In my last post I introduced some of you to the concept of the worker cooperative. Mostly I tried to dispel the rumors that the term “worker cooperative” was code words for socialist or communists. I tried to give a sense that this term and all it’s intention is democracy in its purist form, one vote for one person. How I wish our country functioned on that sacred pledge but that’s another story. For now let me talk about some of the things I’ve learned this past two days.
Day one was dedicated to tours of Chicago. I didn’t do the tours because well I live in Chicago. The evening meet and greet was held at SEIU Healthcare (http://www.seiuhcilin.org). My first thought when I saw this on the schedule was, there’s a health care cooperative? I bet the AMA doesn’t like this idea. More of this thought later. What was striking to me when I arrived was the number of young people in attendance. I soon learned that the worker cooperative movement is not just sprouting up on college campuses. It’s growing like weeds on steroids.
The site of all those teens and twenty somethings gave me a sense of hope. You see these young people might have been birthed by the “me generation” as I see it. I disagree with Tom Wolfe that Baby Boomers are the “me” generation. I think the term also applies to the generation behind us. I am a Boomer and proud of it. The “me’s” had it even easier. Whatever eras you attribute the “me’s”, we gave up and gave in. We started out wearing hair long as we can grow it and love beads and those god-awful bell bottom pants and we protested the Vietnam war and we picketed and revolted and then turned in to a big part of corporate America. We sold out but enter this group of vibrant young people. We can only hope that this group can maintain their concern for the planet and the people on it. They are talking about social justice and equality. Their voices are really needed at this time in history. I don’t think I even knew how badly we need these young people until day two of the conference.
Walking into the big conference presentation center at UIC student center I was again impressed by the hundreds of young people in attendance from all over the country and some from other countries as well, but also there were hundreds of folks with mingled gray hair and shocking white hair and losing hair. We were a microcosm of the earth. There were even little kids and babies. This conference provided on site daycare for attendees. I was a little saddened by the much smaller number of African Americans. As the day wore on I was even more determined to spread the word about worker cooperatives and what they stand for especially for minorities and women. I happen to belong to both camps.
I learned that there were two groups of people who are not allowed to form unions, domestics and farm workers. Seventy years ago the New Deal protected workers but Southern influence denied basic workers rights to domestics and farmworkers. In case you haven’t made the connection this group of people pretty much describes slave laborers in the field and in the big house. Today the battle continues. Worker cooperatives are forming to provide some leverage to domestic workers.
By the afternoon sessions I thought lunch would creep up on me causing the well known conference nods. Not at this conference, I didn’t see a single nodding head or series of communicable yawns among a group of hundreds even when the translation equipment failed and two interpreters had to inform us via Italian to Spanish to English at the keynote by Emilia Romagna Cooperative (http://www.legacoopemiliaromagna.coop/english). I will limit my comments about the Italian method of establishing cooperatives to say that the culture of Italy and the long history of the Catholic church contributed greatly to development and continued support for worker cooperatives. I do have to add that in the Emilia Romagna region 1 out of every 3 people belong to some type of cooperative. During the worst unemployment crisis around the European Union, the cooperative areas had considerably lower unemployment rates. (8% as opposed to over 12%).
The breakout session I attended was Policy 101. I attended this one because I wanted to interview Richard Aidlin of the American Sustainable Business Council (http://asbcouncil.org). I didn’t expect to be so excited and moved by policy. Silly me, by now I should have expected passion at every level.
We were asked to pair up to discuss how we would garner support from our local governments to support legislation for worker cooperatives. I was in a group of four women from different parts of the country. One attendee was in a restaurant cooperative. They are facing an interesting problem. The members from dish washers to head chef want to work cooperatively. To increase the communal income the waitstaff pool their tips with the other sources of profit within the cooperative. Seems like a great idea. Hey these people want to share, how novel is that? Well it appears it is also against the law. There is no law in place in the state to allow them to be so thoughtful of each other and to have such dignity for the work that each of them provide to make the business a success. This was not the worst situation to be discussed.
A previously quiet black woman in our group spoke up. Her voice rose in intensity as she explained to three astonished northerners that Mississippi has laws against worker cooperatives. Why and how is it that this type of injustice still astounds me? After all I am living in a country where congress drags its feet on measures to insure social justice and our president is openly called the “N” word.