Members of the Co-op Cultivators of Greater Brockton (CCGB) attended the Building Worker Power Through Solidarity, Cooperation & Care conference at UMass Amherst. The conference ran from March 24th through March 26th, 2023. As a member of CCGB, I was lucky enough to go and report here on eight workshops and two plenary sessions I attended. The conclusions and inspiration drawn from the conference are grouped in this post as: envisioning a collaborative future, looking beyond capitalism, making change happen, and interpersonal interaction for change.
Envisioning a Collaborative Future
A theme emphasized at this conference was envisioning a better future based on solidarity. Given the many dystopian stories today in entertainment and books, this view on the future is especially needed to alter our imaginations and innovate our business practices.
In the first plenary session Kali Akuno, a co-founder of Cooperation Jackson, brought into the discussion economic thought influenced by the work of WEB DuBois, Malcom X, and his own work developing schools in California. He emphasized building a system for the long term. More than just cooperative businesses, the overall plan for Cooperation Jackson includes community land trusts as the bedrock for development along with food sovereignty among other things. But what will work best, including unionizing, will require experimentation.
Moving beyond capitalism is a necessity for Emily Kawano of The US and MA Solidarity Economy Network. She is also part of the Wellspring Cooperative in Worcester, MA. As Emily made clear, defining capitalism is critical because we all view capitalism very differently. Is a worker-owned co-op a capitalist enterprise (for example)? This was part of the session “System Change and Solidarity Economy” with Emily Kawano and Aliana Pineiro.
“Capitalism Characteristics” were presented listing five aspects of capitalism that help us to know what to agree upon. They are:
- Private ownership of the means of production
- Wage labor
- Profit maximization is top priority
- Commodity production (producing for sale)
- Market exchange
This session emphasized pluralism and the big tent that will be needed for a solidarity economy. Emily ended with a final thought on comparing the present state of solidarity growth to imaginal cells which are part of the process that transforms caterpillars into butterflies. A similar transformation for solidarity is difficult to recognize now, but is a powerful source of transformation that is in progress.
Further advancing alternative ideas to capitalism, was a session called, “Democratic Economic Planning: How to Use Technology to Overcome Capitalism.” Presenters Guillermo Murcia López and Leone Castar have a plan using technology to replace money and markets. Their plan includes labor vouchers in a project called CibCom. Learn more at CibCom.org.
An International Perspective
In the session, “Building an Internationalist, Revolutionary Future through Worker and Community Organizing” presenters Celina Della Croce from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Anti-Imperialist Action Committee, and Sean Manion, from Co-op Cultivators of Greater Brockton both brought to light the lessons that Venezuela and Cuba provide for developing a solidarity economy. These might seem like surprising places to derive inspiration from, but the top-down governance combined with a synthesis of bottom-up solidarity in these countries are clear examples of total commitment to collaborative societies to be taken seriously for collaborative work elsewhere.
In Venezuela, the reach and impact of communes is staggering. Their expansion was a priority of the government that vastly increased communes from 50 to 350 in 2012. Celina pointed out one essential element of these economic structures is that they share surplus production with the community beyond any individual business. This benefit, among others, shown in these successful communes provides direction for other cooperative practices and economics in general.
As for Cuba, 11.5% of workers are employed in co-ops in Cuba. A planned effort was to create collective land after the revolution from land formerly owned by oligarchs. Like Venezuela, Cuban cooperatives have relied on top-down support with laws to support them. Sean reported that an effort is currently being made to consolidate disparate laws into a more simplified legal structure.
The communing together in these countries exemplifies how wealth can be successfully shared on a large scale. These countries are also seminal examples of wealth distribution not only within their countries but also to other countries such as oil supplied to Massachusetts from Venezuela and Cuba providing aid to Africa.
Making Change Happen
In the opening plenary, Nellie Marshall-Torres from the Wellspring Collaborative stated the billionaire class is being put on notice by Amazon unionization. Keynote speaker and star organizer behind this is Chris Smalls. After being a top performer at Amazon, he left to become a legendary union leader challenging the mighty enterprise. Chris rose against incredible odds and described his devotion to the picketers in New York, and was also a leader for Alabama, Kentucky, and England protesters. “No cavalry is coming,” he said, to describe the struggle to confront mistreatment by management. He’s made something from nothing. He’s camped out to support protesters, fed them, and let them know he’s with them in times of desperation. Chris has a firm mode of operation that he mentioned more than once: “meet workers where they’re at.” Chris is in good company with another famous labor advocate: George Orwell who also went to where the workers were for his writing, see a previous blog post.
It’s interesting to think of what a powerful manager Chris could have been at Amazon if they had let him become one. He interviewed many times, but was denied promotion. Instead he is addressing Amazon’s practices with care for workers and making Amazon listen to the labor that the business must have to succeed. He uses Amazon’s own mantra: “Every day is day one.”
Flexibility is important. Both Chris and Kali said that empire strikes back. What worked once to bring liberation will not work again. Chris described multiple anti-union tactics used against him from Amazon.
The second plenary, hosted by Rebecca Lurie, from the Urban Studies Department at the City University of NY for Labor and Urban Studies, tied together co-ops and unions. Worker-owned cooperatives and unions are both tools for reaching better conditions for workers. Lively discussion brought together union members and cooperative business members to shed light on the realities of worker representation and the procedures of union arbitration within a co-op. Panelists in this plenary were co-op members one of which had experience forming a union. Co-ops can succeed where unions force an owner to close a business and unions can succeed where co-ops need to protect its workers.
Massachusetts progressive activity was showcased in the session “Rising to Own It: Insights from Worker Owners & Aspiring Worker Owners.” Presenter Sarah Assefa from the Coalition for Worker Ownership and Power (COWOP) along with other COWOP members brought together a diverse and sophisticated panel of collaborative Massachusetts business people. The input from these practitioners provided insight into an industrial collaborative business, coaching, building a translation business, political action for co-ops, and training experience.
All provided input on the importance of uniting within their businesses and across Massachusetts.
Interpersonal Relationships for Change
The Stoke Collective gave a session on the importance of meeting analysis. Meeting theory tells us that meetings are composed of makers (people making something), practices of circulation (rituals, customs), and architecture (structure of your group). Remember too, we were instructed, that your meeting must recognize relationships in every meeting, have vision sharing, and get work done. See the Stoke Collective for more.
A session called “Staying Grounded in Difficult Situations” lead by Adrián Roman from the Boston Center for Community Ownership, and member of CCGB, first instructed attendees to be grounded in difficult conversations. He had an important distinction for what being grounded is which is understanding the context you are in as much as possible. Part of understanding context of a particular situation is understanding yourself.
Preparation for an interaction can involve writing your thoughts. When unraveling how you feel about how you’ve been treated in the past, Adrián advises always looking for the feelings you have behind any accusation you have of others. With mediation and exercises, Adrián led the group through thought-provoking work addressing the fact that coalitions are built with many different types of people and that we have to prepare ourselves for interaction.
This conference for workers brought diversity of people and a diversity of approaches for collaborative economic development. Progressive change is happening, not potentially happening like past conferences.