If I let on that, here in Oakland, there is a graphic design business, a bakery, a design-build firm, a business incubator and a bicycle courier company that all have one very important similarity, what would you guess it is that they have in common? Say… you’re right: They are all worker-cooperatives. What a guess!
These businesses — Design Action Collective, Arizmendi Bakery, DIG Cooperative Inc., Uptima Business Bootcamp and Pedal Express — are all boss-free, having chosen to thrive in the solidarity economy, where, instead of competing, businesses work together.
Co-ops are not a new phenomenon. They’ve been around since the 19th century (probably far longer in an informal way), which may be why they seem like such a dusty idea, a throwback to the hey-heydays of counterculture’s last great revival, instead of seeming like the shiny, futuristic idea that they are.
“We see co-ops booming in every part of history where there is great economic need,” said Kiran Nigam, a co-owner of AORTA, a national solidarity-economy consultancy. Her point is that the growth of housing co-ops, food co-ops, worker co-ops, and credit unions has always come in waves, as an engaged response to dissatisfaction.
Oakland, along with the Bay Area more generally, is facing many less-than-satisfying situations: heavy problems like gentrification, income inequality, and opportunity inequality. As a result, there has been an upwelling of interest in creating local, sustainable, inclusive, better systems. And co-ops are one of the most well-established better systems.
They have an inherent set of values that are an extension of their structure. “Even worker co-ops that don’t have an explicit politic are still social-justice oriented,” says Nigam, “they are owned by people who live in the community in which the co-op is located, and that changes everything.”
Co-ops embody a fundamental shift in orientation away from viewing profit as the sole measure of success, towards values of equity, enfranchisement, community and sustainability (because they are valuable). Easily their most-fitting principle, cooperation is also the most revolutionary principle of the coop model. And not just cooperation within the democratic structure of their own business, but the cooperation of independent businesses in the same market.
As Sabiha Basrai of Design Action Collective put it, “There is a real intention to try and help each other’s shops grow, and figure out how we can better do our work and better sustain ourselves and be in collaboration with each other, instead of seeing each other as competitors.”
This sentiment was common to all of the co-op worker owners I talked to. Dominic Lucchesi of Pedal Express said, “We try to help promote each other, because there is this larger concept of promoting an alternative economy that we are all on board with.”
“We just wouldn’t exist if co-ops didn’t support each other,” said Nigam.
This is at the core of what it means to be part of the solidarity economy. Co-ops support each other, because doing so is an extension of the values that brought them together in the first place, and because it strengthens the network that supports them.
“Solidarity economy” is an international term that has only just been gaining favor in the United States in the last ten years. Though the term denotes a variety of social justice enterprises and endeavors, it differs importantly from the nonprofit model in that it promotes collaborative self-reliance, as opposed to grant funding.
For example, according to Maddy Van Engle of the Arizmendi Bakery Collective, their sales benefited from a promotion in which Rainbo grocery gave a discount to anyone who had a receipt for at least $10 spent at a co-op. A similar Rainbo promotional discount for bike-club shoppers had previously sent SF Bike Club membership through the roof. Likewise, according to Maddy, “it is part of our [Arizmendi’s] mission statement to support cooperatives at large.”
This inter-business cooperation manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sliding scale payment structures allow businesses like AORTA and Design Action Collective to donate their work to important causes with the financial support of paying clients. A preference for getting supplies from other local and cooperative vendors supports networks of good jobs and fair trade.
Businesses development co-ops like AORTA, Uptima Business Bootcamp, and the SELC Worker Coop Academy are specifically engaged in the work of cultivating new co-ops and teaching them the skills they need, propagating the solidarity economy and strengthening the network.
Additionally, co-ops are connected through membership in organizations such as the US Federation of Worker Coops, the bay area group NO BAWC (pronounced “no boss”), or sector specific groups such as TechWorkerCoop. The memberships fund the advocacy of the organization, and also enable them to put together conferences and workshops where members can develop new skills and ideas, and share them with the community. Every co-op I talked to had benefited directly or indirectly from participating these co-op-specific groups and events.
“We are building these skills within our businesses and sharing them with each other,” says Kiran, “and part of the reason why people are so excited right now is that they are starting to see those skills we have and how that’s impacting us, and our businesses, and our lives. They [co-ops] are not easier, they are hard work, and we have to build these skills in order to do the hard work.”
It’s an exciting time for co-ops in Oakland. There is a growing sense of momentum among the community of worker-owners. “It’s starting to come back around,” said Anya Kamenskaya, co-owner of the water conservation design-build firm DIG Cooperative Inc., “In light of all the histrionics in the central government around money and bailouts, worker co-ops are being seen more and more as a viable alternative to the status quo ways of running a business.”