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The Occupation of Workplace Democracy: Challenges and solutions for a solidarity economy

Part two of an interview with Cheyenna Weber of SolidarityNYC

by Dru Oja Jay

Photo courtesy of SolidarityNYC
Photo courtesy of SolidarityNYC

Read part one, Cooperating to Replace Capitalism.

In this, the second and concluding part of an email dialogue about the work of SolidarityNYC, Cheyenna Weber discusses the challenge of cooperative self-management in the context of social movements like Occupy Wall Street.

It's interesting that the barriers to starting a co-op, are not money or expertise but stable and trusting relationships. In your experience so far, what does it look like to build those kind of relationships successfully?

A few years ago a friend did a series of interviews of veteran co-op members in and around the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts. When asking why co-ops failed individuals routinely said having a strong process for confronting conflict, and allowing individuals to advocate for their own needs, was the most important component of success in the governance of a co-op. To have a stable relationship with someone you need the freedom to speak honestly with one another, even when it isn't pleasant. Cultivating cultures of openness through story sharing, deep check-ins, social elements like sharing meals or getting to know one another's families, celebrating each other's work and recognizing both weakness and strengths, etc. is a priority in any successful group's efforts. We must also find ways to hold each other accountable. Whether a group decides to create informal or formal processes, ranging from ad hoc conversations when something arises to formal evaluations or mediation, the discussion about how to handle our inevitable failures is vital to our long-term success. It's incredibly painful to find yourself in a conflict with no established path to address it within a group setting, and in my experience the pain escalates in direct proportion to the amount of personal investment we have in the work where the conflict is taking place. Running a business is easy enough, as many have shown. It's the getting along with each other we still have to work out!

In terms of people learning to hold each other accountable and resolving conflict, what are some of the resources you've been drawing on? Where does the most useful training and knowledge come from?

I'm still looking for resources on this, so if folks have specific ideas they should contact me! Seriously, though, most of my investigation and research on this topic is with the other core members of SolidarityNYC. Lately we've settled on a series of deep check-ins and story sharing over a meal every other Saturday morning. We've found that we need time outside meetings to get to know each other better and build trust. Those meetings are also specifically designed for sharing where we're struggling to align values and practice, providing an opportunity for us to investigate issues both within and outside the group. This has given us all a lot of support to hold each other accountable and work through conflict. We've also begun participating in ZEGG forum, which is a facilitated process for helping individuals understand their own experience and share it with a group. The training at the Rockwood Leadership Institute was also important for me because it helped me understand biologically the reactions I would have to given situations in my work.

How did the Occupy Workplace Democracy event unfold; what kinds of interactions took place there in terms of the bridging the gaps you describe?

The Occupy Workplace Democracy event was very successful. In the first section, we asked two trainers from the Democracy At Work Network (DAWN), Joe Marraffino and Aaron Dawson, to provide a nuts and bolts presentation outlining the steps needed to form a worker cooperative and the resources available. This gave every budding co-op in the room a blueprint, even while the trainers acknowledged the steps could come in a different order and might look different depending on the business and the group.

In the second section we brought together a panel of worker owners to discuss the primary challenges they had experienced. We chose a group that reflected co-ops at different stages of development, so we'd have a wide range of concerns to choose from, and asked each panelist to tell a specific story. These folks-Jon Goldberg from Palante tech, Adam Trott from Collective Copies, Joshua Stephens from Just Walk, and Joel Frank from Green Worker Cooperatives-gave concrete examples of their mistakes and strong advice about how to avoid such mistakes. (We'll have a video of this soon at http://solidaritynyc.org/further-reading.)

In the third section we hosted a reception, with food from the Occupy Wall Street Kitchen, where the trainers, panelists, various worker co-op movement folks, and the would-be worker owners could talk with each other. We allowed any worker co-op incubator or ally group to make an announcement, including technical assistance providers who could help with legal advice, accounting, or business development. Our hope was that if we created a space for these connections to be made it would take some of the pressure off specific individuals and organizations in the movement to connect everyone who wanted to be connected.

We achieved what we set out to achieve but the results for the emerging co-ops have been mixed. While most of them now have information, access to some resources, and a basic understanding of what's needed, many are still struggling to become stable groups. Until they have committed members, who trust each other, their efforts cannot move forward. Unfortunately there isn't any free support for that kind of group development other than the peer-to-peer networking we've done within OWS and which NYC Network of Worker Co-ops provides to the larger city movement each month. We're still learning how to best support this formation but the Occupy Workplace Democracy event was a good start.

What kinds of ties do you see emerging between people who have a co-op as their main project and folks who mainly organize actions or popular education? Where people don't have time or energy to do both in a committed way, are there ways they can support each other?

I was getting at this above, I think. Co-ops are communities with defined values and practices the same as the affinity groups or organizations who are actively fighting for social change. It would make sense for co-ops to develop liaisons to the various groups, aligned with specific values, and then match the needs with the haves. This happens at Park Slope Food Co-op all the time. The Co-op has supported a range of political projects, from anti-fracking efforts to the Brooklyn Food Coalition to Occupy Wall Street. It is able to do so because the business model (which requires working membership) is successful and it has a surplus of labor as a result. Without committed co-op folks doing the work of maintaining the business it wouldn't be able to support these larger movement activities. There are many ways to make a new world but we all need to pull together whenever possible.

You spoke of emerging co-ops. What kinds of ideas are being attempted? Can you talk a little more about the lessons coming out of these efforts?

The emerging co-ops include a copy shop, a screenprinting business, a tech support firm, and a worker-owned restaurant. Most of them are directly related to operations that were put into place during the occupation of Zuccotti Park last fall. OccuCopy provides flyers, stickers, buttons, and posters to working groups within Occupy Wall Street in addition to outside orders. The screenprinting co-op is emerging from a guild of dedicated volunteers who produced t-shirts and posters at large mobilizations and on site at the park for anyone who wanted on a donation basis. The tech support firm is emerging from the work of several talented web developers who have been behind the many websites and applications we've used at OWS. The worker-owner restaurant folks also want to develop a community supported kitchen as part of their model, and they're all folks who were involved in the OWS Kitchen that at one point fed more people each day than any of the largest soup kitchens in NYC. All of them have representatives who meet regularly to discuss our projects and our shared vision for co-op development in our city.

A few of the lessons learned have been specific to OWS and our relationship to General Assembly, which I won't go into, but suffice to say we learned pretty early that not every self-identified radical supports co-ops as anti-capitalist economic development. I think that came as a bit of a shock and made us aware that there is a lot of misunderstandings about how co-ops work and what their role has been in social movements. We also all felt somewhat uneasy about incorporation--should we be nonprofits, LLCs, co-ops under NY state law, B corporations, etc.? What we learned from the wonderful folks at the Urban Justice Center is that incorporation doesn't really matter that much, actually, and it's really about how you write your by-laws and structure your practices that matters.

Read part one: Cooperating to Replace Capitalism.

* * *

Dru Oja Jay (the interviewer) is a Montreal-based writer and organizer. He is co-author of the forthcoming Paved with Good Intentions: Canada's development NGOs from idealism to imperialism.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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