Previously in this series:
Notice: The Growing Cooperatives Movement & How You Can Get Involved. YES! Magazine Conference Call - Includes some information on cooperatives and YES! Magazine, an important resource for understanding New Economy and other subjects of relevance to progressives, especially those inclined toward direct action.
Call Transcript, Pt 1 (Sarah van Gelder, Laura Flanders)
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)
A transcript of the Question and Answer period of the conference call follows.
SARAH: ...one of the questions that we're getting quite a few of are about the specific financing, how do we get going, kinds of questions. So...what does financing look like for a coop? Do you use crowdsourcing like Kickstarter? There's a question from Larry Buzbee from Willits, CA, who says, "Do you do crowdsourcing especially for farmers coops? You can't do the same kind of equity financing--or can you?--that private businesses use...or get loans from your credit union? Where does a coop get financing to get off the ground or to expand?
MIKE: I think those first two are interesting ones. I think they're lots of hard work. I think one of the things that we'd like to see is...I think there's two things to financing: there's start-up and then there's expansion. And I think in the expansion realm, credit unions are an easy spot[?] and actually I think coop banks, co-banks, others can do this. It's really matching up these coops to some of the folks that'll do this financing. On the start-up it's a little tougher, but...I still think what we really need is a good template for folks who are doing a start-up to be able to approach financial institutions. I'm not saying crowdsourcing and other things aren't a good approach, but, coming from a more traditional cooperative banking background, I think a template would help put folks in the neighborhood of the types of information, the types of securitization that are going to be needed to move forward.
There's a lot more financing out there than there appears. There's 7,000 credit unions. Literally thousands of them are doing business lending, but they don't really have connections across the street to the local coops to know what those coops need, and vice versa.SARAH: So it sounds like there's some amazing opportunities out there to connect for different pieces of the coop sector who aren't really supporting each other. Here's another question that we just got in. This is texted, so I don't know who it came from. "Help us break in, are there any training programs, or fellowships, or jobs to look for?" Omar, do you have some thoughts about them?
OMAR: Yes, and I have some thoughts about the previous question, also.
There are some small tiny number of training opportunities that are available. Certainly in New York City, we have The Green Worker Cooperatives and the Coop Academy, which has also inspired a few other similar coop academies in the other parts of the country. So, Cooperation Texas in Austin runs their own cooperative business academy. There's a new coop academy getting off the ground in Worchester, MA, that was started by the Worchester Roots project, where the folks who kicked off a cooperative of young folks [Youth In Charge] doing lead removal...I just blanked on their name, but someone will text it, I'm sure [Toxic Soil Busters].Certainly, worker cooperatives are generally not discussed in the mainstream, so wherever there's an opportunity--whether it's a grassroots cooperative development organization or connected to an academic institution that inserts a class on cooperative...--anyplace where there's opportunity to just insert information about cooperatives creates a space where people are then able to be inspired and want to start their own cooperative. We've found that people who come to us and say they want to start a cooperative are people who have some familiarity with it already, even if it's miniscule.
So there are a few opportunities that are out there and we're in communication with people in other parts of the country who have reached out and asked about how to start up their own version of a coop academy. I know that there's an effort with the, in the Center for Workplace Democracy and a few others. So there are opportunities out there but they're few and far between.
MIKE: ...I was just going to jump in on the other side...to the employment side to this...that we're looking to launch a pretty big website to lay out the what the cooperative business job opportunities and what the opportunities are for any internships and get that up in the summer, so you'll be seeing that. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to step over...
SARAH: Okay.... Who's speaking?
MIKE: This is Mike. At our NCBA website, we've noticed that there's a need to be able to bring that together and we'll be letting anybody post, I think just about, with some vetting, that wants to put up the opportunities, so they'll be able, so there'll be one place to go to across the country for cooperative opportunities.
SARAH: That's great, and if you could send us that link we'll include it in the e-mail.
We have a question here from Thomas [?] that says, "what kind of work is being done to integrate community organizing and movement building efforts so we have a real revolutionary transformation and eliminate the forms of oppression central to capitalism, so that that effort is linked to the worker cooperatives movement?" Do you have any thoughts about that?
OMAR: Well, I'll add here. There are a few efforts underway.
We have been working in a collaborative of other community organizations in efforts to start-up and broaden cooperatives in the Bronx and actually taking a nod from Ted and the other folks at Evergreen of building in support of anchor institutions as purchasers but also working with community-based organizations who have membership-based organizations to educate members on the concepts of democracy. And that's been through an effort that we call the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative.
So, we're working with community-based organizations, several, that have members, to really go through how did we get into this financial mess in the first place? How is it that the Bronx has been a dumping ground for so long? And what are the opportunities to really create not just a new economy but a democratic economy, so that all of the things people say that they want we can actually implement and create, so that there are opportunities for that?
But, you know, when we started The Green Worker Cooperatives, it was with the idea that the cooperatives we're creating serve as a counter to the kinds of industries that our community has long been subject to.So, whenever there is a campaign that's happening, whether it is--in one case, we have a cooperative that is called Caracol Interpreters Cooperative, which provides language interpretation for social justice organizations that are doing events, where they want to make sure that their members can fully access information. They have really been gung ho and pushing the concept of language justice and saying that all people have a right to be able to be heard and speak what's on their mind and to understand what's being talked about...and so they're directly involved in efforts, so we see that each..
...and we make this a point that we stress in our Coop Academy: each cooperative is engaged in an industry, that industry is having impacts, for better or worse. And, if their cooperative is going to take a role of being based in a community, which they're a part of, then it's an obligation on them to really look at what are the opportunities for changing that industry and using their work as a cooperative to be able to advance the issues and the needs of their members and the community that they're a part of.SARAH: Great. Thank you.
Now, let's just take this to the next level and look at...[snip]...public policy in terms of cooperatives. We have a question from Dan Taylor from West Virginia who says, "What public policy can better support the formation and scaling up of coops?" And then David Woo from Philadelphia asks "Where do the panelists stand on the National Cooperative Development Act?" So Ted, do you have some views about how public policy intersects with the coop movement?
TED: Yeah, thanks Sarah, I do. Last week I was in Chicago actually and I testified before the Task Force. They had been established by the governor of Illinois to look at this and a broader range of community wealth-building strategies. And I told them there are tons of things in terms of public policy that can really support the development and expansion of cooperatives. One, you know, in Illinois, we did an analysis of the law, and it was actually quite antiquated. It was built for agricultural coops, but not really worker ownership coops.
So there's a whole series of reforms that could be made...[snip]... Anyway, we could go through a lot of other things that could be done, but there's this National Act that's been developed with Chaka Fattah and CEA and others and it would help a lot in terms of cooperative development around the country.
MIKE: I'm going to jump in here. It's Mike, from NCBA. You know, we've got lobbyists on the ground on Capitol Hill and, what I will tell you, and, I'm going back to this but...
...the Obama budget took the one line item that does fund cooperative development, the rural cooperative development grant program, and lumped it in with about seven or eight other unrelated cooperative programs. This was an elimination of that. And we've been all over the Hill fighting it. And actually sitting down with USDA to call it really an unfortunate way that the administration, I think, missed the bigger picture on rural cooperative development. And frankly, it should have been looked to more fully support and expand that initiative.What we've actually gotten in response actually on Capitol Hill has been pretty interesting, because, when you get to the other piece of your question, is that, unfortunately, with some of the interests in some of the development initiatives, they're skewed only towards Democrat and liberal members of Congress. We've been working with Congressman Fattah to bring Republicans on board. With their control of the house this doesn't get even a hearing without some Republican balance to it. And, actually, there are a number of Republican members of the House who are friendly to agriculture, electric coops, credit unions. They get the concept. They need to be walked through to understanding this. But creating that full knowledge of why a coop is important, to me, really isn't based on political party or leaning.
We've got lots of work to do on the Hill, but if you dropped into our website at ncba.coop, make sure you take some time to let your congressman know that you want rural cooperative development funding increased. And I stress that that's one of the first places that we're working at.
There is another initiative which is to try to get kind of a companion which would do some of the cooperative work in the urban areas and fund that. It's a bit of an uphill battle right now because of funding mechanisms in D.C. being what they are. But I think we have to keep at that and we have to keep line items open that do fund cooperative development out of the federal government.
SARAH: Great, thank you...
ERIC: [snip]... there are a couple of things in the chat chute that I want to cue off of. And one is that I want to mention that there's a hundred and one ways that the business environment can be potentially even openly hostile to cooperatives, which ranges from, when you go to incorporate a coop the government doesn't have a form, they don't know the state law you're talking about...you know, the American Bankers Association is constantly trying to rein in what authorities credit unions have to lend. In your state, are the rural electrics regulated like an investor-owned firm? You know, I think there's a lot of ways in which cooperatively-owned enterprises are at a distinct disadvantage to extremely well-funded corporate interests. I don't think they're anti-coop, I think they're like, oh, well this is something that I'm going to support because this is good for my specific industry.
Everybody supports the National Cooperative Development Act. I want to enunciate what Mike was saying about there being an enormous amount of bipartisan support for cooperatives. We meet extremely conservative politicians who remember what it was like before the family had electricity and remember what it was like after they...I mean, before they had commodity marketing with the coop, and then after they had commodity marketing with coop. They understand the values of self-reliance, self-help, democracy...I think there's a lot of things that cue off across the political spectrum that coops can resonate with.
SARAH: So there's some really great opportunities for blue, red sort of mixing it up on this issue it looks like. [snip]
Let me then go on to another question here. This is Nora Durand from Coupeville, Washington. She says, "I live on Whidby Island and would like to start a coop on Whidby Island. Is there a group in our area that can help finding like-minded individuals who would like to start a coop on the island?" And maybe to expand this so that it applies to other people around the country, where would you go, if you were wanting to start a coop? Who would you look to, to partner with? We've talked some about what you might do for financing, but who would you look to for encouragement and advice and moving you plan forward, wherever you happen to be?
ERIC: ...You know, one, we get a lot of people who just google cooperatives and whatever state they're in. There is a network of Cooperative Development Centers [Cooperation Works: Cooperative Development Network]. There are also various groups that work in different industries, like Food Coop Initiative. If she was referring to a food coop we have a lot of great information.
Connecting this back to a conversation that we were having earlier about community organizing...you know, it's community organizing and radicalism, I guess. You know, a lot of cooperatives come from a need. "I need my farm to be viable, so I need a way to market my apples." "I need a place to get low cost health food 'cause my kid has food allergies and it's too far to drive to Whole Foods two hours away" or whatever. You know, usually there's that economic need that pulls people and that first real wave of effort involving people that say "hey, I have a problem, do you have this problem? Do you want to do something together?"
So, you know, initially just kind of talking to one of your neighbors locally and going to community groups, the church or the vegetarian potluck or whatever social networks you participate in. Then, there are some resources out there. The Food Coop Initiative, Cooperative Development Services just put a ton of information that is available on the web that I think is available across sector. The U.S. Federation of Worker Coops and the Northwest Development Fund [sic?] have done a lot of work around worker coops.So maybe with that Omar and Ted and Mike could pick up.
TED: Yeah, that was great, Eric. All of those suggestions were really good. I added a couple more. We at the Democracy Collaborative have a website that features lots of different community wealth-building models and support groups and technical assistance and so forth, and that's community-wealth.org. If you search on there for cooperatives, you'll find all kinds of things including toolkits and all that. So that's one possibility.
And you'll see lots of groups, like The ICA Group, which is based in Boston but does work around the country that helps people who want to start coops.
The other thing I've found that's really helpful is to get people together for a conversation about these things. There's this great new film that's been reported on in YES! and many other places. It's called "Shift Change" and its website's called shiftchange.org. And it's a great conversation starter, because it's about worker coops all over the United States. And it's a way to get people together at churches or libraries or whatever to start these discussions. And there are other tools like that.SARAH: Ted, I think that's a great idea. And I remember when our cohousing community was getting started, some twenty years ago, the first people who formed that core group were people who came to see a slide show about cohousing communities elsewhere.
I think a big part of it is opening the imaginations of people about what could be done in our community and showing them examples of how other people in America have done similar kinds of things.
So, those people who express that interest--if you put on your community organizer hat, you get their contact information, you send them emails, you set up meeting dates, and pretty soon you're having that core group of people to get things done, wherever you are.Let me bring in a question from Pat [Jovic?] who is here on Bainbridge Island, and she asks, "What progress is being made with the connection with U.S. unions?" You may remember that in the current issue of YES! Magazine that there's an article about the Steelworkers in particular but some of the other unions now as well, now they're collaborating the Mondragon cooperative to look at building union-owned or union-managed coops, worker-coops here in the U.S. Do we have any news about how that is progressing? Does anybody know?
TED: I'm not involved in the Mondragon-United Steelworkers effort, but I know that in Pittsburgh things are going forward and that in Cincinnati, I believe, there's an effort underway there.
I do know, it's interesting, because historically there's been a disconnect between organized labor and the cooperative movement for a number of reasons. And I think unions have been somewhat suspicions of cooperatives because many are not unionized. It's a question of mixing the role of the ownership of capital and labor. We at the Democracy Collaborative initiative have been in conversation with a number of people who have in unions, like the AFL-CIO, who have, and they're, I really think that, because of the challenges that U.S. organized labor is facing--it's been downhill since the 1950's and trade unions peaked at about 33%, something like that, of the labor force, and now the private sector it's like 8-9%--unions are now open to these questions. And I know in Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative the Bronx project that Omar, you referred to, there's a lot of interest in SEIU. I know that the Cooperative Home Care Associates--which is the largest worker coop in America, there's something like 2,000 members--I believe that's a SEIU unionized coop. So, there's dialog going on and there's a lot more interest in how to join these two approaches to business, jobs, ownership of wealth.SARAH: Great. We have another question here from David Woo in Philadelphia, which is, "How do we get the rest of America excited about it?" "What do we have to do to build mainstream media interest in this movement?" Any thoughts about that? And I think we're about to wrap up so this may be our wrap-up question, if you want to answer this and perhaps just add a wrap-up comment.
ERIC: ...[snip]...Cooperatives need to be very vocal about what they are. I would go so far as to say that many coop employees, many credit union employees aren't even aware of the implications of the ownership structure. So, making sure that we're telling our own story about the impact that cooperatives are having in the lives of our respective members would be extremely meaningful.
You know, David Woo's like, how do we move cooperatives into the mainstream? One of the things we work very hard to communicate is that coops are the mainstream. They're not alternative. I mean, in a way we think of them that way but it's to say like...we recently got SBA to kind of acknowledge, oh, these are actual businesses. Ha. It felt like this really big [???] for us.
SARAH: The Small Business Administration.
ERIC: Correct. So, just simply having it as an option, having it being taught as part of an MBA program. I think that if we think of it as alternative, you know, like, the big critique of alternative medicine is that "well, if it worked it wouldn't be alternative," and, you know, if you could substantiate the science it wouldn't get stuck...and, I mean, I'm a believer in a lot of alternative medicine's way, but how do you make sure that the story we are presenting is legitimate and viable and not just this fringe element is, I think, at the heart of what he's saying.
I guess, those would be my two closing points: one, is to tell our story--'cause the thing is...when a farmer's coop saves a farm, a family farm's operation, I mean, that is a headline news story. So, telling our story and then, two, is just making sure that we are presenting it as a reasonable option.SARAH: Now, I would just add to that, thank you, I would just add to that at the local level, those kinds of stories travel really well. People want to know that their neighbor's able to stay in business because of the cooperative movement. And that's a very meaningful thing. So I think that's really important, that people actually tell those stories. Don't be shy about the implications of being a credit union, of being a coop. That's a meaningful presence in the community, that's a powerful force for good and it's worth trumpeting that a little bit. Thank you.
TED: You know, it is true about cooperatives not being reported as the first story on the evening news or on the front page of many of the papers, generally. But something is happening. It's been really interesting to me. Some of the people on the call may know that, last month, one of the governors of the Federal Reserve Board, Sarah Raskin, did the speech to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which is an organization concerned not about coops but about urban and community development.
And in that speech, a governor of the Federal Reserve Board gave an endorsement of cooperative structures as a significant way to generate jobs and start to address wealth inequality in America.So something is starting to percolate and I think we need to just keep driving forward.
Incidentally, last year, the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank issued a book called, "What Works for Investing in America's Communities?" And in there, they invited me and I think others to do chapters on cooperative ownership. The chapter I did is called "Owning Your Own Job Is A Beautiful Thing." Now, I would venture that four years ago the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Reserve Bank were not doing that sort of thing.
SARAH: Thank you Ted. That's good to hear. Mike, do you have some closing thoughts on how to get this out into the mainstream media? Hello Mike? You still there? I think we may have lost Mike.
So this is our first conference call experiment at YES! Magazine. We really do appreciate hearing from all of our guests, our panelists Laura, Omar, Eric, Ted and Mike. It's been a remarkable conversation. We're going to keep the chat window open for a little bit longer for people who want to be exchanging links with each other or answering each others questions, but we're going to wrap up this part of the conversation at this point.
And we just wanted to ask you a few things. One is to check out the current issue of YES! Magazine--if you haven't seen it already--it's now all posted at yesmagazine.org. And you can find it by going to the Magazine tab. As you probably know, YES! Magazine has been covering all sorts of locally-rooted green, democratic businesses for many years. And we have all sorts of material archived under our New Economy tab. So I encourage you to go there and to browse as well.
We'd love to get your feedback on this conference call, it's our first time producing this sort of format. And we're wondering if we should be doing more of these, if you found it helpful and if you have any suggestions about how to do it better. [comment about survey for listeners]...if you have further questions you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll try publish answers at our site and we'll do the best that we can to get answers to your questions, and maybe our panelists can help you out with some of those.
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