Transatlantic Exchange

Winter 2023 #40
written by
John Atherton & Kiri Langmead with Esteban Kelly & Alex Stewart
illustration by
Alice Nutley

Building a Worker Co-operation Movement

There is a sense that the co-operative movement has forgotten how to be a movement, how to organise a mass of people to meet their collective needs. A new federation has emerged called with a goal to motivate, educate, and organise people to start, strengthen, and grow worker co-ops. This new cooperative, like many, is starting with little capital and is searching for answers. How to build a mass movement of people to make change, but how to do it in a non-exploitative way. As part of their research they reached out to the US, travelling to Philadelphia for the conference of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. During the visit John Atherton and Kiri Langmead listened to inspirational stories and accounts of struggle from members of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA) and the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives (NYC NWC); all of whom are further ahead on their movement building journey of linking the social justice issues and community needs, with the economic development of worker co-ops. This conversation emerged from discussions that began at that conference. The conversation focuses on the challenges and tensions associated with the use of paid and unpaid labour when building a movement.

JA: At, we are still playing very heavily with this idea of using a lot of volunteers. So there'll be some paid work, but basically we’ll be relying a lot on volunteers. We're interested in the journey that you went on; whether it was very volunteer heavy at the start and then transitioned to paid work? 

EK: I wouldn't have ever called the US Federation heavily volunteer run or led, because that's a relative term. I know how many organisations truly are heavily volunteer led, you know – Habitat for Humanity, for example, where there are armies of volunteers who are building houses. The majority of the people who had their shoulders to the wheel for the early days of the federation were volunteers. And by that, I mean we had one paid staff member, working 10 or 12 hours a week, and nine board members. Our board committees did stuff; the bylaws committee wasn't just enforcing the bylaws, they were writing them, they were figuring out governance; the membership committee was literally reviewing applications from members. We didn't have staff doing that. But that's something more than volunteers – I mean, they're volunteers in the sense that they were not paid for it, but they weren't random people who were like, “hi, I support the cause. What can I do?” These were leaders. As we grew, we started to realise that we couldn’t do everything with one part-time staff member and the board, so began to integrate contractors into projects and events, and eventually created more paid roles. This in turn enabled the federation to utilise voluntary labour more effectively. If you have someone paid to organise the conference, then that person can also organise volunteers in a way that a part time executive director who's literally filing taxes and convening board meetings doesn't have the capacity to do. So that's really when volunteer stuff beyond just our board got a little more serious, but it was always really project based. It was usually really small and intensive like OK, we're gonna have these four people do deep translation, or work on a data project to create maps of where the worker co-ops are, or do the graphic design for the maps, or work on our logo. It really wasn't a plug and play thing, and I'm sort of saying that as a contrast to faith-based volunteerism, or non-profits like housing groups or food security groups. 

AS: In terms of our staff and operations, we have no volunteers. We have committees where our board are volunteers, and we have people we're doing work with and who we are in coalition with in terms of policy navigation. We work with people who are looking to build a public bank, for instance. They are volunteering and also coming to committee meetings to work with PACA. But that's as a coalition partnership. In terms of operations, no, we have no volunteers. A lot of it is handled by the staff.

JA: Looking to the future, have you got any particular strategy around volunteer programmes? 

EK: A lot of our members who are involved in our peer networks and similar initiatives, they do that in an unpaid capacity. But that's just like participation; it's engagement, it's not volunteering. Increasingly our strategy has been toward finding resources – we see it as our job to find resources and then connect our members to those resources. It's not quite like a trickle-down thing; I think it's more committed than that and there's more of a sort of business sense to it. These are workers, and if they're taking time out away from their workplaces, then we need to subsidise that in some way, even if it's not comparable to the wage – it might be more, it might be less than the wage that they would be making inside of their workplaces.

JA: But you do what you can.

EK: Yeah, we do. We can at least give something that's like a show of respect and also that helps you justify it to your co-workers, because most of your co-workers might not understand what all this national organising stuff is that doesn't feel particularly relevant to our sales, our clients or me driving a forklift. It becomes a little easier to justify and say “look, we received a check that's meant to offset some of the loss of time from what I'm taking away from my work in order to invest it here, and that's also important.”

We have also done labour trade for members, for co-operatives to work off their dues. And we still have a dues trade program where members offer their services in exchange for money. In the early years, it was always more helpful to say: you can just host our e-mail addresses, you could just build our website, you can just design the logo; that's more helpful than you giving us a couple hundred dollars or whatever. Over the course of time, disproportionately certain co-ops and certain industries just had more access to that. We always need things printed, interpretation, translation, some tech stuff. And this informed how we set up our peer technical assistance network, where the co-operatives who we didn't have a direct need for but were interested in some sort of dues trade, were able to mentor other co-ops. So that was another way of tapping into solidarity economics without actually having monetary exchange going on; but again I wouldn't use the language of ‘volunteering’ for what that was. The co-operatives were doing work in exchange for monetary dues, and we would follow up and check whether they delivered, you know, $600 worth of value and services to this other person, and not just take it on good faith, because some other co-op was actually paying money.

Illustration by Alice Nutley

AS: What you are describing there – tapping into what your members can offer – is something that PACA is really trying to do. We really want to build out resource buckets, you know, of people who can handle conflict resolution, people who are legal experts, and have that ready for our membership before they need it. I guess what I'm looking to do is build out, not a gift economy where things are free, but a compassion- based economy. We all walk in abundances. If we identify those abundances, and we identify our scarcities, then we can know where we can support each other.

JA: What I am hearing is that you are really moving away from volunteering, both in the sense of moving away from using unpaid labour, but also in the sense of distancing yourself from the language of volunteering. It sounds like this is a principled decision as well as a business decision? 

AS: I think volunteer work is sometimes exploitative. In the co-operative economic sphere, its businesses, its operations that have to carry a budget, you have certain duties, you have to file taxes and XYZ as this group and you have some liability there. And there is not only the liability, but there's profit, there is money that is made. And so when using volunteers in that sphere, that is exploitative. We are conscious of that and are looking to build intentionally. We have honorarium for stuff like classes and clinics now. If people contribute to this stuff, we want to ensure that we pay them, and that we budget for paying them. And this year, we've hired five people, including myself. We are all directors, so we have to be able to communicate with each other and build out with each other. Doing that with volunteers doesn't allow consistency and fluidity. I don’t want to “consumerise” that. In the United States social organising has become a consumer product. I think paying people to do something that is for their own survival, in terms of stewarding community infrastructure, commercialises that aspect of life where that is our duty to one another, and feels wrong. We cannot create a capacity and an economy in which everything has a price on it, because then you're always thinking about the reward.

EK: I'm just describing us; I’m not judging you guys or necessarily shaping this as advice to you, but for us there is a different culture that comes along with volunteerism, and building the kinds of programmes that are volunteer-based, that can be important in their own ways, which is why I'm careful to not have a negative connotation or association with it, but it's ‘amateur’ and it tends to attract people who are really convinced of its merits and values. And because of this, it makes it harder for everyday people to feel like this is a place they belong and that it's not like an insider club. And we're trying to make worker ownership something that is not just for the diehards, the people who think about it as just a social movement. It’s based on relationship and affinity and all these aspirational things, but so much of our strategy is about needing to make it clear that this work is professional or at least technical or some combination of the two. 

Another reason why we have started committing to paying people, especially our interns, is really just based on class analysis. Our experience is that if you do not pay volunteers or interns then the only people who can afford to intern are the professional managerial class, or upper- or middle-class people, or somebody who has either married into wealth or has a trust fund or whatever. And it becomes kind of self-perpetuating. Working class people can't afford to do things for free just for the sake of boosting their resume. It doesn't mean that we're hostile to people who might have some access to wealth, but we're going to pay them regardless because we always want to make sure that if they're there, it's based on the merits of what they're doing and who they are and not based on intergenerational wealth and things like that.

JA: That is something we are really conscious of and are actively thinking about. Some people might want to volunteer their time because they've got time; for whatever reason, they've got abundance. Some people will need paying, or will need reward in some form. And so the thing we're really wrestling with at the moment, and we haven't got an answer yet, is how we balance that so that we don’t create relations of exploitation or self-exploitation. We want to make it so that people who can volunteer and want to can, but people who need a financial reward can, and it's just making it really open and transparent. If we get it wrong, there won't be a big enough pool of people to help, because quite rightly, people won't engage if they find it's not worth their while, whatever worthwhile means to them. So we'll know when we get it right, when we've got a big pool of people who really want to help. 

AS: I think a lot of it in the beginning is just finding people who deeply desire an alternative economy and who are going to work a little longer than they're paid for to make it happen because they see the light at the end. And if you have a seat at the table, if you are part of that, and your role is respected, I think that it's a fair exchange. I think respect goes a long way. I think respect and being compassionate between one another and being part of a community that you know cares about you, I think takes a lot of this money stuff away. But right now, I guess, even in our co-operative economy here, it is 100% transactional. So, trying to figure out how to do that I think is a quest of mine here; really figuring out how we carry out these values we hold so people know we carry them because of what we're doing in the back end. Because it may not be giving money, if we are filling the fridge in our community with food four or five times a week from our co-operatives. But also just being there, just being present. I think right now we are in a very isolated, individualised situation, when we talk about our current economic circumstances, and people need community. So I think community goes a long way.

We're trying to make worker ownership something that is not just for the diehards, the people who think about it as just a social movement

JA: It’s really interesting what you said there about the co-operative economy still being really transactional. For me co-operative values are really centred around mutuality and solidarity, but the political and capitalist context that they are operating within really pushes against that. I agree that respect and community are important but people can’t survive on that. We don’t want our relationships and community building to become, like you said before, “consumerised” and reduced to transactions. But at the same time, we don’t want to create co-operatives that are founded on exploitation, or that exclude people who may be passionate but can’t work beyond the hours they are paid for, for whatever reason. 

AS: I have experience within the economic sphere of co-operatives, but where my heart is, where it originates from, is survival, and so making that clear connection is my goal here. But I think, we need to be blunt and clear about failure, and not run away from failing; don't hedge our fears, but dive into them... fail, fail again, and fail better. I think that is the issue that I'm finding with the Federation and larger co-operative groups is that we have these values that we have failed to uphold. I always joke, I'm going to write a book called ‘The good intentions of capitalist children’, because that's what we all are. We are all wellintentioned capitalist children, because we have never lived in another economy. We think about it, but we are in the paradigm of capitalism, and we have to accept that and so we ourselves are always moving as a capitalist would. So in these larger groups, that could be clearing houses for these abundant resources, saying 'oh, you want to start a food co-op, here's the starter pack', 'you need legal help from people who know co-ops, here's a little contact list', we need to be aware of that. And where I feel like people are stuck is that this economy, this alternative economy, is not really alternative yet. It's mostly still transactional, and that is a failure, right? But we are scared to admit that, and then accept it, and then move on. So, I always say – we have failed, we should fail better next time.

The conversation with Esteban and Alex revealed that, although they are further along in their movement building journey, USFWC and PACA share many of the tensions that is grappling with in relation to the use of paid and unpaid labour. We have much to learn from the ways they are negotiating and thinking about these tensions. On a practical level, the conversation brought to the fore the diverse ways in which labour can be valued. These diverse practices resist the dichotomy of paid and unpaid labour, and question the assumed prioritisation of wage labour. Starting from this more nuanced understanding, the question they asked was not how paid and unpaid labour can be used to carry out a specific piece of work, but rather where they find abundances, and how these abundances can be connected to collective needs. In asking this question they push in the direction of an economy based on solidarity and mutuality. 

They pushed further in this direction through their use of language in relation to unpaid work. They recognise that, by using a language of volunteering that is synonymous with the non-profit or charitable sector, we risk creating a culture and mindset that is founded in philanthropy. Volunteering in these sectors is, in Colin Rochester’s words, viewed as a ‘gift of time…’; an additional resource that can be utilised to plug the gaps created by austerity and capitalism, and that must be ‘…managed according to the ‘workplace model’. Esteban and Alex use instead the language of self-help, mutuality, and participation, and through this position unpaid labour as activism and ‘a force for social change’. Of course, this reframing does not solve all of the challenges associated with an over-reliance on unpaid labour. We live in a society where volunteering is needed because people’s basic needs are not being met; a society in which these basic needs can only be met (to a greater or lesser extent) through engagement with paid work. Within this context we need to be not only conscious, but reflective and self critical about the exclusions and capitalist practices that we are recreating. We need to be mindful that people cannot survive on respect and a sense of community alone, while also remembering that such expressions of solidarity are an important antidote to the alienation that transactional relations of paid work can create. We need to build spaces that are founded on shared struggle and a desire to build a better world, while acknowledging that the unity created by shared struggles and passions comes hand in hand with exclusions. And we need to recognise that our passion for building a co-operative movement can breed self-exploitation and unrealistic expectations in relation to pay and working hours. will be ‘an incomplete terrain’; a place where people enact their values and grapple with contradictions that arise from “living between worlds - the actual existing and the hoped for” in the words of Jenny Pickerill and Paul Chatterton. Our job will be to acknowledge our incompleteness and commit to an ongoing process of ‘failing better’.

Read next: Transatlantic Co-operativism - Nathan Shneider, Esteban Kelly, Cath Muller speak about the future of co-operation in the UK and US, in a transcript of a panel discussion from Stir to Action’s Playground for the New Economy Festival in 2020.

John Atherton is Project Coordinator for,

Esteban Kelly is Executive Director of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

Alex Stewart is Membership Coordinator for Philadelphia Area Cooperative Associations.

Winter 2023 #40

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