Cooperation Rules Competition

Competition lives within cooperation.
Graphic by Chuck Bordman Creative Commons License

To be human is to be cooperative. I’m not sure you can prove it, but it’s actually a more proven human trait than being competitive. This is the research Alfie Kohn reveals in his 1986 book No Contest. It’s gotten me thinking about cooperation vs competition.

Alfie Kohn’s exploration of competition is fascinating. I’ve just started the book, but will report back in future posts what I learn. I’m drawn to the book because, more and more, I see that competition can’t be what ultimately governs us. But it’s so present in our lives it’s fooled me for years. I’ve come to the conclusion that competition is dependent on cooperation.

I’ve mentioned similar thinking in previous blog posts. Kohn’s ideas have been applied to business by author, business man, and worker-owner, John Abrams who studied the topic in his book Companies We Keep. See my previous post about his book. Another previous blog post reconsiders competition in the food movement.

What strikes me most about games and competition are the rules that are needed. There must be collaboration to create the rules of competition determined through mutual understanding. Defining winners and losers, if that’s what you want to call them, is a structure of collaboration.

Aided by my illustration for this post, I’m suggesting that competition exists within cooperation.

Trust is a major factor in all this. It’s amazing how much trust is needed for things to work — a transaction in business, for example, is based on a lot of mutual understanding. Or driving on a highway relies on other drivers to follow generally understood rules and drive predictably. That predictability also creates tolerance for that unpredictable, competitive driver weaving through traffic.

And, of course, all of this trust/collaboration/competition gets exploited (see Machiavelli and Edward Bernays). But the trust we build with each other is power. Cheating and propaganda need that trust. So, while winning gets defined for us daily by media and advertising, remember how cooperative we all are and how much you contribute to creating the rules!

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Building Website Simplicity and a Democratic Solution

You’re a small organization, and you need to set up a reliable website. If you want a robust site, Drupal can provide endless solutions. Drupal is free, and can be a very powerful content management system (CMS) for your site. But the tech side can stop you from getting it started, and from maintaining the software. A platform co-op called Drutopia, mentioned in a previous post, wants to simplify the tech side of Drupal for your website.

You’ve probably used a content management system (CMS) for the web before — WordPress and Drupal are the most well-known. These CMSs provide people with little technical savvy the ability to create and manage content. But CMSs need a software ‘stack’ to be setup and run, including a web server, PHP, and a database. Drupal also needs to be updated; a lot. Add to this the ins and outs of Drupal 8 and tech aspects start to pile up.

If you want to see who uses Drupal, check out Drupal.com. But you’ll see on this site that Drupal 8 is (currently) promoted as an enterprise platform, ie, for big organizations. Drutopia wants to bring Drupal back to small organizations.

WordPress has WordPress.com to help you run your WordPress site. Similarly, Drutopia can help you run your Drupal site. It’s based on software as a service (SasS). Pooled solutions include a Drupal 8 configuration with elements that can be used by a wide range of users. Low or no-cost installs will also help small organizations that need to get up and running.

However, it’s the ownership structure that will make you a member and owner of Drutopia. A service fee and collaborative model will support all stakeholders: users, designers, site builders, and developers. This can build a vibrant support structure so your small organization can focus on what it needs to focus on.

Sign up for Drutopia at Drutopia.org to stay involved with its development.

 

 

 

Know Your Food, Know Your Food Producer

Small Farmers, Equal Exchange, and you: The Action Forum

What I learned at the People’s Food System Summit, June 2017, hosted by the Equal Exchange Action Forum.

  • Meeting a food producer improves your life.
  • Countries producing your food are REALLY suffering from global warming.
  • Tea production is brutal for people that pick leaves by hand.
  • Bananas require incredible logistics to reach you.
  • Cheap bananas serve the powerful.
  • Democracy is work.
  • Voting is work.
  • You should join the Action Forum: equalexchange.coop/action-forum

Withholding Shareholders and Retaining Wealth for Members

Graphic from SBLI.com

I just received a ballot in the mail from my life insurance company, SBLI. They are actually letting me vote for increased membership rights. SBLI is a national insurance company based in Massachusetts with customers in all 50 states except New York. The Board of Trustees has unanimously decided to vote on becoming a mutual insurance company, or known in the industry simply as a mutual. I applaud the move. The more mutuals in the US, the better.

A letter included with the ballot explains that policyholders like me can have a more controlling interest in the business. I would gain membership rights including voting rights:

‘Policyholders and holders of annuity contracts will have membership rights, including the right to annually elect directors and to consider such other matters as are considered at annual and special meetings, in the mutual company.’

Taking care of policyholders may seem like a no-brainer. But central to the conversion to a mutual is what’s being cut out of the new structure:

‘With the elimination of shareholders, the Board of Directors of SBLI can focus exclusively on operating the Company in the interests of policyholders and holders of annuity contracts.’

Finally, the reality of external shareholders is described, and what SBLI wants to do away with:

‘As a result of changes in capital requirements applicable to the Company’s shareholders, all of which are banks, it is expected that dividend payments to shareholders would increase over time. If shareholder dividends were to increase, SBLI’s capital would be reduced, potentially negatively affecting the Company’s financial strength. This could reduce amounts available to pay policyholder dividends. Elimination of the shareholder ownership structure is expected to protect policy dividends from potential competing claims from shareholders.’

A true cooperative structure comes from democratic governance, and the degree to which SBLI becomes democratic remains to be seen. But SBLI’s move away from outside investors removes an extractive element of the business. This move to a mutually owned structure will cut down costs for all members (ideally), create independency, and improve sustainability.

The Twitter Vote May 22, and the Radical Co-op Challenge

Home page of buytwitter.org

The movement is underway. #buytwitter, #buythisplatform, and buytwitter.org are among the efforts pushing to rethink Twitter ownership. Twitter votes May 22 on a petition to explore a co-op option for Twitter. And a recent discussion co-hosted by Shareable, has some insightful thought on the topic: #PlatformCoop Round Table: Scaling Community Control & User Democracy. The round table discussion was streamed live on Apr 13, 2017 and moderated by Shareable’s Maira Sutton. Confronting an established, $10B company about ownership is new territory, but discussing it can lead to innovation.

Business Insider reported on the pending vote and says “unanimous opposition from the board means the vote is unlikely to pass.” It would be a big change, termed radical, in the article. I suppose asking a board to reconsider its own power might not elicit a sharing response. But if discussing it causes new ownership and governance to be considered more broadly, then it’s a good exercise. And Maira Sutton points out that major outlets have written about the premise of buying twitter. The conversation is started, and that’s already a success.

Featured in the platformcoop discussion were Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation; Terry Bouricius, political scientist and sortition advocate; and Susan Basterfield, of Enspiral and Catalyst. This was part two of a previous panel moderated by Douglas Rushkoff.

Maira stated in her introduction that the term platform cooperativism has evolved into platformcoop. Then she asks the question: how are platformcoops viable on a large scale, such as one with Twitter’s 300+ million users?

Brought to light concerning size was a reality about participation. Michel Bauwins pointed out that there are segmented streams of activity. Not everybody needs to be involved in running the platform. Don’t panic about 300M people on the platform he says, there are modules of governance that will break down the larger group. Ultimately about 15% may have the willingness and energy to fully participate. Susan Basterfield added that participation at Enspiral happens in pockets, or pods based on interest and energy. These groups effectively divide governance.

Another concept to consider for such a large co-op is the jury model or sortition. Maira also mentions this theme in her article about the round table discussion: “6 Ideas on How Millions of Users Can Own and Govern Twitter.” Terry Bourcious presents this as an approach to picking temporary and random cross sections of the organization to make decisions. This can be effective because these people are a true representation of the organization. Conversely, leaders that come forward themselves can often have the wrong motive such as ego or self-aggrandizement. A randomly selected temporary jury can pick a board of directors among other tasks.

The discussion also brought to light a platformcoop tool: Loomio. It’s used as a tool in two of the participants’ organizations. This is a voting platform tool, and co-op, I’ve used and have praised in this blog. Susan describes how Loomio changes how work is done at Enspiral. It’s not just a platform for participation, but also encourages deliberation. Michel also uses Loomio and agrees it provides time for deliberation, but also gives direction to decision making. Such a tool could likely serve Twitter well.

You can show your support for Twitter as a platformcoop. Buytwitter.org has a form where users and shareholders can sign a petition. The co-op idea is a long shot, and other business thinkers are seeking influence. Bruce Judson in a Tech Crunch article makes a direct appeal to CEO Jack Dorsey suggesting a new fee structure (only).

This movement isn’t just about Twitter, but is the leading edge challenging the online extractive economy.

Building the Commons and Freedom with Software

Logo for the 2017 LibrePlanet, a conference addressing the challenges facing the free software movement

Free software can be difficult to appreciate. (It’s free stuff, what’s the significance?) But there’s a fight for  freedom with software. Free software is a movement and a philosophy, but most importantly it’s a legal structure that provides freedom. Users of software have rights, and free software licenses, ideally as copyleft licenses, maintain user control over software we all rely on. Further, free software licenses promote sharing of source code contributing to a vital digital commons.

It also creates an ecosystem of distributed software ownership. Like co-ops and platform co-ops, ownership is carefully considered by free software licensing. This far-reaching collaboration of software is part of a counter-economy described by Michael Bauwens in an article on Shareable.com about a commons-based economy.

I was lucky to attend the LibrePlanet conference this month in Cambridge, MA, put on by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The conference made clear that our liberties are affected by software. Movement leader Eben Moglen made clear in his presentation that the battlefront for freedom is software. You may like what you can do with your apps and devices, but invasive interests also like what they can do with your apps and devices. Author Cory Doctorow made this point clear in his keynote speech explaining that digital restrictions management (DRM) creates gates, and law, that benefit business interests. If business preferences become law, then our very way of life can become restricted. Free software licenses stop this from happening.

There are many free software licenses out there. Presenter Robinson Tryon emphasized using the right one for your project. His words are also repeated on GNU.org, and they can help you find a license: “The proliferation of different free software licenses is a significant problem in the free software community today, both for users and developers. We will do our best to help you find an existing free software license that meets your needs.”

A presentation demonstrated pump.io, a platform developed for communication. It uses the free software license, Apache 2.0 license.

Copyleft licenses like the GNU General Public License 3.0 (GPL), you may have heard about, and thought that yes, it’s for do-gooders giving things away. But is making money, ie, being pragmatic with your software possible with free software? The father of free software, Richard Stallman, describes in an essay that idealism and pragmatism can be combined. And by the way, a lot of the world depends on Linux “one of the most prominent examples of free and open-source software collaboration,” according to Wikipedia.

Free software is fighting for us, and creating a software ecosystem that may be the central ecosystem to our liberty.

Concern for Community

Image from the LivableYXE initiative for increasing the quality of life in Saskatoon. Supported by the Unite co-op.

Image from the LivableYXE initiative for increasing the quality of life in Saskatoon. Supported by the Unite co-op.

The 7th cooperative principle, Concern for Community, says ‘Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.’ Different approaches to community development are being put into action in three countries thanks to an American credit union, a community-focused Canadian co-op, and a £1B British co-op that is addressing social impact and measuring it. Co-ops are changing the world in small ways by considering their communities.

In North Carolina, a credit union helped to solve a food desert in Greensboro recently reported by CU InsightThe Self-Help Credit Union helped make it happen. They operate in underserved communities in multiple states and intentionally locate branches in communities that lack access to affordable financial services. Self-Help provided funding that brought The Renaissance Food Co-op to a blighted shopping plaza.

A marketing co-op in Saskatoon, Canada, called Unite takes community seriously. They espouse strong social principles respecting democracy, economic participation, and environmental sustainability including First Nation treaty rights. Treaties in Canada provide mutual agreements to share land with accompanying obligations.

In 2016 Unite was able to give back to the community that supports them by volunteering time for The Scoop YXE, a social enterprise ice cream shop for First Nation and inner city youth. Unite also helped with LiveableYXE, an initiative to improve Saskatoon on many fronts.

Unite emphasizes the importance of community in practical terms. From their experience in Crowd funding, they provide a tip from their blog: ‘Know the strength of your community: This point can’t be emphasized enough. A strong and well knit community is needed to make your crowdfunding a success. Communities amplify your story, and do the asking on your behalf. Communities are built over time, they need stories to connect to, space and resources to grow, and support to nourish. Hence know the strength of your community.’

In Britain, Cooperative News reports on social impact being measured by The Central England Cooperative with the help of consultant Heidi Fisher. Called social return on investment (SROI), it is a way to standardize ‘soft outcomes’ of a business and assessing non-financial factors. Social Value UK, which works with SROI, describes the business benefits of social impact: 1. Maximise the value you can create 2. Involve the people who matter most 3. Gain a competitive advantage 4. Enhance communications, both internally and externally 5. Gain funding and contracts.

Concern for community: another way in which co-ops are saving the world.

Platform cooperativism instead of banking

Image from CommonGood.earth

Image from CommonGood.earth

I’ve mentioned the book Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet in my last two blog posts. I’ll recommend it again as a resource for understanding platform co-ops and as a source of inspiration. It is cleverly edited with essays from many experts and includes profiles of platforms that serve the cooperative good.

One such platform profiled is located near me, here in Massachusetts. It is an alternative banking system called rCredits that has spread from Massachusetts to Wisconsin. rCredits create a vehicle for pooling US dollars with the ultimate goal of community development. Although not a co-op, rCredits are based on a software platform supporting a democratic process.

rCredits were started by Common Good Finance (soon to become CommonGood.earth) in Ashfield, MA. Successful rCredit communities have been set up in Greenfield, MA (2013), and Ann Harbor, MI (2015). And currently projects are in various stages of incubation around the country.

rCredits (soon to change their name to Common Good Credits) are exchanged for US dollars. The US dollars are then kept in reserve as the credits are used as currency in a community. That community then governs the use of the pooled capital taking the role of a bank. rCredits can be exchanged back to US dollars at any time. As rCredits are moved around among people, the US dollar “escrow” grows with more users. Then the community can decide what to do with this reserve of capital by investing it or making loans, ideally, community focused.

According to the website, in the short term it is a payment system building toward a higher goal: community-oriented projects and community improvement. “The purpose of the rCredits system is to create and fund community-centered participatory democracy.”

True to platform co-op form, this technical platform facilitates democratic participation providing transparency of transactions. “rCredits are a way to keep track of who has how much and who’s paying whom, using our own bookkeeping system instead of the international banking system.” Common Good Finance serves a support function for communities as a non-profit 501(c)(3). See a YouTube video that describes the software element. (Drupal developers may be interested in the relevant  Drupal module.)

As with co-ops, governance brings responsibility. “As rCredits members, we are all responsible for overseeing the system. That means we have to understand it and keep an eye on it. Economic justice demands broad participation and local control.” It also involves engaged voting, and in-person meetings to make decisions. Those involved in co-ops won’t be surprised. Additional benefits and responsibilities are described on the website as: “Common Good Democracy combines: liquid democracy, Condorcet, instant runoff, approval voting, internet voting, town meeting-style discussions and a spirit of consensus.”

On the whole this may seem like a complex solution vis-a-vis convenience of traditional banking. A common cause for a community can be a blessing but hard work. Conversely, convenience can be a trap. In this case a convenient traditional bank benefiting from a community’s deposits. My previous blog post challenging Google Docs describes the same principle of exploiting pooled capital in the form of data. rCredits are a solution but it means doing the hard work of working together.

Cooperative Imagination

A graphic showing the top 300 international co-ops from "Exploring the Co-operative Economy" by ICA and Euricse.

A graphic showing the top 300 international co-ops from “Exploring the Co-operative Economy” by ICA and Euricse.

I’m writing about imagination because I need to. The co-op movement needs it. To consider the ideal instead of the worst. Imagining the worst possible scenarios breeds propaganda, invoking fear and threats to safety, that keep us from working together cooperatively.

We need to envision a better world. It can be difficult to do with propaganda and the distraction of what Chris Hedges defines as spectacle. We’re lucky to have important intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges analyze our present reality, but they paint a bleak picture. Therefore, we need to first be informed on realities then consider growth, prosperity, progressive economics, and cooperative solutions. Cooperative solutions are in the past and present. Collective action is part of American history and can capture the imagination – imagination that is being fought for. It was modern propaganda, created on a mass scale for World War One, led by George Creel, that changed progressive politics and how Americans think. See Chris Hedge’s book Death of the Liberal Class.

We owe a lot to those that have maintained imagination for co-ops. Nathan Schneider and Trebor Scholz are editors of Ours to Hack and Own, and creators of platform cooperativism. They’re tenaciously imagining new forms of ownership. A review of the book and the movement is nicely summarized by Makery.info. With a vision, we start to think of how.

Thanks to Nathan Schneider, we’re considering specifics on how to build a better web. Twitter could be owned like the Green Bay Packers; maybe too ambitious, but it’s visionary. And it has evolved into more thinking on the topic. The latest news on #BuyTwitter is described on Shareable.net covering innovative thinking from Nathan Schneider, Trebor Scholz, Douglas Rushkoff, Chris Cook, David Hammer, and Rachael Lamkin.

So, first, don’t be lazy about your news sources. This will affect your ability to imagine what is needed for our cooperative future. Ironically, I think you need to read the worst case scenarios on news sites such as CounterPunch.org (which wrote about co-ops this month), but then picture a good future. Truthdig.com is another alternative news source. Then, second, don’t forget to read YesMagazine.org, and Shareable.net.

Co-ops are a bigger part of society than people realize. The 2016 report “Exploring the Cooperative Economy” by the ICA and Euricse reports $2.5 trillion in annual revenue earned by the world’s top 300 co-ops. Co-ops can solve social, economic, and sustainability issues. We need the power of the collective action in the coming years. Standing Rock is showing how it’s done. And we need a lot of imagination. Let’s create good news with co-ops.

My Web-App Revolution: A Platform Co-op

web-appsWe all use Google web apps, part of Google Drive. How can you not? They are easy to use, collaborative, convenient, easy to access, and make file storage easy. Schools in my town can’t get enough of Google web apps for teaching. But here’s the thing: you use the app, but you don’t know where the information is stored and what is done with it. Next, you don’t have control over modifying the platform if you had the technical inclination to do so. And lastly, you don’t own any part of the software or the platform.

I’m looking for an alternative. Specifically for Google Docs and Google Sheets, their word processing and spreadsheet apps. My solution is to put two other existing web apps on a server. They are Etherpad and EtherCalc. Etherpad offers collaborative document editing. EtherCalc is a collaborative spreadsheet app. They are free and open source software (FOSS).

My two-app platform available for the potential hordes of web app users, or just say me for now, will provide the apps, hosting access, and ownership of the platform. Anyone who uses the platform, or develops it, can become a member and owner. This is platform cooperativism where “communal ownership and democratic governance” are the core tenets, as stated by Trebor Schulz in the new book he co-edited called Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. These two aspects have evolved with co-ops through history. They’re now being advanced by platform cooperativism for the web.

Let’s say the idea grows and audiences come to the platform instead of Google Drive. If some kind of fee-for-service is instituted, patronage payments at the end of the year would get paid out to all members like other co-ops. Do we scale up and run rampant through the American educational system like Apple and Google? Members may also be asked to invest to raise capital. The direction it could take would depend on the owners/members/workers.

Governance of the members is always a challenge, legally and functionally. It’s different from projects that Yochai Benkler in Ours to Hack and Own calls peer production environments such as Wikipedia. Platform co-ops must develop a model that distributes democratic decision-making and ownership for a multi-stakeholder membership/ownership group. Janelle Orsi and David Carroll in Ours to Hack and Own advise careful legal preparation, as “novel legal frameworks” are required for platform co-ops. For group decision-making, a tool I have advocated for previously is Loomio. I also like their membership approach where a new membership can be free, but they encourage donations.

Using the software

My plan is based on software that someone else wrote, and this example shows, in a very basic way, why we must have free and open source software everywhere. Innovation needs collections of software, and the more we have access to, the more we can innovate new platforms for the internet. Software licensing is paramount for computer user freedom, giving access to software source code, and the ability to do with it what you like, advocated by the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

The license for Etherpad is Apache license 2.0. It’s a license the Free Software Foundation deems acceptable in terms of free software standards. “The Apache License 2.0 is the best non-copyleft license that does what a copyright license can to mitigate threats from software patents,” says FSF who holds all software licenses to the standards of the General Public License (GPL), or copyleft.

Ethercalc is also free software, with a license called CPAL. This license is less accommodating according to the FSF. CPAL is not compatible with GPL but still allows for the use of source code.

For now, I’m a one-man revolution with my web-app platform. If it remains that way, I can handle defeat. My previous revolution to make Google a worker-owned co-op has gone unfulfilled.

 

Marketing the movement

Howard Brodsky presents at the International Summit of Cooperatives

Howard Brodsky presents at the International Summit of Cooperatives

The movement is massive. And it can save the world. It’s the co-op movement worldwide. Co-ops as a solution to the world’s problems was a predominant theme at this year’s International Summit of Cooperatives hosted by ICA and DesJardins October 11-13 in Quebec City. At the event economists Joseph Stiglitz, Jeremy Rifkin and Robert Reich all touted the critical role for co-ops.

But it’s time to make a broader audience see the light. Cooperatives have a strange identity crisis right now and can be viewed in the mainstream as not viable and/or not modern — an issue also agreed on at the conference. As Robert Reich said at a presentation on October 12, we have to raise the co-op voice. Vic Van Vuuren, from the International Labor Organization, said in an October 13 session, we must externalize the value proposition of co-ops consisting of the triple bottom line: economic, social, and environment. Nicole Alix, President of La Coop des Communs in France said let’s reach out to activists. And Charles Gould, Director-General, in charge of the e, International Co-operative Alliance in Belgium, mentioned the irony of large and influential co-ops — in many cases, co-ops with thousands of members — being unknown to the general public as cooperative organizations.

The need for promoting co-ops you’ve likely heard before. But at this summit about increasing our capacity to act, Howard Brodsky, CEO, Chairman and Co-Founder of CCA Global Partners showed how he is doing it. He’s created a promotional campaign at cooperativesforabetterworld.coop. What Brodsky described in a session titled “Making Cooperatives the Way of the Future” was the need to tell stories. Stories are how people remember things. If we want people to understand and remember the co-ops that exist around them and what they have to offer, then we must tell their stories.

His approach is to answer the why of co-ops, and he’s created multiple videos that answer this question. He showed two well-produced videos at the summit that shed light on what co-ops have to offer in brief but effective messaging. Telling why co-ops are a solution will be slightly different depending on the co-op sector. But he says that each sector needs to tell their stories.

This marketing effort is a bridge for educating the general public on the value and benefits of co-ops. Coopertivesforabetterworld.coop is a resource with videos, sector descriptions, and blogs. Under the link “explore,” there is a video that describes a co-op. Another link divides co-ops into nine sectors.

Let’s brand co-ops as a mainstream business solution. Howard Brodsky is showing the way.

Some videos promoting co-ops I produced can be viewed at Kingbird Content. One video explains co-ops in 60 seconds.

Food for (Economic) Thought

Equal Exchange bananas on display challenging the mighty Chiquita brand

Equal Exchange bananas on display challenging the mighty Chiquita brand

My September brightened like tropical sunshine when I found Equal Exchange bananas at Stop & Shop in Norwood, Massachusetts. There they were, occupying display space beside the ever present Chiquitas. The Massachusetts-based co-op, Equal Exchange, continues to advance fair trade food production internationally. It’s great to see evidence of it at a major grocer.

Fair trade products and a broader food movement taking place are not only improving how we eat, they’re increasing political and economic freedom. This month, a thought-provoking article on CounterPunch by Jonathan Latham recounts a worldwide food movement in an article titled, Food Liberation: Why The Food Movement Is Unstoppable. The article describes food as a basis for economic thought. As the co-op movement brings to light, there are alternative ways to consider business interaction besides competition. The food movement brings with it a “philosophical shift” challenging food as a commodity and business. Food as an industry, descendant from western enlightenment thinkers, has become disconnected from natural interconnection.

“Enlightenment thinkers laid the groundwork for a meritocratic and commercial society to replace feudalism and their ideas justified the necessary concepts that the founders of the new society came to rely on: mechanization, individualism and competition. Nowadays, their ideas are used for preserving this order, even as the intellectual flaws of that understanding are increasingly manifesting as ecological crises, not least in the form of global climate change — a crisis that the food movement could play a critical role in addressing.”

The food movement has lessons for us all:

“Food philosophy thus replaces the neo-Darwinist narrative of life-as-competition with the idea that life thrives in the presence of other life. There is perfectly good evidence for this — we know, for example, that the tens of millions of species on Earth are interdependent.”

In Brazil a food movement is benefiting millions of children and small farmers with a top-down approach. Thomson Reuters Foundation reports on the world’s largest universal feeding project. A law dictates that 30% of school meal budgets must go to small farmers. Farmers and co-ops are benefiting: the predictable income allows them to obtain deeded land rights and reinvest in the land.

Equal Exchange buys from co-op farmers around the world. They buy cashews from Tomy Mathew from the southern India state of Kerala. At an August event, he explained how fair trade has created a market in that region allowing a higher standard of living, including good wages. Equal Exchange is now looking to connect farmers and citizen-consumers with an initiative called the Action Forum. As Equal Exchange says: small farmers, big change.

Software and Co-ops

Micky Metts presents on Platform Cooperativism

Micky Metts presents on Platform Cooperativism

In early August members of the web development cooperative, Agaric, presented to two Boston area audiences on platform cooperativism. Platform cooperativism brings cooperation and collective control to platforms built for connecting people, services, and products. Ben Melançon from Agaric presented to the first audience, a group of web developers in Boston that meets regularly to discuss the content management system (CMS) Drupal. Drupal is widely used because it is powerful software, but it’s also free – free software is also known as open source software. The worker-owners at Agaric, particularly Micky Metts, have been working hard to bring together the movements of cooperatives and free software.

Ben’s presentation introduced platform cooperativism which offers something related to both cooperatives and free software: ownership. Distributed ownership of online platforms can benefit both developers and users in a cooperative structure that platform cooperativism champions.

Ben presented the possibility of funding a given web project by users. What if musicians, for example, invested in a music sharing platform that serves them? This would give the developers and the users of the platform a source of capital. Developers and users would also be owners forming a hybrid of stakeholders, creating a cooperative platform. Turning users into investors can be a powerful impetus for web development.

At a second event this month promoting free software called Libre Boston, the task of explaining platform cooperativism fell on the shoulders of Micky Metts and Chris Thompson from Agaric. Micky described the path toward platform cooperativism as a bridge. We can’t expect full investment in free software or platform cooperativism, but we can encourage incremental steps onto the bridge leading us toward platforms (and software source code) we can own. An integration of alternative software can liberate us from proprietary control. Switching to a Linux operating system from proprietary software is one example.

Chris emphasized the hybrid nature of platform cooperativism and drew attention to the hybrid Black Star Co-op in Austin. Although Black Star isn’t a cooperative platform, its innovative hybrid ownership structure bodes well for the multi-stakeholder ownership that platform cooperativism advocates.

The advent of platform cooperativism is fitting for the mission Agaric has been touting. An additional Drupal project was announced this month giving users a role in the development of online tools for organizations. It’s called Drutopia, announced by Chocolate Lily Web Projects. And in November, another platform cooperativism event is happening at The New School in New York.

A Reformer’s Legacy

Portrait of Robert Owen

Robert Owen by William Henry Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bernie Sanders officially dismantled a social reform movement last week at the Democratic National Convention. But there’s another guy who made history with social reform by changing the very system that made him successful. A predecessor to socialism, his name has come up in the news lately: Robert Owen from Wales who lived from 1771 to 1858. He was a capitalist yet espoused reformist ideas that later empowered cooperatives in Britain and beyond. The Co-operative News recently reported that a collection of his letters are being archived. Owen was a pioneer who inspired cooperative development, and advanced progressive industrial practices.

He left school at age 10, then went on to succeed in manufacturing including owning a mill in Scotland. As an industrial leader Owen may not be akin to the consolidated 1% of wealth today but certainly held significant influence and power. And he had a moral agenda. He called for social reform even leading to the evolution of unionizing workers. His ideals for the well-being of workers and children were put into effect at his mill, New Lanark. He also aspired to act even more broadly to educate the young and made an effort to create a utopian society. These ideas eventually provided a foundation for the cooperative movement.

A collection of Owen letters is being archived at the  UK Memory of the World Register.
Also archived there is the Magna Carta written about in a previous blog post: The Magna Carta and Co-ops.  The archive is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Here in the US in 2016, I’m thankful for Robert Owen’s progressive agenda still felt today. During this election year I see the same social problems festering that Owen fought: a lack of viable education and workers rights for the disenfranchised, especially with Bernie stepping down. I wish I could say Bernie is a reformist. Robert Owen clearly was. His top-down approach doesn’t seem likely to happen, but we can have faith that there is at least some historical precedence for it.

Uber-contradiction

Sharing might not be sharing. A major rebuke of the sharing economy kicked off last November with Platform Cooperativism in New York. The event brought together thinkers and builders of a more cooperative internet and was described as taking back the internet by Co-operative News. Since then, a defining factor of whether you see the sharing economy as part of the problem or part of the solution, is whether you see Uber as part of the problem or part of the solution.

Uber embodies inequality according to Platform Cooperativism. Nathan Schneider, a co-organizer of the New York event, is quoted by Co-operative news: “Uber and Airbnb have brought our challenge into stark relief. On the one hand, they’re incredibly convenient and appealing tools that are in some ways tremendous advances on how things were before. However, they have made quite clear that they are not willing to be accountable to the communities in which they operate – to city governments, for one, and to the labour protections that workers have fought for for centuries.”

Others point to Uber as a successful example of the sharing economy. If you check #sharingeconomy on Twitter, you’ll see admiration for Uber with a tweet about Hertz joining forces with Uber. But in the same thread is a Shareable article from last November, comparing Uber to the Death Star.

And the Uber debate has now been taken up at the Stern School at New York University. Professor Arun Sundararajan has written a book questioning status quo sharing economy services. Called The Sharing Economy, Forbes magazine reports the new book has a chapter hypothesizing Uber becoming a co-op. I look forward to reviewing the book in a future blog post.

Beyond New York, Amsterdam is proactively addressing the sharing economy and recently put out an “action plan” for the city. But their plan is challenged by defining the sharing economy and considering equality. An article in Shareable wonders who the sharing economy benefits in the city’s planned initiative. The plan includes Uber as a sharing option: “improving the use of taxi cab capacity via the Uber app.”

Leaders of the November Platform Cooperative conference, Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, continue advancing the conversation. Trebor was recently interviewed for a Shareable article (yes they really cover this stuff) about cities and Platform Cooperativism. Also see Nathan Schneider’s site internetofownership.net for a directory of online cooperative platforms and his great blog with news on technical co-ops.

 

 

 

Using a Cooperative Digital Platform

From the home page of Loomio.org

An image from the home page of Loomio.org

My excitement grows for cooperative platforms on the web. They can bring actual democracy and equality to the web by establishing diverse stakeholders as owners. And the movement is growing (See my earlier blog post: Platforms for a New Economy.) But we’re all wondering how they will be built, and be influential. We can start by looking at Loomio as a successful example. It’s a worker-owned web application that brings to us a networking and decision-making platform.

I used Loomio for a recent political campaign. Our team was a group of 18. The best feature for us was preserving conversation threads. We were able to refer to past conversations saved in one central location. The collection of threads that accumulated was ideal for including newcomers in a particular discussion. Some exclusive conversations did need to take place by email instead of Loomio, but in Loomio anyone could start a new thread with a title and description. And the responses to a thread can be sent to your email address.

The decision-making aspect of the platform, consisting of proposals and voting, was useful. The few times we used this feature, the interface was clear and effective. You can start a proposal at any time, and a graphic pie chart tracks the popularity of the proposal. I see a lot of potential for this feature, and think it could be a great municipal voting tool.

Beyond our use of Loomio, the New Zealand based co-op is successfully deploying the platform globally. A recent Yes magazine article written by Nathan Schneider describes how they obtained unique financing while retaining the social mission. They used redeemable preference shares with investors that keeps bottom-line decision-making with the cooperative. My brief research to understand redeemable preference shares brought me to the Wikipedia page: hybrid security which may or may not clarify them for you.

Loomio is a practical tool, and a co-op. With the advancement of UX in user-friendly platforms such as this, we can start to use and appreciate real democratically-owned services on the web.

Connecting co-ops in North America

As a network of co-ops builds in the US, redefining economics is resulting as well—a topic I’ve mentioned in several previous blog entries. There’s a mandate to develop an economy that includes solidarity. Other terms on the topic are: a sharing economy (which is defined differently depending on who you ask), or a generative economy. Efforts around the country are piecing together inchoate ideas for now, but show great thinking and promise.

In April, RIPESS North America (Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidarity Economy-N. America) initiated a forum in Detroit to discuss solidarity in economics. The efforts to develop this forum exemplifies the solidarity of organizations to address progressive economics. RIPESS North America joined with the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network (SEN), the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNET) and the Chantier de l’économie Sociale in Quebec to create the forum. RIPESS-NA formed a Coordinating Committee that also includes the Democracy Collaborative, the New Economy Coalition, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and Detroit organizations, including: the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, the Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE), the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC), and the Conscious Community Cooperative. It’s a mouthful, I know!

Beyond the forum, one visual approach is to map the solidarity economy. At their site US Solidarity, an interactive map shows “individual solidarity economy practices and the solidarity economy as a whole. This has benefits for participants, publics, and policymakers alike. Particular emphasis is placed on the cooperative and community-centered nature of the economic activity.”

In Massachusetts, The Greater Boston Chamber of Cooperatives has formed with the mission “dedicated to strengthening and expanding the greater Boston cooperative economy through education, advocacy, and collaboration among its member organizations. Through shared resources and cross-sector collective action, we are working to build a more just, democratic, and sustainable economy.”

With so many groups involved, these perspectives on economics can appear overwhelming. But the work of small efforts can combine and form larger impact together—in solidarity. The results won’t necessarily translate to an overarching economic policy that we’re used to. These many groups working together demonstrate that small can be a solution because they bring diverse thought, different answers for different people. I like to quote the great E. F. Schumacher and say that in regards to economics, “small is beautiful.” But uniting is the current challenge for solidarity economics and cooperatives.

 

Sustainable Energy and Co-ops

image

Image from the NCREA “Co-op 101” two-page graphic.

There are 3000+ energy co-ops in the US and Europe. In both parts of the world co-ops are addressing the renewable energy challenge. In the US, some energy co-ops known as electric co-ops, are working toward 100% renewable energy use and analyzing the realities of getting there. Energy co-ops exist across Western Europe using exclusively renewable energy.

In the US, more than 900 consumer-owned electric co-ops are represented by The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) in Arlington, VA. US electric cooperatives are in 47 states.

According to NRECA, US electric cooperatives are governed by consumer-members and are not-for-profit businesses. Consumer-members vote for board members, “and the co-op must, with few exceptions, return to consumer-members revenue above what is needed for operation. Under this structure, electric co-ops provide economic benefits to their local communities rather than distant stockholders.”

The NRECA publication, Rural Energy (RE) Magazine, reported in the article “Co-ops Considering a 100% Renewable Energy Portfolio,” that two energy co-ops in Vermont and Texas are confronting the challenges of reaching 100% renewable energy use. The Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Austin is facing the lack of suitable sites for solar arrays that are near the areas of demand. A major challenge for the Vermont Electric Cooperative is the capital needed, $15 billion, for a solar and battery system.

In Western Europe, co-ops are an opportunity for consumers to control their use of renewable energy. They are called REScoops. Their website REScoop.eu says “REScoop is short for renewable energy cooperative, and refers to a business model where citizens jointly own and participate in renewable energy or energy efficient projects.”

According to REScoop.eu there are at least 2,397 European REScoops, mostly in Western Europe. This federation of co-ops “supports the energy transition to a decentralised, renewable, efficient and sustainable energy system with citizens at its core. We refer to it as the energy transition to energy democracy. We believe that REScoops are the most appropriate business model to keep this transition fair and affordable for citizens.”

REScoop.eu describes REScoops as small and large. Ecopower in Belgium, for example,  has “almost 50,000 members, and owns 17 wind turbines, 3 hydro power installations, 320 solar panels and 1 cogeneration installation using rape seed oil.”

The move toward 100% renewable worldwide energy use is possible according to the study, Energy [R]evolution report, published by Greenpeace last year. It offers a vision of 100%  renewable energy use worldwide by 2050. Co-ops, with the democratic influence of consumer-members are one path to get there.

Co-ops and the Law

The Harvard Law School has provided community access to legal services with the Transactional Law Clinics (TLC) since 1979. TLC includes the Community Enterprise Project (CEP) in Boston’s Jamaica Plain. These organizations have put out the legal guide “Tackling the Law, Together” in a PDF that describes legal issues and opportunities for co-ops. This means legal structure! tax law! employment law! Yes, it is exciting stuff;  developing legal strategies essential for co-ops. Although Harvard and the clinics are Massachusetts-based, the report addresses US law generally as much as possible. It was published in coordination with The Boston Center for Community ownership, The Boston Impact Initiative, the California-based Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Legal structure is the first building block of a formal co-op and there are some to choose from: corporation, benefit corporation (different from the “b-corp” designation), cooperative corporation, and LLC (limited Liability company). Non-profit status is considered not applicable to co-ops that generate profits for owners. Then, did you know, that separate from your legal structure, you can be taxed as something else? And the Subchapter T of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) can be especially advantageous.

“It is important to keep in mind that the legal structure of a business is distinct from its tax structure. For example, a corporation does not have to be taxed under Subchapter C of the IRC (Internal Revenue Code); instead, it can choose to be taxed much like a partnership if it elects to be taxed under Subchapter S. Similarly, an LLC can elect to be taxed as a partnership (under Subchapter K), as a C-corporation (under Subchapter C), or as a cooperative corporation (under Subchapter T).”

See the report for more on tax law, immigration law, co-op conversions, and more. It’s a 47-page overview and “does not constitute legal advice” – like this blog post.

Laura Flanders is taking notice, too, of cooperative law. She recently interviewed Janelle Orsi from Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) on the subject. Also interviewed was Micky Metts from the Agaric cooperative. So, check out the report from CEP and the Laura Flanders interview.

Defining the Sharing Economy

Defining the sharing economy continues. An inspiring event took place at the Goethe Institut in New York, January 21st. In previous entries I wrote about Platform Cooperativism, that took place in November. This was a follow-up event with a gifted panel of experts questioning the current “sharing economy” and what it could be.

Artwork for Platform Cooperativism a movement developed by Trebor Scholz with events at The New School and Goethe-Institut, New York

Artwork for Platform Cooperativism a concept penned by Trebor Scholz including events at The New School and the Goethe-Institut, New York

Panelist Trebor Scholz who coined the term Platform Cooperativism has again convened thinkers and solutions that spread wealth and  ownership to workers. Following the November event Trebor wrote an educational and inspiring report, Platform Cooperativism, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. It describes the reality of the “on-demand economy” we have today, often described as a sharing economy, where “companies like Amazon, CrowdSpring, and Taskrabbit” are creating more damage to society and workers than their supposed innovation. The result is “Platform capitalism” coined by Sasha Lobo and Martin Kenney. Scholz writes: “platform capitalism, so far, has been highly ineffective in addressing the needs of the commonwealth. What initially looked like innovation, eventually cranked up the volume on income inequality.” Uber and CrowdFlower are other examples.

The solution is building equality into alternate platforms that serve similar functions. Trebor wants to make clear that it’s being done. Blockchain technology was discussed at length in the November conference as one approach. Trebor writes: “Convincing tools based on blockchain technology have emerged over the past few years. Loomio, Backfeed, D-CENT, and Consensys.”

Other panelists at the Goethe-Instiut were Brendan Martin, Felix Weth, Chelsea Rustrum, and Emma Yorra.

Brendan Martin, founder of Working World gave some great perspective on what we’re confronting with ownership in today’s sharing conversation. Class warfare has repeated itself, and we are facing an age-old problem, he said. This puts discussions of ownership into perspective. Common grain storage in ancient times, for example, may have been stored for the common good, however, eventually ownership consolidates to fewer and fewer owners. Then the disadvantaged seek ownership again from the wealthy few, and the process repeats itself. This cyclical pattern reminds me of Saul Alinsky’s observation in his book Rules for Radicals where those that lack power may eventually get it, then conversely fight to keep it. This yin yang pattern in both ownership and power should be kept in mind.

Panelist Felix Weth is the founder of Fairmondo, mentioned in my last post. The German-based co-op  is spreading into the UK. Hopefully there will be expansion into the US.

Chelsea Rustrum had a great message that sharing can actually be an advantage. She is a co-author of It’s a Sharable Life. In an earlier blog post I show that co-ops can outperform traditional capitalistic business models. Sharing of wealth at co-ops could exemplify this kind of advantage. At the Platform Cooperativism conference the term stigmergy was presented as a model studied by Joel Deitz and others. If groups have superior ways of coordinating then competitive advantage could result.

Panelist Emma Yorra has an impressive resume working with co-ops in New York and Working World in Nicuaruagua. She also mentioned collaboration with the oft mentioned financial co-op in platform cooperativism: Robin hood.

Sharing is a topic I believe all businesses should take seriously for practical reasons. I write this blog because co-ops share ownership, wealth, responsibility, and advantage. Cooperative platforms are no different.

Cooperative Economics

I think about economics a lot lately thanks to the Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School in New York. This is my second blog post about the cooperative topics discussed that ultimately address for me the all-important topic of wealth distribution. Prosperity can spread by borrowing the best qualities of today’s businesses and then structuring them democratically. Some innovative cooperative platforms already exist; capitalism can be modified as we can potentially teach corporations new and valuable forms of transaction; and government can help, too.

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Platforms for a New Economy

I was lucky to attend the Platform Cooperativism conference on November 13 and 14 at The New School in New York City. It was convened by Trebor Scholz from The New School and Nathan Schneider from the University of Colorado. The event focused on existing cooperative platforms, such as co-ops, web apps, peer to peer engagement, and considered what can be built in the future. In this blog post I wanted to mention some general themes that struck me at the conference.
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Black Co-ops Matter!

Like Black lives, Black co-ops matter, now and historically. Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard is an inspiring and thorough survey of the long history of collective action taken by African Americans in the US as far back as the 1700s. Against adversity, the African American community has created a legacy of cooperation that still exists. The earliest efforts built communal ways of supporting each other, and built the foundation for formal businesses. These efforts enriched many during the ebb and flow of US co-op history throughout which African Americans have been contributors.

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Civil Rights, A River, and Co-ops

I’m not one to write about spirituality, and wouldn’t deem it appropriate for this blog, but a series of events happened a few days ago related to co-ops that I can’t help but describe as Carl Jung’s concept of sychronicity — a “meaningful coincidence.” Lately I’ve been reading Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s Collective Courage on the history of African American co-ops, in which the great sociologist and proponent of co-ops W.E.B. Du Bois is featured. His research is essential documentation of the Black struggle and cooperative development in the late 1800s to the 1950s. With this information in my head, my wife and I were choosing a place in New England to hike and stay overnight.

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American Worker-Owned Co-ops = Good Business

The Democracy at Work Institute, a sister organization of US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), released a report this year called US Worker Cooperatives: State of the Sector that gives an overview of US worker-owned co-ops. The report observes that much has been said about worker co-ops internationally, but that US worker co-ops as a whole have lacked analysis. The report tallies 256 worker co-ops in the US. A small number, likely an underestimate due to lack of data, but the report concludes US worker co-ops — known for delivering social, democratic, and community benefits — deliver impressive profits and growth.

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The Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy

A rousing start

At this year’s ECWD in Worchester Massachusetts, I was lucky to attend the opening plenary, Saturday morning July 11. Author Jessica Gordon-Nembhard got the plenary started as moderator by reminding us that co-ops build society. Jessica wrote Collective Courage, is a political economist, and Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development at John Jay College, at the City University of New York (CUNY). Co-ops solve current issues, she said. They provide dignified work, give back to society, create livable wages, deliver products, and stabilize communities.

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The Magna Carta and Co-ops

The 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta was this month.

Democracy Now! reported on the event and interviewed Peter Linebaugh on June 15th, the day of the anniversary. He is the author of The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberty and Subsistence for All.

As Linebaugh describes, what is so significant about this “Great Charter” is the recognition of certain civil rights when it was sealed in 1215. Because I advocate co-ops as a means of creating equity, this document is an intriguing part of history that not only established habeas corpus, but as pertains to cooperatives and a sharing economy, the document is a pivotal point in history to recognize and value the commons. At the time it was written, the commons were the forests of Britain and a source of valuable natural resources such as wood.  According to Linebaugh, laws allowed for hunting without capital punishment and established rights for women to use the resources of the commons.

Recognizing and protecting the commons is a very pertinent topic today whether we’re discussing the world wide web or the earth’s oceans. My belief is that co-ops offer a small way to address sharing that can impact commons such as these and many more.

MGAWOC: Make Google a Worker-Owned Co-operative

What is more ubiquitous than Google? Because of this, I declare today the first day of MGAWOC: Make Google a Worker-owned Co-operative. Below are 10 co-operative initiatives to inspire a Google worker-owned co-operative. And they happen to be Google’s company philosophy (slightly modified here). Google lists them at What We Believe.

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POCA

Are you looking for cheap acupuncture? If you didn’t know that cheap acupuncture existed, the co-op called People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA) has made it possible. According to their mission and vision: “POCA, as a multi-stakeholder co-op, is designed to build a long-term, stable economic relationship based on fair treatment for everybody.” Community acupuncture makes acupuncture more accessible by treating people in group sessions. (more…)

Co-op matters in March

Frontier Co-op
I write about co-ops, but I don’t belong to one. Or so I thought. I just received a membership patronage check of $15.83 from the Frontier Co-op. My wife and I are members and order supplies from their enormous catalog. The items are discounted as long as you order in bulk with a group of people. In a letter they sent with the check, I learned the co-op had their most profitable year in 2014 with a net income of $15.5 million. For that year the co-op is returning 35% of the members’ overall earnings in cash. Since starting in 1976, the last ten years have been an unprecedented success for the co-op with a growth rate of 12% during that decade. It’s great to be a part of it. (more…)

A Co-op Meetup in Cambridge, MA

On February 8th, The Agaric co-operative held a Meetup event in Cambridge, MA, at their workspace Industry Lab. Despite snowfall that was part of an unprecedented series of storms, people attended to discuss the status and value of co-ops. I brought along a video camera and captured some testimonies from attendees. Micky Metts and Ben Melançon represented Agaric. They see the co-operative movement as a vital source of autonomy as do others that were interviewed. See the linked 3:34 minute video for some thoughts on the co-op movement and some solutions it offers. (more…)

Tiddler’s Success

What’s a tiddler? I had to look it up. It’s a very small fish or, in the case of an article I recently read in The Economist, it’s the “little guy”. The little guy is thriving in, of all places, a segment of the investment banking industry. The Economist reported in the December 6-12 issue that small investment banks are now taking away merger and acquisition (M&A) business from large financial institutions. (more…)

Janelle Orsi and the Sharing Economy

If you’re trying to determine what the new economy means, author and attorney Janelle Orsi can do a lot to help. In her book Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy, Orsi gives compelling insight into the practical application of law to solve, or attempt to solve, the challenges of a new way to function economically. I’m inspired by this approach that Orsi puts on the shoulders of transactional law. Human interaction is the point at which Orsi sets her sights. (more…)

John Abrams and Business Cooperation

In 2008, Chelsea Green Press published Companies We Keep by John Abrams. It is the second addition of The Company We Keep first published in 2005. Companies We Keep isn’t a new book, but I found it well worth reading in 2014 not only for its insight into the development and philosophy of the author’s worker-owned business, but for a systemic rethinking of business in general. (more…)

Slow Democracy and Co-ops

I recently read the book Slow Democracy by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout, published by Chelsea Green Press. Slow democracy empowers communities with inclusive, diverse, and locally based organizing. Central to the concept is deliberation on community decisions by community stakeholders. With broad representation, inclusive deliberation allows for participation, listening, understanding, and confrontation of difficult issues. Co-ops are a kind of slow democracy with well-developed deliberative processes that can contribute to, and learn from, the slow democracy movement. (more…)

The Corporatization of Fair Trade

Small Farmers. Big Change.

Many thanks to Chuck Bordman for this creative 48-second video about the corporatization of Fair Trade and the work of committed brands to support small farmers and Authentic Fair Trade in this context.

To read the full comic book, “The History of Authentic Fair Trade, click here.

To learn more about Fair Trade vs. Free Trade, click here.

To learn more about Chuck Bordman and his work, click here.

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Co-ops Explained in Sixty Seconds

A co-op can be difficult to explain. But KingBird Content has ventured to do it in sixty seconds. See the video below for the most essential aspects of co-operatives. Information collected in this video comes from the ICA definition of a co-op, and the ideas of Janelle Orsi, Marjorie Kelly, and Stacey Cordeiro. (more…)

Elinor Ostrom for Worker Co-operatives

In my previous CommonBound conference blog entry I described the workshop I attended with Marjorie Kelly and Janelle Orsi. I wanted to also write about their idea of applying Elinor Ostrom‘s “design principles” of stable local common pool resource management (CPR) to the governance of co-ops. Ostrom won a Nobel prize in 2009 for economics. Kelly and Orsi gave a handout on her principles, and how these principles can apply to co-ops. I’ve taken directly from the handout below. CPR is about common resources, therefore, the concepts don’t translate directly to worker co-ops, but still offer interesting possibilities for governance design. Workers as stakeholders correlate in this instance as “resource appropriators” in an enterprise. In bold font is the principle from Ostrom, also found on Ostrom’s Wikipedia page. Following each principle is a suggested application to co-ops from Kelly and Orsi.

1. Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties). How can a worker co-op clearly define who is a member and how to become a member? What should be the barriers to entry? How can members resign or be expelled?

2. Rule regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions. Adopt rules about how much people are entitled to work and about ideal working conditions? Adopt rules that prevent some workers from capitalizing off the labor of others? How will this vary based on local conditions, i.e., the type of business?

3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process. How can worker co-ops enable all workers to participate in the decision-making process? Collective governance? Distributed governance structures? Holacracy?

4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators. Designate someone who makes sure that the rules are being followed, that the co-op is in good health, and that the values of the co-op are being upheld?

5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules. What could sanctions look like in the context of a worker co-op? Cutting hours? Reducing decision-making power temporarily? Put someone on toilet-cleaning duty?

6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access. How can a worker co-op make conflict resolution cheap and easy? Internal conflict resolution training? Internal conflict resolution team? Agreements with other cooperatives to mediate one another’s conflicts? Agreements with local community mediation centers?

7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities. Self-determination partially means that outside investors can’t control the co-op. Self-determination is limited by government-imposed regulations dictating the ways that co-ops can structure relationships between employer/employee, investor/business, etc.

8. In the case of large common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level. Create semi-autonomous circles of management within a larger co-operative? Nest co-operatives within larger networks of co-operatives? Co-ops of co-ops?

A Conference for a New Economy (and Co-ops)

June 6th through 8th I attended CommonBound, a conference to consider directions for a new economy, organized by the New Economy Coalition (NEC). A significant part of the future outlook is co-operatives.

One workshop I was lucky enough to attend was run by Marjorie Kelly and Janelle Orsi on social enterprises. Marjorie Kelly has been a pioneering writer on ownership; I noticed that her concepts of generative and extractive economies, were used widely elsewhere at this conference and appear to be integrated into the narrative for economic change. Janelle Orsi is an attorney and writer, well-known for her work based on sustainability, equity, and sharing. Their workshop demonstrated that local interests can suffer without local investment: if Wall Street controls a company, is there any incentive to invest in local communities? It’s a question that came up again elsewhere at the conference. How can co-ops afford to support business ideas like serving less profitable clientele and communities? The answer: democratic ownership and decision-making. Such an ownership structure allows for investment of surplus income that may not be strictly for profit. Equal Exchange was mentioned as a leader in this area with the ability to focus resources on ethical food production that might be a financial risk, e.g., supporting banana farmers.

Governance makes it happen. Governance is the management structure of an organization, also known as bylaws. The importance of governance was a guiding message from the Kelly/Orsi workshop. The composition of governance is critical and should be set up with careful consideration. But it can, and will most likely, be difficult work. A later workshop described the work involved in converting to a co-op that took 18 months for the landscape company, A Yard and a Half Landscaping, located in Waltham Massachusetts. That same workshop featured Cero a new Boston-based co-op that will collect restaurant waste and has wrangled with start up challenges for over a year.

Co-ops come in all shapes and sizes, but it is the governance that defines their organizational principles. Stacey Cordeiro of the Boston Center for Community Ownership outlined this in a workshop on co-ops. As Janelle Orsi described, a co-op can start to be defined by a tax status provided by the U.S. government called “Subchapter T.” It will provide a co-op with a tax structure supplied by the IRS, and start to provide bylaws for its management. Cordeiro outlined three components of Subchapter T as: 1. Subordination of capital. 2. One member, one vote, and 3. Operating at cost.

Co-ops are part of a movement to include all walks of life. Melissa Hoover and Joe Rinehart from the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives presented and discussed diversity in co-op development, and the importance of a venue for multi-language interaction. Co-ops can be all-inclusive and need to consider new approaches to inclusion. The CommonBound conference made an effort and was successful in bringing a diverse group of people together. NEC generously and wisely offered scholarships which helped me to attend the conference.

Co-ops are helping to change the world, but like any other part of change, they are hard work. Designing the governance of a co-op is a good example. Co-ops compel people to work together democratically to form and then run a co-op — the development of a democracy is work, and then the democracy it creates is work. A contradiction perhaps, but I don’t think anyone wants a work-free future. We’re looking for an inclusive future where we’re all doing work we love.

A Co-operative MakerSpace: Building Community Part 2

The co-op makerspace for Sharon, Massachusetts, had its second pop-up event in Sharon’s town center. See the video created by KingBird Content for this event. Input is sought for this project’s development; if you have ideas or skills to share, let the group know at sharonmakerspace@gmail.com. Building community with shared know-how, tools, and space, is central to this co-op model.

A Co-operative MakerSpace: Building Community Part 2 from KingBird Content on Vimeo.

Co-op and Makerspace, Together?

Is there a way to combine a co-operative with the new movement in makerspaces? In Sharon, Massachusetts, the idea of combining the two is being explored. A recent Green Day Event started a promotion of both. See a video produced  by KingBird Content to get the more attention focused on co-ops and makerspaces:

Coops and Makerspaces – Building Community from Kingbird Content on Vimeo.

Another blog, SharonCommunityCafe, describes the evolution of the idea for Sharon with some background on makerspaces.

Co-ops in Massachusetts

Living in Massachusetts, I’m excited by what is happening with co-operative businesses. Yet the co-operative movement in the state is indicative of the wider movement: a conglomeration of disparate businesses and resources that can be difficult to navigate and understand. Below is an informal sampling of what is happening with co-ops in Massachusetts. Could there be a way to promote them? Europe has figured out one way to do it. Maybe we could learn something from this.

Co-operative businesses
My search of Massachusetts co-ops started with MA co-op members of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC). 22 Massachusetts businesses appear in their member directory that are co-ops, worker-owned businesses, or organizations that assist with worker ownership. Some coops from this list are the Valley Green Feast, a farmer’s market in North Hampton; Agaric, a website development co-op in Natick; Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater; the Community Builders Cooperative in Somerville; and the Red Sun Press in Jamaica Plain, Boston, started in 1974. WORC’N, the Worker-Owned Cooperative Network of Greater Boston lists 15 co-ops in MA — some overlap with USFWC — including the new CERO recycling coop. The Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (VAWC) includes 11 co-ops in western MA and southern Vermont. Further searching found other Massachusetts co-ops like the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange in Greenfield started in 1918, the Freedom Credit Union serving western Massachusetts, and the River Valley Market in Northampton.

Organizations that Assist with Co-ops
Serving Massachusetts, like US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, are organizations to assist with co-op development. In the greater Boston area is WORC’N, mentioned above, providing support and resources for co-operative development. Also in Boston is the Boston Center for Community Ownership (BCCO). A community support coop in Boston to develop permanent and affordable communities is Boston Community Cooperatives (BCC). Serving Northeastern US, is the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) in Shelburne Falls. The Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives, mentioned above, serves western Massachusetts and southern Vermont co-operatives. In Brookline is the ICA Group, started in 1978, (not to be confused with the International Cooperative Alliance, ICA) a nationwide consultancy for worker-owned business development. A major financier for regional co-ops, based in Massachusetts, is the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE).

Building Co-op Cohesion
Promoting the value of these co-ops for community building and sustainability is a message that could benefit the co-ops, the state, and the population. In Europe, the promotion of co-ops can also bring tourism. The ICA recently reported in February on an idea to promote co-operative history and heritage in Europe, put on by the European Confederation of Co-operatives and Worker-Owned Enterprises CECOP. It’s a tour of co-ops that includes 17 countries. Part of the tour will include the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, considered the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement.  The coops to be involved are still being determined, but as the “cooproute” develops, the goal of the project is to build sustainable tourism. As the article states, the value of co-ops draws interest:

Due to their strong emphasis on environment and sustainability, co-operatives play an important role in the development of sustainable and responsible tourism in Europe. Worker, social and artisans’ cooperatives help create and maintain jobs within the local communities where they operate.

At present there appears to be some great effort and success with the coop movement in Massachusetts. But awareness could be much improved. The tourism approach created by CECOP builds an effective celebration of co-ops. In the U.S., the co-op Co-Cycle came up with the innovative idea to tour American co-ops by bike. Maybe it’s time for a co-op-touring co-op in Massachusetts.

Co-operatives and Capitalism

A friend commented that this blog is anti-capitalist. I can understand this perception, but want to prove that co-ops are not anti-capitalist. It should be noted that co-ops are, generally speaking, profit generating enterprises. What is unique about them is sharing wealth. As Stacey Cordeiro from the Boston Center for Community Ownership phrases it, co-ops subordinate capital.

Here is capitalism defined by Wikipedia: an economic system in which trade, industry and the means of production are controlled by private owners with the goal of making profits in a market economy.

Thought has been given to co-ops functioning within capitalism. Going back to 2011, author and economist Noreena Hertz wrote a report called Co-op Capitalism. Written as a response to what she terms as “Gucci Capitalism” marked by an unregulated period of greed, the report outlines co-ops as a solution. She describes four benefits of co-ops: community preservation; quality and power of relationships affecting performance; the economic and social connection; and the value of sharing resources with collaboration.

It might seem counter-productive to start an enterprise that distributes wealth. Co-ops can also be challenging to manage with broad input on decision-making. But the benefits Hertz describes can create practical sustainability. In response to skeptics, Hertz presents co-ops as thriving businesses and points out major co-op enterprises in Switzerland, Italy, the UK, and Africa. And given the health of worldwide co-operatives today, their impact has only increased since this report was written. See the ICA’s reporting on co-ops worldwide: The World Co-operative Monitor Project.

Maybe it’s the definition of capitalism that is to be redefined by co-ops. I still like the concept of a generative economy coined by Marjorie Kelly. Maybe generative capitalism sums up what is transformative about co-ops.

 

Governance of Large Co-ops

Big in co-operative news right now is the troubled leadership of the Co-operative Group. Controversy has consumed the group’s management and led to the resignation of its leader, Euan Sutherland. One of my favorite reporters on the topic, Anthony Murray, has been following the developments closely for Co-operative News. He reports that fault lies with the directors, described in an analysis report. But doubt has been cast on the governance of large co-ops in general, and some have questioned their sustainability.

How does governance of large co-ops work successfully? Without knowing how widespread the co-op model is, one does wonder. But there are a variety of successful solutions. Murray has some answers in an article showing that co-operative governance works at scale. The article links to a very interesting report by Professor Johnston Birchall called The Governance of Large Co-operative Businesses. Birchall points out in the introduction that 1,465 co-operatives worldwide create over $100 million in annual revenue (or turnover).

The answers to governing large co-ops, Birchall explains, are diverse and difficult to define in discrete categories. To begin with, worldwide co-operatives have many different ownership structures. In general terms, the sponsor of the report Co-operatives UK, has developed some general quality standards in a “Corporate Governance Wheel,” the hub of which is: A. Focus on the purpose of the co-operative. Then in a continuous circle around this purpose is: B. Carry on the work of governance in an effective way; C. Perform effectively in clearly defined roles; D. Ensure appropriate and effective member participation; and E. Develop the capability of the governing body to be effective.

As for the Co-operative Group, Murray reports on how the future board may look. The new management structure being considered could consist of a Vorstand model. This is a structure that includes a supervisory board that oversees the management board. Supervisory boards can be found in successful large co-operatives that Birchall analyzes including the Zen-Noh co-op in Japan, the Fonterra co-op in New Zealand, and the SOK co-operative group in Finland.

Co-operatives — large and small — are ubiquitous and governed successfully worldwide, as Birchall’s report makes clear. More research like this will build a broader understanding of co-operative models, as diverse as they may be, and build their reputation as practical business solutions.

Together

Together is the title of a video, currently on the ICA website. The 40-minute video was produced by CECOP – CICOPA Europe,  m30m S. Coop [sic], and producer Leire Luengo. It covers co-operatives in four countries: France, Poland, Italy, and Spain. As ICA states, the video shows the resiliency these co-operatives offer their members. They’ve done it with innovative ways to adapt to years of economic changes.

In Aisne France, a troubled manufacturing company converted to a co-op as a solution to the 2008 financial crisis. Called Fonderie de l’Aisne, an auto parts manufacturer, they diversified as a co-op into other areas. The resulting success has contributed to the Aisne region, and heritage, by sustaining the business and keeping it locally owned.

In Poland, the mineral water co-op, Muszynianka, founded in 1951, has adapted and thrived. In the nineties, the Polish economy changed from a planned economy to a market economy. The adjustment was difficult for Polish co-ops, but an interviewee points out that it was also liberating as the workers came to realize the impact their contribution had on business results. Muszynianka was previously a co-operative, but a state-owned one. By the time of the 2008 crisis, the company saw no slow down in business.

In Italy the video introduces social co-operatives, first formed in the 1970s. Law 381 from 1991 is noted, which has allowed social co-operatives to thrive throughout the country. Gruppo Cooperativo (CGM) is the largest network of social enterprises in Italy. As I mentioned in my last post, Richard Wolff emphasizes the importance of government backing for co-op development; Italy is an example he points out. Social co-ops in Italy provide social services and work integration for disadvantaged people. The co-ops interviewed have been able to retain staff  during economic uncertainty. Benefitting Italy as a whole, the co-ops running these social services save the government money.

Finally, the video visits Mondragon, a co-operative group in Spain. Mondragon was reviewed in the movie Shift Change. However, Together covers different co-ops, including an electric car project involving many co-ops. Like Shift Change, Together features Fagor Electrodomésticos — the co-op that has been a lighting rod for bad press due to going into bankruptcy. But the Fagor news has overshadowed how large and diverse Mondragon is, as is evident in this video. Again, resiliency is the key for Mondragan and the Basque region — without it, they can’t rely on agriculture or natural resources, like petroleum. The end of the video quotes a Mondragon leader who says they are a model for future business and society.

These four European co-ops have economic and social benefits. They also have a contender in the U.S.: the Evergreen co-operatives in Cleveland. I look forward to hearing a lot more about them.

New Economics and Distribution of Wealth

Richard Wolff, the author of Capitalism at Work: A Cure for Capitalismis a popular economist right now. He recently presented in a video, linked here, posted on the Democracy at Work website where he emphasizes that people are looking for an alternative to capitalism. Then he presents a solution: democratically run work places. 

The video is 2 hours and 19 minutes long. At the 1 hour, 35 minute mark, he discusses co-ops and shared profits. One interesting approach he mentions is giving consumers an option to buy co-op produced consumer goods with explicit labeling.

Political backing is an important asset for a successful co-operative movement, and Wolff points to Italy where the government will give unemployed people the option of opening a co-op with a cash incentive. Instead of unemployment payments, a lump sum is given to those that are willing to gather a group of people and start a co-op.

The distribution of capital is an approach endorsed by Wolff. But, as I mentioned in my last post, this is the thinking of other economic thinkers, too.

Wolff sounds like Gar Alperovitz (Books: What Then Must We Do? and America Beyond Capitalism) who stresses the impending necessity for systemic change to capitalism. Dating back to September 2012, the video linked here, is one of many where Alperovitz points out the requirements for an alternative. He says: “It begins with the question: who owns the capital?” Worker ownership and the experiments are important. He starts talking about this at about 17:42.

But what is important to remember, as Alperovitz points out in a recent Real News interview in January, is that co-ops are practical idealistically. That is, they are politically practical. This quote is from the January 27th interview, linked here

“[The] Interesting other thing about [co-ops] which is very important, particularly for liberals and the left to think about: if you’re doing this kind of work and it’s practical and it really is serious, not rhetoric and slogans, you find people who think of themselves as moderates and conservatives — small business people — who say: that’s a good thing to do at the local level. These [co-op worker/owners] are not the national ideologues. And you find…people working hard, they’re trying to better the neighborhood, trying to better themselves, they’re doing productive work. That’s a good idea. And we’re surprised at how you break through ideologies if it’s practical.”