Yesterday I posted a last minute notice about YES! Magazine's open Conference Call (last night) to discuss The Growing Cooperatives Movement and How You Can Get Involved.
I know of at least one other kossack who joined in the call, our very own Old Lefty, who is involved in the North Coast Mushroom Farmers Cooperative, "a brand new 501(C)16 specializing in the sustainable production of fresh and preserved mushrooms and innovative mushroom related products like myco-remediation, structural materials and functional foods."
YES! arranged the following panel for the Conference Call:
A common theme from all of the panelists is that something is happening. There is an uptick in interest and activity in the cooperative sector. As Eric Bowman described it, "mutalism is in."
Conference Call Participants
Sarah van Gelder, Executive Editor, YES! Magazine
Laura Flanders, GRITtv and the Laura Flanders Show
Omar Freilla, The Green Worker Cooperatives
Eric Bowman, The Northwest Cooperative Development Center (NWCDC)
Ted Howard, Democracy Collaborative, Evergreen Cooperatives
Mike Beall, The National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA)
The most common themes in the questions involved financing, information, and training, and a lot of good discussion occurred. I thought the call was interesting enough to transcribe it.
What follows is my own unofficial transcript of the first part of the call, wherein the host/moderator, Sarah van Gelder, Executive Editor of YES! Magazine, tells us a bit about her history with and the interest of YES! in cooperatives, followed by her conversation with the first speaker, Laura Flanders.
SARAH: First of all, we're holding [this call] today on May Day...[snip]...a historic day for celebrating workers rights worldwide.
One of the reasons we're drawn to the cooperative model is because it's such a great way to put enterprises in the service of workers and consumers and producers and people in general...rather than having people in the service of enterprises.
We've found that there's something very different that happens when human beings can make decisions driven by all of the things we care about: our communities, the freshness of our air and the [?] of our water, our children and their children down to the seventh generation, as our native friends say--all of these can come to the forefront if profit and loss statements and returning profits to those who are already wealthy isn't our dominant concern.
...At YES! Magazine, we've gotten very excited about coops as a model for stakeholders' owned and managed ways of formatting our economy.
And so our spring issue is about how cooperatives are driving the new economy...[snip]...It's been a very popular issue...it's widely used within the cooperative world and within the new economy world and we'd like to keep that conversation going and give people a chance to talk to some of the people who are in that issue of the magazine and also some people who have just general expertise about cooperatives.
So that's what we're doing today.
My own personal experience with coops goes all the way back to my first job out of college, when I was [working?] in Portland. My first job was through, actually, it was, linked to food coops in the Portland area, with local farmers, through a cooperative of food coops. So it was sort of a wholesale cooperative if you will. And we had this crazy idea that we were going to be working on an integrated local organic food system. That was way back, that was back in the early eighties.
And later, when I was raising young children, my husband and I joined up with a group of people who have created the first cohousing community of the U.S. as a cooperative right here on Bainbridge Island. So coops are something that go pretty deep for me.
I've also had a chance to visit some cooperatives in other regions of the world a bit. And, [really?], the [Emilia-] Romagna region of Italy, where there's an entire region that is more prosperous because of the kind of sharing and solidarity, and because they have an economy that isn't based on a zero sum game. In fact, a large precentage of the economy of that region of Italy is within the cooperative sector.
Just to give you one quick story on that, I was visiting a cooperative nursing home there and one of the things they mentioned is that they include in there meetings about patient care, they include everyone from the professionals down to the people who scrub the floors. Because it's a cooperative and because everyone cares about the patients and everyone has connections to the patients. And sometimes the people who are cleaning the rooms may actually spend more time with the patients and know them better.
That kind of respect for what everyone brings to the table is one of the things I think that I find so attractive about cooperatives.
Many of you know Laura Flanders wrote an article for this issue of YES! Magazine, she's the host of the Laura Flanders Show, which is currently in development for public television, and she was the host and founder of GRITtv, a nationally syndicated daily program on Free Speech TV, and the host of the Laura Flanders Show and Radio Nation on Air America Radio. She's also a New Economy contributor to The Nation, a book author, and a regular contributor to MSNBC.
Laura, can you give us a few minutes about what got you interested in cooperatives and, in particular, in the story of the New Era Windows and Doors?
LAURA: Well, let's focus on that incredible story that's coming out of Chicago, because there's some news on that story this week. You know, what the workers like to say is that in 2008, their boss decided to close down that factory and send them all home. In 2012, the workers decided to fire the boss.
Really that's the story that I've been following now since 2008. It began when I was still hosting GRITtv.
People may not remember, in the fall of 2008, there was one little spark of resistance that came out of Chicago. We called it "The Windows and Door Factory That Did."
At a time when half a million people were being fired monthly, were losing there jobs monthly around the country, this Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago received word from their boss that they were going to be fired immediately, effective that day. They would be given none of their back pay or severance. At a time when banks were being bailed out, banks that had taken undue risks, banks involved in the financing of this factory. And the owner of the factory was clearly engaged in trying to move this operation but in fact hiring temp workers elsewhere.
I became aware of this story when we got some of the workers to come on our show and put them in conversations with workers from Argentina who had taken over the factories that they'd seen crash in the financial crisis of that country years ago. And, [they] acted as a kind of model of worker engagement when they took over those factories and made them continue to run under worker control. I don't know whether we, you know, were trying to stir anything up, exactly, at GRITtv, but we did apparently help to give birth to a relationship. And the workers in Chicago, who occupied their plant at that time in 2008 for eleven days, long enough for a new buyer to come and the equipment to be saved and papers to be preserved before the owners could destroy them.
The workers in Chicago got curious about Argentina, started making relationships with workers in cooperative movements around the world. And with the help of the organization, Working World, who got them a regimen of training and learning, that took them about another two years.
Two years later, the new owners of what had been Republic Windows and Doors factory also decided they were going to close the factory, also declared they were going to let everybody go and so on.
What did the workers do this time?SARAH: That's great...
Well, this time, in 2012, they took over the factory. They made it their ask of their owners, the ask for the right from the owners to bid on the equipment. Sure, back pay and severance, but right to the workers to bid on the equipment and on the factory operations was a big part of their demands in that second takeover.
And they won. They won a promise from the company that they would be able to bid. They had the backing of the group I mentioned, Working World. They had the backing of the United Electrical Workers. They had two years of thinking and training and relationship building under their belt. And, more or less, since the winter of 2012, they've started on this campaign to being their own bosses.
The story from that point is really the one that I told in YES!, because, it's got a happy ending but it's been a long, hard haul...[snip] This coming week, May 9th, will be the official opening of the new worker-run coop called New Era Windows, that has been bascially brought about with the...sweat equity of the workers. It will be bringing jobs to the south side of Chicago and selling green windows and other windows starting next week...
LAURA: ...it would take millions of dollars to do this. They've done it for about $700,000. And there were scenes from the last year that would just, you know, break your heart, with workers moving all of the equipment themselves from location to location, with eighty tractor trailers, saving themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars, and involving, exactly as you said, Sarah, the entire community. That the entire community could understand that jobs are about a whole lot more than the pay [attached to it?]. Jobs would make or break that neighborhood of Chicago.
SARAH: That's such great news and I remember, when you turned in the article for YES!, there was a still a question about whether they were going to be able to have financing, whether they were going to be able to make a go of it.
LAURA: Well that's been one of the challenges that they've had to overcome. And it raises one of the big questions that I hope you'll be able to get to in this call.
You know, there is not capital to support coops at this point. Financing is very hard for workers to get hands on. They were able to find some $500,000 through private sources, mostly Working World, and it was with that that they've made this happen. But the banks that are supposedly charged with stimulating our economy and encouraging small businesses turned them down for loan after loan, even though they had the equipment as collateral.SARAH: That's a wonderful story, Laura. Were there any particular people that you got to know through that and any particular pieces about there story and how they came from that situation of workers, like so many workers around the U.S. who are losing their jobs, feeling that they were able to make that choice for themselves, to be the worker-owners rather than the worker-victims, if you will?
It's a big story and while there's great possibility here and excitement and it's fantastic that all the jobs at the factory are not going to be lost it is opening up smaller and it has revealed exactly where the weaknesses are in our system for anyone trying to, well, start a new era in business.
LAURA: Well, one guy I remember was a glass maker of some [?] that had been working at the plant for over a decade, his name is Melvin Macklin (?), he's about sixty years old by now I guess.
"...He said, "Republic walked away from our jobs. Serious [Materials], which was the name of the next company, "walked away from our jobs. But we're not walking away from our jobs."So he had to scrounge up from his friends and relations the money to buy into the coop. The workers are following very clear rules and guidelines established by years of coops around the country and the world. Add training. He had to come up with a thousand dollars.
He got it, that as a sixty year old man or in that neighborhood he's not going to find a new job. And that affects his family, his community, everybody in his town. He said to me, "you know, the owner's agenda is different from the workers. But in the coop the workers and the owners are one and the same."
He borrowed that money from, some of it from a nephew, because he believed...that, well, he actually said to me, "well you know, we didn't know the first occupation was going to be successful. We didn't know the second occupation was going to be successful." He thought he was going to jail both times. But until they tried it, they didn't know, and that's sort of the attitude that they're taking now.
"We know what the alternatives are. This can't be worse. We have a say. We're going to take the risk." And that's exactly what they've done.
SARAH: That's terrific. Thank you so much, Laura...[snip] Any final words you want to say as you take off?
LAURA: Well, I feel kind of a conflict of interest here...but I will say, that people in media out there should know that these stories are incredibly popular stories. People have passed around every piece I've written about the Chicago Windows and Doors. Every clip that's been on GRITtv has been seen thousands of times. This is, people are hungry for this kind of reporting, which is why I'm so glad that YES! put together that issue this spring. If you think your audience, that this is not up their alley, I just think you're wrong. I love being on this seat. I hope to stay on it. But I encourage many of you all to come along.
SARAH: So there's room for more people on the coop and new economy beat, sounds like...Thanks you so much...really appreciate you coming on.
TO BE CONTINUED