[From the Director’s Desk] Building a Culture of Cooperation: Good for Business?

Written By Clare Fox, Director of Policy and Innovation

Recently, I had the opportunity to join Gilda Haas and her graduate class from the Urban Sustainability program at Antioch University on a study tour of worker cooperatives in the Bay Area, including food businesses such as Arizmendi Bakeries and Recology, a waste hauler that composts food waste. Worker cooperatives have been around for a long time as a model for shared business ownership among the workers that run a business, and a strong network of cooperative businesses have thrived in the context of social and economic justice movements in Oakland and San Francisco for several decades. (For more great analysis of our study tour, particularly the business and finance aspect behind cooperatives, check out my friend and co-conspirator Rudy Espinoza’s blog post.)

One of the things that struck me most on this trip is the role of culture as a key ingredient for the success of a cooperative business. In any environment where people are working together toward shared goals, a culture of shared values and traditions guides the work. But a culture of cooperation, especially when it comes to ownership, is not inherent to most business practices today. In fact, most of us have absorbed the capitalist mantra of competition at the cost of cooperation. So what can bring about a culture of cooperation that can support the success of a cooperatively-owned business, or a more cooperative and just economy for that matter?

“It Takes Roots”

Poster by Design Action Collective, a worker-owned cooperative graphic and web design firm in Oakland, CA.

On our trip, we visited Recology, the waste hauler and processor for the City and County of San Francisco. Now a massive resource management operation moving thousands of tons of trash and recyclables annually with over 2,000 employees, Recology came out of informal cooperative crews of Italian immigrant entrepreneurs who took on the task of collecting trash in burgeoning urban San Francisco in the early 20th century. As the city grew, local officials devised a permit system that organized the informal waste “scavenger” crews by neighborhood. The crews realized it was in their shared interested to collectivize to share resources like trucks. Two cooperatively-owned companies emerged under the new permit system. Eventually, the cooperatives formed into one entity, Recology, which is no longer a cooperative but has an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The ESOP confers ownership benefits to all employees, and functions like a retirement benefit. Through not a consensus-driven worker-owner cooperative any longer, the ESOP does enable forms of democratic governance in the workplace, including an ESOP Board made up of workers who oversee the activities of the company’s Board of Directors.

But why did those immigrant entrepreneurs of the early days of Recology’s history form cooperative businesses in the first place? Why didn’t they just duke each other out for permits and seek domination in the marketplace? “Without overstating it, there is something to be said for the traditional culture that the trash haulers brought with them from the old world,” said Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation, one of the tour organizers. “It’s likely that many of them practiced cooperative economics in their village networks back home in Italy.” A culture of kinship and cooperation also played a role in the development of the famous Mondragon Industrial Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, where a long history of struggle for cultural and linguistic sovereignty informed the rise of a regional cooperative infrastructure that now includes over 74,000 worker-owners in almost 300 cooperatively-run corporations, plus a cooperative bank and cooperative technical college. In both cases of Mondragon and Recology, the cooperative economic model mirrors and grows from the cooperative social and culture infrastructure that was already there.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Italian immigrants formed informal cooperative crews to collect waste in San Francisco in the early 20th century. Later, these informal cooperatives became cooperatively-owned corporations. Photo Credit:

This is the place where I feel some frustration and defeat about what’s possible. What do we do to build worker ownership and empowerment in Los Angeles… today… where a culture of shared power and collectivity is not the cultural paradigm?

Some of the Bay Area leaders shared about the importance of building the “political muscle” of worker cooperatives through trainings and connecting to on-the-ground community organizing work. For example, a special alliance formed between PODER (a grassroots community organizing force rooted in San Francisco’s immigrant community) and the newest worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery in the Mission neighborhood of the city. After years of organizing against displacement and environmental dumping in their community, PODER worked with Arizmendi to connect community leaders to the opportunity to become cooperative owners of the bakery. Strategically for PODER, this move was a shift to include economic empowerment and ownership as a part of anti-gentrification organizing. “But we found that we had a lot of un-learning to do,” said PODER organizer Oscar Grande, “Because many of us had internalized the idea that ‘I’m can’t be a boss, I’m ‘just’ a worker,’ or ‘I’m the ONLY boss.’ We had to learn how to trust ourselves to run a business, and in a cooperative manner.”

Toward Cooperative Economies

The newest Arizmendi Bakery in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco partnered with community-based organization PODER to identify immigrant community leaders to become worker-owners.

Ultimately, building a culture of cooperation in a business context is valuable beyond worker-owned cooperative businesses. Worker-ownership and democratic workplaces are avenues toward economic systems that honor the dignity of all people and the environment through cooperation, empathy and respect. These cultural values can support community economic activity in myriad ways. Back home in LA, I’m thinking about how a culture of peer support, resource sharing and leadership development that happens through the LA Food Policy Council’s Healthy Neighborhood Market Network can benefit a newly formed fresh food purchasing cooperative, currently under works in partnership with LURN, that will build the purchasing power of small markets.

We shouldn’t underestimate how building cooperative culture into all our activities will benefit generations to come, even if they feel small scale today. This struck me as I spoke with Gopal about how nearly every aspect of his life involves cooperatives: he lives in a cooperative household with several families, the non-profit where he works is organized as a flat-democratic cooperative, and he even trains and teaches in a dojo that is designed as a cooperative. Though I may feel frustrated that we cannot overnight re-create the social and cultural conditions that nurtured the development of cooperative enterprises among Italian immigrants in San Francisco or Mondragon, Spain, I reflect on the kind of worldview that Gopal’s children will develop growing up in such an environment of cooperation. Cooperation will be their “normal.”

imageImagine what kinds of community, economic and business infrastructure they will give birth to from that kind of consciousness. As for where we are today, building new cultures and new kinds of business models, as one cooperative member said, “we make the road by walking it.”