My Experience with Cooperatives

by Jabari Jones

Jabari Jones is a worker-owner of the Arizmendi Bakery & Pizzeria, a worker owned and run cooperative in the Bay Area of California. He can be reached at:
Jabarijones33@gmail.com

I have been a member of a worker cooperative called Arizmendi Bakery & Pizzeria, located in Emeryville, CA, for over four years.  During my time at Arizmendi, I have evolved as a worker-owner and taken a keen interest in the local, national and international cooperative movement.  This seminar was an informative and eye-opening experience.

I went to Mondragόn in September of 2012  with a goal of learning more about how the co-op movement developed in the Basque country, how it has adapted to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and to learn more about the internal business culture and key institutions that support the co-ops.  I hope to use what I’ve learned to help the Bay Area co-op movement grow and thrive, particularly in communities that are predominantly poor/unemployed/underemployed and people of color.  I believe that economic security is a precondition of social justice and political power, and that by increasing and socializing economic security through worker-cooperatives we can transform our society into a system that benefits all, not just the top 1% of the economic ladder.

Prior to the seminar, I had read several articles about the Mondragόn Cooperative Corporation (MCC) that gave rosy, glowing reviews of the complex, and very few that were more critical and probing.  Seeing the MCC in its context (social, political, geographical, etc.), and having the opportunity to dig beneath surface appearances answered many questions and raised new questions.  I was the only seminar participant that was a member of a worker co-op, so I had a basic familiarity with the dynamics of democratic ownership.  However, I relished the chance to get out of my ‘fish bowl,” stepping outside of my limited experience and challenging my assumptions about co-ops in general and MCC in particular.  In addition, the seminar brought together a diverse group of participants that engaged in robust dialogue and networking that has resulted in working groups of cooperative activists and leaders with an array of expertise and interests.

One of the aspects of the seminar that made an impression on me was the intentional development of corporate management, leadership, and cultural evaluation and management that is facilitated by Otalora, Mondragόn’s management training center.  In my cooperative experience, I have witnessed a resistance to hierarchical management, leadership, consistency, and enforcing standards and policies.  I think that these typical attributes of business organization and management are identified as ‘authoritarian’ and are rejected as such.  In other words, there’s a contradiction between the desire to be ‘our own bosses’ and a rejection of the administrative responsibilities of the ‘boss’ role where they may impose on personal autonomy.  There is a reactionary, libertarian spirit that resists authority, for valid reasons, but has the tendency to overreact sometimes in the name of preserving personal autonomy at the expense of collective unity and success.  The cooperative model offers people a space to learn how to relate to one another without an authority figure, so anti-authoritarianism is an essential aspect of coops.  In my view, problems arise when an individualistic attitude positions itself in opposition to the need for strong organization and production standards, a balance between autonomy and teamwork, and a balance of entitlements and responsibilities.  The leader-as-facilitator can be confused with leader-as-dictator.  There need not be this binary relationship between liberty and organization, but years of pro-neoliberal capitalist, anti-communist/socialist propaganda has reinforced this false consciousness of individualist freedom vs. collectivist slavery.  Work needs to be done to deconstruct the myths that support this reaction against forms of management, and move towards a theory and practice of non-authoritarian cooperative leadership in a business environment.  In this way, we can address concerns about economies of scale, and how to retain cooperative values in large organizations such as the MCC.  From what I saw, Otalora seems like a key institution, and I hope something like it emerges in the Bay Area to cultivate cooperative business leaders.  However, there nevertheless seem to be conflicts between workers and managers within the MCC, and I regret we did not have the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Social Councils which represent the interests of the workers.  We learned that only 28% of managers in the MCC are women, which reveals the patriarchal nature of Basque society.  I think that the Bay Area coop movement can do better to promote diversity in all roles.

There are certainly other tendencies that attract people to join worker coops, such as the belief in egalitarianism and social justice through economic development, but I think this anti-authoritarian attitude plays a negative role that draws momentum away (and drives potential leaders and specialists away) from growing the business.  In my co-op, I’ve seen several members leave out of frustration or demoralization, take their knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit with them, and start their own businesses.  At the same time, there is a tendency to shy away from taking on the responsibilities of a leader or manager for fear of being perceived as ‘bossy’.  To be fair, I believe this attitude towards leadership is a natural and valid reaction when we consider how people are affected by, and internalize, the authoritarian, competitive, coercive, hierarchical behaviors and structure of most workplaces, and our society in general.  Cooperation, it seems to me, is an action and a relationship that is manifested through a set of learned social skills.  The existence of the training program at Otalora has convinced me that cooperation can be learned and deployed in the field of management to effectively help businesses succeed.

I foresee that the pressures of the current economic crisis and the opportunity that it presents to the coop movement will force us to re-evaluate our internal cultures, and how we define leadership and power in a democratic workplace.  I believe we need leaders and teamwork to grow the coop movement by facilitating a rooting of conventional business management skills in cooperative values.  I was intrigued by how the MCC deliberately invested in developing business management training and structures because of their usefulness, though they acknowledge the challenges to democratic participation posed by hierarchical organization in large-scale corporations.  In addition, the ways in which the MCC has adapted to remain profitable in a highly competitive and rapidly changing, globalized capitalist system have presented a major challenge to the cooperative principles of the MCC, and strained the meaning of ‘cooperation’ when it comes to worker/manager relations.

Besides leadership training, cultural evaluation and management, I learned that other keys to the success and resiliency of the MCC include their focus on strategic job growth and intercooperativity.  In my co-op, we are currently engaged in a discussion of interrelated issues including hiring practices, workflow efficiency, not meeting demand, and the challenges of growing our business in a troubled economy.  The seminar exposed me to conventional business practices such as strategic planning and total quality control.  I was impressed with how the MCC tracks trends, shifts human resources from industries in mature markets to growing markets, and invests in the Mondragόn University as an entrepreneurial and start-up incubator.  Most importantly, I want to impress upon my fellow worker-owners the importance of always putting people first and investing in education and innovation.  This is important in order to remain competitive, profitable, and employing as many people as possible.  I feel that many worker-owners, myself included, lack ongoing professional business training.  As a result, worker-owners can become shortsighted by appreciating the short-term gains (a paycheck, benefits, etc.) and losing sight of the long-term mission (socializing knowledge and wealth, full employment, and so on).  I believe we need to put successful, conventional business practices to work for us, and invest in ongoing professional development.

The principle of intercooperativity is not new to me, but it was very educational to see it in practice in the MCC.  Mondragόn has designed their cooperative complex so that no one cooperative is directly competing against another, and also grounded themselves in sound business practices to shape mutually beneficial coop interrelations.  For example, one coop might buy products or services from another coop, but only if the product or service is of good quality, competitively priced, and comes with good support services.  If the coop cannot meet all of these criteria, the buyer will search elsewhere.  I think this is very sensible, and ensures that all of the coops are buying and selling the most competitive and best quality product, which ultimately promotes profitability, growth, and job security.

In addition to the individualist, anti-authoritarian attitude I described above, I sense there is also a latent anti-corporate sentiment in the coop community.  There are valid reasons for rejecting the corporation as we know it- systematic wealth inequality, irresponsible behavior, imposing the sovereignty of capital over labor, corrupting the political process with money, unaccountable power, waste and fraud- and there are reasons to utilize dynamic aspects of the corporate business form that can be grounded in cooperative principles.  Cooperativists in the Bay Area should constantly reevaluate the implicit and explicit values held within each coop, and the efficacy of their values and business strategies to yield the best possible result.  This follows the example set by the Mondragόn cooperativists who consider the importance of practical steps toward results as paramount to ideals.  As business co-owners, we need to be honest and aware of values, attitudes and practices that are empowering or self-defeating, and equip ourselves with the best business management tools, and nurture a constructive culture.  We must also become more interconnected to pool resources, share data and best practices, and provide support services to improve the lives of worker-owners and reduce business failure and job loss.  Furthermore, we should think beyond the monetary bottom line and consider how our businesses can be a resource in our surrounding neighborhoods by providing support for community-sustaining activities.

Father Arizmendiarrieta understood the importance of building social institutions, including schools, which would support the communities in which the worker-owners lived and raised families.  A strong and invested community is the basis of any successful social movement.  We must build these institutions wherever they are missing, and form partnerships with existing institutions.  For example, I am currently in a dialogue with two local non-profits to create proposals for internship programs in my coop bakery.  If these pilot programs are successful, I hope to build an advanced program to incubate new cooperatives that are focused on community service while providing employment.

In conclusion, I want to balance my critique of cooperative culture by saying that I have never been more satisfied, felt more empowered or respected, and been more fairly compensated at any other job, and I’m proud to be a worker-owner at Arizmendi.  I’ve also never worked with such a diverse group of people who bring with them special skills, egalitarian values, and a lot of heart.  We put love into our work, we struggle with personal demons, and we strive to overcome obstacles to cooperation and connection.  I feel that the Bay Area has a special opportunity to create successful models of anti-authoritarian, anti-oppressive, feminist, robustly democratic, multicultural, socially conscious and responsible cooperative businesses.  We can accomplish this by building support institutions like those that exist in Mondragόn, and build a cooperative business complex in a manner that is sustainable, practical, liberating and has an uplifting effect on the whole society.  This movement will require communication, courage, honesty, transparency, trust, and an understanding that cooperation is an ongoing process.  Because the Bay Area is so diverse, we have the opportunity to fully express the beauty of our multicultural community, to find unity within diversity, and exploit the current systemic crisis of capitalism as an opportunity to open up the economy for the benefit of all.

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About Kitty Kroger

Kitty Kroger is a retired high school teacher of E.S.L. She has published her first novel, "Dancing with Mao and Miguel," which takes place in the 70s and deals with political, social, and personal concerns of that decade. In addition to writing, she is also involved in trying to make the world a better place, concerning herself with issues such as climate change and attacks on refugees and immigrants. She enjoys photography, including street photos (find her work on kittykroger.smugmug.com and Instagram), writes poetry, and plays in a piano ensemble. She also publishes a blog called "Voices of the Sixties and Seventies" (sixtiesandseventiesblog.wordress.com).
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