“For a Better World” column May Day and Producer Cooperatives

Elizabeth Bowman
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Each year we celebrate May Day, or International Workers’ Day, to commemorate the struggles of workers against capital – struggles to seize and maintain control over their lives and to increase their living standard. Traditionally, we think of trade unions as a means to this end. Yet throughout history, we have seen that workers more often demand control over their lives through self-organization and self-management. Successful workers’ movements culminating in the Mexican, Russian, Algerian and Cuban Revolutions created, at the beginning, workers’ producer cooperatives as a means to empower workers.

So what is a cooperative, or a coop for short? We are familiar with an array of different kinds of cooperatives, but they essentially fall into two categories – consumer coops or producer coops. Among consumer coops, which we can think of as self-organization or self-management of different sectors of the economy by groups of consumers, there are food coops, housing coops, electricity coops, banking coops (credit unions). For example, many of us are members of a food coop. A food coop is a consumer or purchaser coop where people band together to pool their purchasing power to buy products at a lower price or with specific characteristics such as being made by unions or other cooperatives. Consumer coops are groups of people joining together to buy something they want.

Conversely, there are sellers’ coops, or marketing coops, in which different producers get together to sell collectively their product, thereby getting a higher price or better conditions. Small coffee producers in Latin America who come together to sell their com bined harvest is one example. There are also cooperatives formed by huge agri-business concerns; but they lack an essential characeristic of optimal productive enterprises: internal democracy.

Traditional capitalist companies consist of an owner or owners with control over capital and workers. The owners make the decisions; the workers work. In a producer cooperative, a business that makes virtually anything, the owners are the workers and the workers are the owners. All worker/owners equally share decision-making power. If the business or coops makes a surplus – otherwise known as profit – the owner/workers decide how the surplus can be used: reinvestment, increased income, more free time, or buying a vacation spot for the worker/owners to use. This is a far cry from the traditional capitalist firm where the owner/owners take the surplus and decide how to distribute it among themselves, cutting out the people who produced the surplus in the first place, the workers!

If there is a shortfall, or a loss, the owner/workers can collectively decide how this too is shared: cutting everyone’s income by a small amount, giving workers sabbaticals at half pay, selling off some asset, unpaid overtime, etc. This is a far cry from the owner or owners deciding who gets shafted so that they can maintain their level of appropriation of surplus.

Benefits for the workers of cooperatives are many: every worker is involved in making the important decisions as to how to run the enterprise on a day to day basis and how to distribute surplus or shortfall. Instead of being passive members of a group who simply carry out orders, workers learn how to collaborate and cooperate with others; in other words, they learn how democratically to organize their lives. This is empowerment which can lead to people asserting themselves in other domains of their life.

Of course the name cooperative can be used to hide abusive practices. Family-run businesses where the Dad is the boss can call themselves cooperatives, but unless there is democratic decision making, it’s not a cooperative worth the name. Giant corporations also sometimes call themselves coops – some agribusiness enterprises come to mind – but here again there is no internal democracy. ESOP’s – enterprises in which workers own part of the enterprise – have adopted some aspects of cooperatives, i.e. the ownership part, but often lack the internal democracy aspect.

Here in San Miguel de Allende, there is a marketing coop of products made by indigeneous women in our surrounding area – it’s called “Mujeres Productoras.” They produce clothes (both adult and children’s), baskets, pillows, table cloths, nopal products, among many other things. Their marketing coop eliminates the “middle-man” so that the individual producer earns more money for her labor rather than the middle-man pocketing the profit of the women’s labor. It’s located in the Mesón San José complex on Mesones across from the Plaza Civica. Check it out!

Next time, more on cooperatives and their role in saving the little producers from the omnivorous multinational corporations unleashed on the world by forces that together we call “globalization.”