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.

The plenary panelists consisted not of co-op members, but of three women representing groups that develop co-ops. Vanessa Bransburg came from the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn, Lymarie Nieves-Plaza came from Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Candel Coop in Puerto Rico, and Elandria Williams represented Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee.

The first panelist, Vanessa Bransburg, from The Center for Family Life, approaches co-op development from the perspective of social work. In 2008 her organization started a home cleaning co-operative; its first co-op. Because women had come to the center for social services, essential needs were identified and a co-op was formed.

Vanessa stressed that realities of family life need to be evaluated and taken into consideration when creating a co-op. Once needs are identified, then coordination of resources can start. The Center for Family Life, working with immigrants, has created eight co-ops.

Lymarie Nieves-Plaza from Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Candel Coop spoke next. In Puerto Rico, they’ve done something unprecedented: created a co-op of all prison inmates. This co-op helps inmates to create income for themselves and, as Ms. Gordon-Nembhard mentioned in the introduction, give back. The co-op which is incorporated gives a portion of their income back to the government. But beyond wealth creation, the inmates have even used collective power to amend laws that affect them.

The final panelist was Elandria Williams who fired up the conversation in her Assata Shakur t-shirt. She first had everyone stand and repeat inspirational words of growth and change. She continued, saying “you can’t change economics without dealing with race.” Tying these two together inextricably, makes one consider what economics really are. Ms. Williams had just returned from Italy and stressed that the co-ops in Italy are important to people there for nothing less than radical liberation. And she emphasized that here in the US, we must strive for “the whole thing.”

Elandria is passionate about governance and getting the people most impacted front and center in decision making. Governance is a critical topic that’s been covered in this blog, and central to authentic workplace democracy. She ended with more words of inspiration:
“It is our duty to fight for freedom
It is our duty to win
It is our duty to help each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains”

Not lost on me was that this inspiring panel was all women. Just as Elandria Williams tied economics to race, you can’t have equitable business without significant female influence. And congrats to ECWD on the Spanish translation throughout this plenary and the conference.

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