Mindset of a Cooperator

mindsetTraditional companies mostly exist to make money for their owners. Worker cooperatives do that too, but often have several additional goals. Like traditional companies, they have a business plan to ensure that those goals are always in view. Traditional companies typically have an authoritarian leadership style. If you are unhappy, your only option is to leave the company. Worker cooperatives, on the other hand, are democratically governed. The purpose of democracy is for different views to come together for the good of the community. Sometimes, views are strongly held and conflicts arise. Conflicts may be unpleasant, but they are a reality of life in community.

In her book, Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, Diane Leafe Christian says that the main reason intentional communities, a form of cooperative housing, fail is conflict. The trick is to know how to deal with conflicts. Better yet, know how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

If, in our increasingly polarized society of today, you were to put a random group of people together and expect them to work together, you will no doubt have conflicts. From day one children are conditioned to compete with each other. They have to walk first, talk first, run faster, have better grades, be captain of the football team or the cheerleaders. The average person is just not prepared to be in community like God created us to be and conflicts will arise. So, the first thing to do is to avoid putting random people together in the first place. Instead, before committing to a new member in your cooperative, have an honest conversation about the person’s values. Is he/she willing to yield for the good of the community as a whole? Does he/she subscribe to the idea that a group can achieve more than the sum of their individual efforts?

Conflicts will occur despite your best effort to avoid them. Key to avoiding conflicts, Diane Christian says, is communication. Have clearly defined goals for your organization. Have clearly defined methods for governing your organization. When you get stuck, have a method for resolving the issues. Get trained in how the participatory democratic process works. Use outside facilitators for discussions. Have frequent, scheduled meetings where everyone participates.

Workplace democracy may seem like a lot of work. It may seem unproductive at times. After all, you cannot sell it. It is, however, of vital importance for the wellbeing of the cooperative so please do not skimp on this. Have weekly work meetings. This is how you develop new ideas for how to work together. This is how you prevent minor conflicts from blowing up and sinking your company in the process.

Starting a Business Together

laborResearch shows that more than half of American workers are unhappy at work. For some, work is even daily torture. The reasons are many and varied. Maybe it is low pay. Maybe it is lack of recognition. Maybe it is personality conflicts. No wonder many dream about starting their own business. For most, it remains a dream, however. Most never actually try.

That is not really a big surprise. Starting a business is a daunting task and becoming increasingly complex. It is a lot of work and the rewards lie far down the road, but you have bills to pay now. A terrible job – even a lifetime of misery – suddenly becomes the lesser of two evils.

I always thought worker-owned cooperatives would be the solution. Worker-owned cooperatives are 100% owned and controlled by the people who work in them. No one else can tell you what to do or how to do it. No one else gets a cut of the value you produce on a daily basis. It goes back to you – all of it.

Instead of going it alone, start a worker cooperative. You would share the startup risk and cost with other people. You would share the work it takes to get it going. Later on, you will also share in the rewards and decision making process.

The types of businesses that are most suitable to start for people with only a little money are service businesses. They require only what you already have in abundance, your labor. They do not require much capital to start. Many service oriented tasks are easy to learn and master. For example, home and office cleaning, home health care, landscaping, farming, home improvement, etc.

Get a few of your fellow unhappy workers together and watch this video.

Free-ride Problem

The other day I interviewed a potential new member.  During the conversation it became clear that his expectation was to be able to take home a paycheck right away.  He wanted me to call him when we were ready to do that.  This is the way employees think.  Entrepreneurs do not.  Entrepreneurs understand that to be able to take something out, somebody must also put something in.

While the goal of worker cooperatives is to be able to send home that weekly paycheck, getting to that is a long and hard struggle.  The burden often falls on a few founders who work for free.  Nobody should have to work for free, not even for themselves.

So, how do you avoid this free-ride problem?

Well, here are some options:

1.  Accept that this is just the way it is and get on with it.

2.  keep track of the time it takes to set it up and have others pay you for your time when they join or have them contribute a similar number of hours without compensation.

Working but Still Poor

The 2nd  annual Long Island Jobs with Justice poverty conference will be held

Friday, March 30, 2012
8:30 AM to 2:30 PM
Touro Law Center
225 Eastview Drive
Central Islip, NY 11722 (631) 761-7000
I’m pretty sure worker owned cooperatives are not on Jobs with Justice’s radar.  Go there and make sure that it is.

Shared Vision

Somewhere around 10% of ecovillages, co-housing projects and other intentinoal communities survive, at least for a while.    Start-up businesses aren’t much different.  They face many of the same challenges.  The one thing they have in common is having a shared vision and knowing what that vision is.

Therefore, step two, after you have established a group of people who think they might want to go into business together, is to establish the shared vision and write it down in great detail.

The vision is what you want the world to look like when you’re done creating it.  The mission are the things you plan to do to get there.  Without a clear goal to work towards, it is really difficult to get there.

Minimum Pay

Apparently, although the amount of the Federal minimum pay has gone up over the years, purchasing power has actually gone down.  Fortunately, many states have had the good sense to set their own minimum limits. Unfortunately, many have not.  One can wonder why increases have not been indexed. Perhaps it is another example of the disfunctional nature of government.

Clearly, workers cannot depend on government to solve this problem.  Apparently, workers have to take matters into their own hands.  As worker owners we have the control to refuse to work for anything but just pay.  When enough of us do that, the exploitation, government sponsored or not, will end.


Every day, as I read job offers, I keep wondering why anybody would put up with the abusive hiring practices and the minuscule pay some are offering.  I can understand that when you’re up against the wall and bill collectors are pounding on your door, you don’t have much choice.

Some employers know how to value their employees.  Clearly, others don’t.  I could never understand why employees put up with being exploited day in and day out when there is an alternative like worker owned cooperatives.  When workers own their own jobs, they have control.  Starting one should be a top priority for anyone who is either abused or can’t find employment in the traditional way.