a movement organization in the co-op world that’s been around since 1978, Shared Capital Cooperative. So that’s a Community Development Finance Institution that is owned by cooperatives. It’s basically it’s kind of what the Seed Commons is trying to become, but not just for worker cooperatives, it’s for all cooperatives. But there is a worker ownership fund within that, so we have resources. There’s Shared Capital Cooperative, Seed Commons, National Cooperative Bank, which has mostly existed to fund big capital projects, the housing cooperatives, ag, electric, that part of the co-op ecosystem, but that has been paying more attention now to worker cooperatives. So we’ve had to build these things for ourselves and where we have long established co-ops like Union Cab, and in a region where co-ops are understood, bankers now understand how to underwrite worker co-ops. So our co-op can get a bank loan and Shared Capital Cooperative has been very generous in terms of sharing their expertize and time with our local credit unions, our local financial institutions, to support them in figuring out how to underwrite worker co-ops so that they don’t require a personal guarantee from everyone. And I must say MadWorC is really important. To have these regional and local associations of cooperatives that can support those loan making processes is really important. And this again, gets down to the issue of it’s all about relationships. Any other thoughts Rek, on that?
Rek Kwawer: Yeah, well, I think another thing is you sort of touched on this a little bit, but it’s not just new and start-up co-ops that need funding. Co-ops need funding at all parts of their lives. And so it’s really important that we have these funding mechanisms that can support cooperatives that are new, but also that have existed for a long time that maybe need capital improvements that they can’t find out of just what comes through the door each year. And I think we’re really lucky in Madison that we’ve had some city funding available to support cooperatives. That’s not something that every city has had. But in Madison, the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition administers the funding that was set aside by the City for worker co-op development, specifically aimed at addressing racial and economic disparities. And so they have funding available, not just loans, but they also have grants available for cooperatives to get technical assistance and training, which is another huge thing because again, funders are often willing to lend you money if they can see the personal collateral. You know, they understand we need to buy a machine, but we need to go and learn from another co-op about how to run our decision making process doesn’t make as much sense to most funders. They’re not thinking about that as something worth funding. But being able to access funds to really develop from the beginning a strong business model, and a strong sense of cooperation and democracy is going to make a really big difference, I think, in the longevity of some of these co-ops that are being developed.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah. Thoughts on on that Jaisal, on the support needed, maybe other than just capital? When you talked to the worker cooperators featured in your documentary for the Real News Network, what were some of their experiences and their needs on their journey to become worker owners?
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, I think it’s hard to overstate how important having technical assistance is, having that training is, because as we talked about, cooperation is not a value that our society teaches us. It is not something you learn in school. It’s something you certainly don’t learn at the workplace. Even though cooperatives have a long history, even in this country, going back hundreds of years, that has been sort of erased from our collective memory. So it is absolutely important. You know, a lot of cooperatives have an open door policy when it comes to looking at the financial makeup of the company, the financial health of the company. Which is great, but it means nothing if you aren’t trained on how to look at the books, and how to understand how the business is run. So that’s something that in places like Cleveland, that have, over the last ten years, had a really interesting experiment with with worker-ownership. That’s something that local non-profits and philanthropy there are recognizing as really critical, and it’s really hard for a business, for a cooperative to fund all that by itself, right? Because you know, they’re paying higher wages, they’re giving more flexibility to workers, which means that their overhead is going to be higher. So that’s one of the reasons why they need outside support because they’re still trying to be a competitive business.
And when we’re talking about subsidies, and grants, and loans, I think it’s important to put this into the bigger picture, which is that in the name of job creation, companies like Amazon or subsidized to the tune of hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies. Baltimore put in a bid for something like 3.3 billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to get an Amazon headquarters in. And the idea is to create jobs. And Amazon didn’t even want that. That wasn’t even enough for Amazon. But I can’t even begin to imagine what that kind of investment would look like if that was pumped into actually making worker-run businesses. How much more could communities benefit from businesses that don’t extract wealth, that invest back into their communities? And that’s something that more business, more cities are looking at now. But if they’re serious about it, I think they need to be exploring how to build worker ownership, how to build community wealth on a large scale. And, you know, certainly cooperatives give that opportunity.
And if I can, what Cleveland is doing is really interesting because they got a commitment from their large anchor institutions, for example the Cleveland Hospital, for commitments for those hospitals to do business with local businesses. Because, you know, talking about billions of dollars going into things like laundry, why not instead of having a low wage international corporation doing laundry, why not make that worker-owned? Where you can create a living wage, sustainable jobs in those industries that would traditionally be highly extractive. And I think Cleveland has as had an experiment with that. Hasn’t been all successful, but the Evergreen Laundry Cooperative does employ a hundred and fifty people. And you know, they told me they’re able to now compete with the larger businesses because people like their product. You know, they can offer a level of quality at even a competitive cost because, you know, their profits aren’t going aren’t being siphoned off overseas, they’re being returned to the community. And that means the workers are willing to work harder or work longer hours because they know that they’re getting a chunk of that money and it’s benefiting their community.
Rebecca Kemble: Yeah, thanks for that, Jaisal. And as you mentioned, that model has been kind of controversial, but that’s a topic for another program. We’re getting to the end of the hour and we have a caller on the line. Dawn, do you have a question?
Dawn: Yeah, sorry, it’s pretty late. And hopefully you can extend this conversation to another program because it’s great. My question is really about communicating to the public about cooperatives, because I think most people don’t really understand that, and really into the mainstream media. So any thoughts about that? Thank you very much for the program. Bye bye.
Rebecca Kemble: Thanks, Dawn. Jaisal, as someone who’s actually tried to do this?
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, it’s crazy to me that cooperatives haven’t gotten more media coverage, which is part of the reason why I spent the last five months writing about them and trying to report on them. And I think part of it is that if you’re a corporate news organization, you sort of run on those same values. You know, I think you naturally gravitate to businesses that sort of conform with your own ideals and values. But I think it’s going to be harder and harder for the media to ignore cooperatives. And I mean, the other thing is that cooperatives are really good at doing outreach, by investing in communities they have a strong buy in. So they don’t necessarily need mainstream media coverage because they have their neighbors in the community to get the word out. But I think I would be shocked if we didn’t see increased coverage of cooperatives as more data and anecdote comes out about the amazing work cooperatives have been able to do, especially over the pandemic, compared to these larger corporations that have gotten tens of thousands of headlines, but where the workers have suffered tremendously.
Rebecca Kemble: Thanks so much. So unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of our hour together with Rek Kwawer, the coordinator for MadWorC, and Jaisal Noor, the senior reporter at the Real News Network, whose documentary on the Real News Network, Worker Cooperatives Prove Your Job Doesn’t Have To Be Hell, is out and free for the viewing. Check that out. Check out MadWorC, and I want to thank engineer and producer Jay Daseri Ramos filling in for Rochelle Wilson and thank Rochelle Wilson for kicking off the ball for this show today. News director Charlie Pittman. I’m Rebecca Kemble in for Allen Ruff. This is WORT 89.9 FM. Madison, Wisconsin have a great week.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.
Teaser photo credit: the Hub Bike Co-op, a cooperatively-run bicycle shop.Coreymattson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=worker-owned+cooperatives&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image.