Shift Change: a film about employee owned cooperative businesses
This evening I attended a viewing of the film Shift Change. “It tells the little known stories of employee owned businesses that compete successfully in today’s economy while providing secure, dignified jobs in democratic workplaces.”
The filmmakers, Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young, were present to answer questions. They live in the Renton area, I believe.
The film concerned work-owned cooperatives, mostly in Spain and California. Some of the companies are hugely successful, including one high tech company and a company will $25 billion in yearly sales. The companies obey the rule one person, one vote, rather than the typical rule one dollar, one vote.
The cooperatives in Spain were in the Basque area, where the economy is healthy. The filmmakers reported seeing no homeless people on the streets during their five week stay.
The companies make money, but that’s not their only raison d’etre.
To become an owning member of a cooperative, you generally have to invest some of your money, from $500 for small firm (e.g., a bakery), to $15,000 for a large firm. Most cooperatives have a probation period, from one to three years, during which workers are ineligible to become owners. After the probation period, the owning members vote on whether to allow you to join. If they don’t like the quality of your work, or if you’re not a team player, they may vote you out.
Some workers don’t want the hassle of being an owning member — lots of meetings and responsibilities — so they can stay on as non-owning employees.
Some cooperative companies work by consensus (usually the smaller ones). Others work by majority vote.
You are allowed to leave a cooperative company, but there may be waiting periods, to discourage people from gaming the system.
Since the workers are owners and managers, there are generally a lot of meetings, including trainings on conflict resolution. Not everyone wants the responsibility.
Thirty-five years ago a steel company closed and the workers wanted to take it over. Jimmy Carter was president and he supported the workers and promised loans. But the United Steel Workers felt it was a threat and squashed the deal. But nowadays labor is more interested.
Consumer cooperatives are different from worker cooperatives, though some groceries have both. In some cases, the interests conflict: the workers want higher prices to support higher salaries.