Baltimore Workplace Democracy Diary

Jul 12, 2011

Baltimore Workplace Democracy Diary

Last weekend, I attended the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy in Baltimore, Maryland. Over 200 people (a record turnout for this conference) gathered to discuss and learn under the theme "Connecting Our Workplaces: Building Cooperative Economies".

This is in no way intended to be an authoritative account of the conference. It's a collection of things that I remember, and which stood out for me.

Friday: Welcome to Baltimore

Arriving in Baltimore for the first time, I was greeted by all the familiar elements of an episode of The Wire. Boarded up row houses, election signs, surveillance cameras, signs of crippling poverty and towering wealth disparities. I felt sheepish about how much a TV show had formed my impression of a place. The campus of the University of Maryland - Baltimore County, where most sessions of the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy took place, is in many ways the opposite of Baltimore itself. Whereas the city has visible layers of history peeling away like aging coats of paint, the University appears to have been built up within the last few decades; whatever was there before has been erased, and replaced with the concerted vision of architects, engineers and landscape designers.

I was happy to find that it only took about an hour to move beyond poverty, crime, corruption and the other betrayals of human dignity documented by David Simon and company.

The opening dinner was held in downtown Baltimore, organized by Red Emma's, a collectively-owned and -run bookstore, coffeeshop and worker co-op. The collective also manages a beautiful old church in collaboration with the local Methodist parish, now used as a beautiful community space, where a setting sun lit stained glass under a vaulted ceiling.

The walls are gracefully eroding, paint and plaster falling away to reveal wooden slats, slats missing in places to reveal brick walls, lit by hanging strings of lights. The stage at the front of the room was flat, black and functional, conspicuous for the absense of religious imagery. The aesthetic effect was surely a testament of limited budgets and the arduous task of maintaining a massive building. But the aesthetic effect was to evoke the hand-made story of the space, the most recent caretakers introducing plot twists in their own recent chapter.

Under a roof high enough to house our stated aspirations, over 200 worker-owners, anti-poverty activists, fund managers, volunteers and co-op developers buzzed, shuffled and cross-polinated over local beer, cooperative cheese and hors d'oeuvres tasty enough to threaten appetites for the main course.

Still getting my bearings in a room brimming with people I'd never seen, I sat with folks from Koumbit, with whom I had just spent three days at their annual visioning retreat next to a lake outside of Montreal. Koumbit is a radically anti-hierarchical web development firm based in Montreal with 20-odd employees. They're currently experiencing growing pains, and are working to develop ways to continue to expand without sacrificing their horizontal decisionmaking and egalitarian spirit. Having a profitable de facto worker co-op grow from nothing to employing 20 people in half a decade is a nice problem to have, but consensus decisionmaking with that many people can fray the nerves a bit as well.

A woman from a worker co-op based in New Orleans came over to say hello briefly. Her co-op provides catering, laundry and other services to people and institutions in their area, and the worker members make all major decisions about the business with vote.

Dinner was a beautiful mix of mexican-leaning tacos, tortillas, meat and beans, soul-food-inspired collard greens, and cornbread (with vegan maple butter; oh my). I ended up in line next to a Colombian woman who explained that after working as a marketing consultant for some major corporations, she had switched to training worker co-ops in marketing basics in New York City. Why? Out of a concern over poverty, and a passion to do something about it.

After Dinner: Learning from the past and building the future

Bellies full, we turned our attention to a smorgasbord of speakers, who I will now attempt to paraphase judiciously. (What follows reflect the biases and faults of my memory; consult a recording before creating and further departures from what actually went down. I'm sure I missed lots of important stuff. Caveat lector!)

John Duda spoke about Red Emma's, and their attempts to avoid a inward-facing political insularity by building relationships in the community, while hewing closely to their anarchist ideals. (His article Experiments in Economic Democracy is definitely worth a read.)

Joshua Stevens discussed Just Walk, the fascinating dog-walking cooperative that he and others recently started up in Baltimore. Stevens also founded the DC-based Brighter Days collective, which was, amazingly, recently featured in the Washington Post's lifestyle section. Brighter Days now grosses over $250,000 annually, and provides its employees with health insurance and seven weeks of paid vacation annually.

Stevens spoke about the need to be strategic with the choices we make when we start new co-ops. Dog walking, for example, requires very little capital investment, but yields reasonable profits, and tends to be done by temporary freelancers, making it a great candidate for organizing worker co-ops. Stevens -- who, as he put it, "circles his As" --  pushed back against what I assume were critiques from other anarchists regarding the pitfalls of institutionalization and ideological drift that come with building a business. Stevens' feisty critical disposition (in evidence on his Twitter feed) was a welcome addition in the stirring up debate category.

Stevens' dog walking colleague discussed some of the dynamics of gentrification in a city where the majority are African Americans, and poverty can be traced along race lines to a apalling degree. Baltimore experienced massive "white flight" in the 1980s, as the city's more affluent white residents fled the downtown core. Now, he explained, this flighty demographic is back, gentrifying neighbourhoods to the further detriment of their already-disadvantaged residents. As a dog-walking cooperative, he said, they acknowledge that they benefit from the influx of wealthy folks into the city centre. They see it as all the more important, therefor, to participate in community development initiatives and social movements that can curb the worst effects of gentrification and benefit communities currently living in poverty.

Jessica Gordon Nembhard of Grassroots Economic Organizing (among many other affiliations) spoke about the history of African American cooperatives, citing accounts of same by WEB Dubois among others. The same year the civil war ended, African American workers formed a sort of collectively owned trade proto-co-op in the Baltimore harbour. Frederick Douglass, she pointed out, recalled teaching himself to read of the steps of the building. Unfortunately, the co-op was sabotaged by a landlord who increased the rent on the land until the co-op was unable to pay. This form of sabotage, Gordon Nembhard pointed out on a few occasions, is a tragic common thread running through the history of African American co-ops.

John Morris from the Sojourner-Douglass College discussed the astonishing rates of unemployment in the Old Town neighbourhood of Baltimore. 30 per cent of residents, he noted, are employed. He discussed efforts -- and the difficulties associated with them -- to address this widespread poverty by forming worker co-ops, but also inviting small business investments and other avenues of economic development.

Through a translator, a member of United Workers spoke about the low-income worker-led campaigns to win changes to working conditions and higher salaries in Baltimore. He said that the coalition was started by workers who were homeless because their low wages, unpaid hours and lack of job security kept them from being able to rent apartment. They successfully fought their employers, and then expanded their demands for basic human right to target the local baseball stadium.

A worker from the Maryland Brush Company, an employee-owned manufacturer of industrial brush products discussed the challenges associated with responding to changing business conditions.

Suzanne from AK Press spoke briefly about the collectively-run business, and the excellent books they publish.

Workshop Suppositions and Emerging Themes

On Saturday morning, the venue switched back to the University Campus, which offered less in the way of food and architecture, but unleashed a horde of inspiring and informative ideas about workplace democracy.

My subjective experience of the conference was more of an endless string of one on one chats, and in any case, it was physically possible to attend less than one in seven workshops given. I'll try to discuss some themes that I encountered. I encourage any readers who attended to add your own thoughts in the comments.

Media was a theme in the very subjective sense that I gave a presentation about the Media Co-op, which about nine people attended. I asked people to discuss what impact the media has on movements and the political goals that we have as a co-op movement. I then talked for a while about our experience so far with the Media Co-op, outlining some conceptual frames to help explain our approach.

(Warp and weft: the idea that overlapping structures that give people more than one social context through which to interact with the organization makes it strong. Concentric circles: focusing on how people experience the organization at different levels of involvement, and ensuring that the ways in which they can increase their participation are always clear and accessible. Empowerment: linking people to resources, knowledgable folks and an audience in service of their goals. Autonomy and solidarity: the process of handing over large areas of decisionmaking to local groups, to encourage creativity and adaptation, while maintaining centralized resources that can be used for the good of the network as a whole, and common projects that we choose to undertake together. Appropriately horizontal decisionmaking: the only legitimate reason to not include all 600 members in a decision is the limitation of their time and attention; the bigger the decision, the more there needs to be a process of consultation and discussion among the whole membership.)

Those concepts were intersected with a list of activies that we undertake as the co-op (training, publishing, promotion, mobilization, collaboration). People seemed to catch pretty quickly to the idea of media work as community organizing, as opposed to primarily a matter of production, that our model entails. There were folks there from GEO, OneDC, Union Cab of Wisconsin, and Baltimore's Indy Reader, among others. 

We began discussing ways to address the need for increased local media activity, particularly around adapting aspects of the co-op model. We didn't get very far beyond acknowledging a need for more and better media cooperation within and between cities, and understanding that that it will take years of work to establish consistent activity and communications.

Rebecca Kemble wrote a little article about the need for better independent media coverage of events, co-ops and social movements between Wisconsin and the rest of the country.

Another ongoing topic of discussion is the need for financing for co-ops (which we've covered before in broad strokes in the Dominion). I had some interesting chats with Ethan from The Working World, which started as a co-op investment fund in Argentina and has expanded to set up shop Nicaragua and New York since, and Maggie from the Cooperative Fund of New England. The difficulty co-ops have with financing seems to result from the continuum of bank attitudes that runs from ideological hostility to schematic myopia.

Despite the fact that co-ops tend to last longer than privately owned businesses, bankers are suspicious of the collective ownership model of co-ops and their tendency to lack collateral. The proposed solutions I heard were a mix of: getting credit unions more involved in financing co-ops; urging co-ops to invest in other co-ops; increasing the size and capacity of funds that invest in co-ops; forming partnerships between the aformentioned funds and other lenders.

Another thing that came up was the need for outreach to additional potential allies in other movements. There seemed to be many discussions about coordinating outreach to other folks, so efforts are underway. It would be interesting to have a panel at future events featuring folks who have one foot in the co-op movement and also work on issues labour, food, environmental sustainability, and so on, to discuss how to grow alliances. As a part time geek for hire, I've often thought it would be useful to do a little workshop on the co-op model at free and open source software conferences or gatherings. Adding a democratic and reinvestment-oriented aspect to governance would make sense for a lot of commons-based projects, and people don't necessarily have a clear idea of what the options are.

There is necessarily a tension in most co-op movements between folks who use the model as a tool to accomplish an immediate pragmatic goal (e.g. make healthy food available at affordable prices; create jobs) and those who see it as practice for an egalitarian, anti-capitalist prefigurative revolutionary force. It was interesting to find that here as in Canada and Quebec, a decent number of veterans of the anti-globalization movement have found their way into the co-op movement. I heard people say that anti-capitalist rhetoric can be alienating to folks we want to work with, and I heard others say that perhaps there's some naïveté about the backlash that could come from interests that would be threatened by a stronger co-op movement.

The Quebec experience, which sees municipal and provincial governments fund big conferences on the "social economy," and CEOs of multi-biillion-dollar credit unions say critical things about capitalism to audiences of thousands at co-op conferences, is interesting to note in this respect. (That said, the US and the Rest of Canada largely lack Quebec's vaguely social-democratic consensus.) Governments tend to be enthusiastic about funding co-ops when it comes to sectors that aren't particularly profitable (e.g. rural development), but that's quite different from backing factory occupations. Still, a strategic and selective deployment of militant rhetoric can take things pretty far. At the same time, it's important to keep strong core values and practices present in an undiluted form.

Speaking of core values, the Abolish Human Rentals campaign makes a pretty interesting principled case for no employment without self-determination. "No taxation without representation" was a radical demand back in the day, I'm sure.

I ended up having a few pretty interesting side discussions with folks about the NGO industrial complex, and the various ways that we engage with it. Lots of co-op folks rely on said complex for day jobs, so many opinions were circulating. A propos of tensions, co-ops at least have the advantage of not being funded by (and in any case are far less dependent on) the folks who have stake in undermining them, as has happened in the environmental movement, for example. In both cases, what is paramount is to understand and (mutually) acknowledge the different roles which need to be played in building capacity on the one hand and keeping core values active on the other.

My tentative conclusion is that tensions can be productive and a source of a lot of creative energy, if they're premissed on mutual recognition of the value of the "other side", but can easily degenerate into grudges, mistrust and personal conflicts if that element isn't cultivated continuously.

I didn't discuss it much beyond a few large-scale discussions about the inevitability of ecological collapse if capitalism is not replaced with something that doesn't require constant growth, but  environmental sustainability also was present as a priority among cooperatives.

As values go, one thread in the conference that I was sad to have missed for the most part was the ongoing discussion about diversity and anti-oppression. AORTA did an interesting-sounding workshop which I missed, and I had a discussion with Ben from Quilted, who proposed (at another workshop that I missed) the addition of a continuous addressing of oppression and inequalities of power to the definition of democracy.

Finally, an interest of mine that seems to be lurking beneath the surface of a lot of discussions is our societally-limited sense of self which seems to interfere with non-hierarchical cooperation. At least one other person is having similar thoughts:

I think worker co-ops need to change mantra from "Im my own boss" to "we're our own boss"" - throw off the mantra of individualism

As a (north american non-indigenous) rule, we're trained culturally to be either subservient automatons or ego-visionary individual celebrities. A major obstacle to collective management is that there's an empty space where the in-between option of cooperation should be. The lack of positive examples of building trust in a collective vision and the accompanying day to day practices seems to be one of the main impediments to building workplace democracy. I've recently been privy to some experiences that are both inspiring in terms of people's ability to overcome these issues, but which have simultaneously confirmed the need for significant steps in terms of addressing this cultural deficit.

It is therefor good to see workshops like the one I attended on non-violent communication, and others on collective process. I also picked up a copy of Come Hell or High Water from Red Emma's, which had a healthy little stack of them for sale at the conference.

On the positive side of that equation, I was continually awed by how open people were. I felt like I could walk up to anyone at the conference and start a conversation that would result in a positive exchange of knowledge about inspiring projects that I hadn't heard about. I was not once disappointed. For someone whose friends tease him often for being "stoic," I was walking around with a big grin on my face for a large portion of the weekend.

If the promise of the ECWD is fulfilled, and we can create strong ties between cooperation and other movements, this above all is what cooperatives can bring to the table: a sense of constructive energy that gives us hope, and the tools to make that a hope grounded in reality.