The Co-operative Economy in the Pioneer Valley

“A recession? What is it?” said Philippe. We were meeting with Philippe Rigollaud from the worker-owned co-operative Pioneer Valley Photo Voltaics (PV)² in Greenfield MA. This co-op was one stop in a tour, my wife Ellen and I were on, of co-operatives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.

(PV)² is a mature co-op and competitive business that has been around for 12 years. Philippe has been there since the beginning. The business has proven to be sustainable in a challenging renewable energy field, and is doing something unique to worker-owned co-ops: sharing wealth. The pay ratio is 3 to 1 meaning the highest paid worker-owner makes, at most, 3 times more than the lowest paid worker-owner. But Philippe said that those are official numbers and the actual pay difference is even smaller. There is additional compensation when profits are divided up annually.

But worker-owners at (PV)² need to be versatile. You must think about the business holistically to work there Philippe told us. It takes a new employee at least a year to train for worker-owner status. You need to sell, you need to install solar panels, and you need to understand business management. This isn’t for everyone, he said. But once you are committed to this, you share in the ownership, share in the work, and share in the profits. There are also six weeks of vacation time.

The spreading of duties and profit is a theme that continued during our trip. (PV)² is one of six co-ops we visited in three days in Greenfield, Northampton, and Florence. Also integral to the co-ops was democratic decision-making. This was evident at the Pedal People co-op in Florence MA, started in 2002, and incorporated in 2006. 18 staff members consist of 13 worker-owners and 5 workers in training. Decision making is done by consensus, as it is at (PV)². Alex Jarrett, one of the founding members, told us that they rely on monthly meetings to manage by consensus managerial issues such as efficiency improvement, new employees, and growth issues. One outcome is the creation of a landscape service that 4 people take part in.

Co-ops are businesses with business challenges, and physical labor can be significant. Real Pickles next door to (PV)² in Greenfield, recently converted to a worker-owned co-op in May 2013. A producer of pickled products, this industrious co-op has massive storage rooms with dozens of barrels in various stages of food production. Worker-owners at this young co-op meet often, and what is being decided democratically has long-term impact. Schedules are carefully considered because of the physical nature of the production; 4-day work weeks are common. And growth is a significant topic for discussion. Their products are in high demand, but they want to maintain the longevity of the co-op, and slow the double-digit growth they’ve been experiencing. “It’s not sustainable,”  was how production manager and president Annie Winkler described the fast growth as we got a tour of the facilities.

Across the street from Real Pickles is another food producer and recent co-op conversion, Artisan Beverage Co-operative. Several product lines have come together to form this co-op. Only a year old, it is outgrowing its space. One worker-owner trainee we talked with had little time to talk as she made product, and would need to then run a forklift. Weekly meetings are necessary to guide plans. Will Savitri is founder of one of products, Katalyst Kambucha. He described the challenges of distribution, product shelf life, as well as how to manage the structure of a co-op, all while working with an electrician for a new production space. Equal Exchange is an important model for their young co-op and its bylaws.

We visited the mature co-op Collective Copies in Florence MA, that has been going for 30 years. We talked with Adam Trott who’s been there for 10 years. He doesn’t think such sustainability would be possible without the resiliency of a co-op. Collective Copies has a second location in Amherst and a total of 11 worker-owners.

Worker co-ops in the Pioneer Valley have several support organizations as a resource. Collective Copies is a member of the Valley Alliance of Worker Coops (VAWC). Adam Trott helps run the organization. Alex from Pedal People, and Philippe from (PV)² are also involved and their co-ops are members. This network supports 8 member co-ops in the Pioneer Valley, and recently issued its first loan.

River Valley Market in Northampton is a consumer owned co-op. Food buying can be a challenge for any grocery store. For support in collective purchasing and other operational support, it is a member of the development co-op, National Cooperative Grocers Association. This co-op serves 6 other food co-ops throughout MA including the Harvest Co-ops in eastern MA, the Franklin County Co-operative’s two stores in the Pioneer Valley, River Valley Market, Berkshire Co-op Market, and Wild Oats Market. It serves 142 co-ops nationwide.

Co-ops supporting each other was apparent throughout our trip. There is another network supporting over 30 food co-ops and start-ups in the New England area called Neighboring Food Co-op Association. They are a network used by the Artisan Beverage Co-op and Real Pickles. The Democracy at Work Network (DAWN) is an important co-op development organization that trains leaders in co-op development. Alex from Pedal People is a peer advisor for DAWN. DAWN is part of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), which includes all five worker-owned coops we talked with.

Might this network of co-ops and co-op support groups in the Pioneer Valley be a glimpse into a new kind of economy? There is, at the very least, a lot to learn from this network as it applies democratic methods, and consists of sharing wealth.

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