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No Work Without Workers
Your suggestions for readings on worker cooperatives
Other Feminisms usually runs two posts a week—the first an essay by me, the second a round up of your responses to a recent essay. In August, there will be one post a week most weeks as my family moves to a new home.
The core idea of Other Feminisms is that we live in a culture that is hostile to women because it embraces a false idea of what it means to be human. Our culture idealizes autonomy, and claims we are freest when we depend on no one and no one depends on us. That false image harms everyone, but women find it uniquely hard to live under this lie.
A few weeks ago, I asked Other Feminisms readers for reading suggestions on worker-led cooperatives. This model of business takes mutual dependence and relationship as a foundational assumption, rather than seeing the workplace as an amoral marketplace for labor. And yes, some non-cooperatives talk about other models (“Our company is a family”) but without structural teeth, that often is a way for bosses to ask for more and offer less.
Virginia pointed to a series of articles by the Food & Environmental Reporting Network (FERN). One piece focuses on a rural community that adopted coops from necessity, but whose model has been hard to spread:
If you stay a spell in Westby, you’re likely to notice another of its distinguishing features. Most of the major businesses in town are cooperatives, meaning they’re owned by the same people who use their services. The local phone, cable, and Internet service provider is a co-op dating back to 1950, when local farmers, tired of waiting for distant monopolies to run wires to their homesteads, got together and formed their own telephone company. Similarly, the local electrical utility is a co-op formed in 1938 to bring electricity to the countryside when the power companies didn’t see enough profit in it. The Vernon Electric Cooperative, part of the region’s larger Dairyland Power Cooperative system, is still going strong as it expands into solar and continues to write checks to its 10,000 local owner-users for their share of its surplus revenues. Meanwhile, the Westby Co-op Credit Union offers Westby residents the chance to be their own bankers, and an old-line farmers’ co-op, now called Accelerated Genetics, offers cattle-breeding services to its members.
Coops have some specific legislative carve-outs from anti-trust legislation. But that means small coops can come up against coops-on-paper-only that have used these exemptions to seize control of an industry chokepoint in a way that would otherwise be illegal.
Mary suggested a look at St. JPII’s Laborem Excercens, particularly section 7, which focuses on what we get wrong when we divorce labor from the laborer.
In the modern period, from the beginning of the industrial age, the Christian truth about work had to oppose the various trends of materialistic and economistic thought.
For certain supporters of such ideas, work was understood and treated as a sort of "merchandise" that the worker—especially the industrial worker—sells to the employer, who at the same time is the possessor of the capital, that is to say, of all the working tools and means that make production possible. […] There is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he—he alone, independently of the work he does—ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. […]
The error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.
Martha suggested a self-paced course on worker coops (which I’m bookmarking for after my move) and a number of syllabi, which gave me a slew of books to add to my wishlist. (Top of my list is Alternative Work Organizations edited by Maurizio Atzeni.)
Definitely a post-move project, if it happens, but here are a few of the books I’ve had my eye on that could fit:
The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World by Ran Abramitzky
Making Mondragón: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex by William Foote Whyte & Kathleen King Whyte
Practicing Cooperation: Mutual Aid beyond Capitalism by Andrew Zitcer
The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul
Let me know what you’d recommend and if you’d be interested!