This history written by Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, with help from ECC and Mary Hoyer.
2007: ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
In 2007, the ECWD went to the South for the first time, and had one of its most enthusiastic, diverse, well-attended, and controversial conferences. The decision to take the conference south was based on several factors:
The South has the least participation in the worker cooperative movement nationally and regionally. However, in the 1980's, the area had eleven worker co-operatives, so the hope was that having the conference there would re-ignite interest in worker cooperatives.
Organizers felt that we should move beyond areas where co-ops were already active to areas where they weren't.
- Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Mississippi two years earlier, and rebuilding efforts had been slow and/or very limited. Holding the conference in the South would allow people from those areas to learn about economic alternatives they could initiate themselves. (New Orleans itself was ruled out because summer is hurricane season.)
- ECWD has always considered itself to cover the eastern region of the U. S. from north to south. In 2004, upon the founding of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives which defined its geographic sub-regions as East, South, North, and West, the South was split off from the eastern region. ECWD wanted to reconnect with the South and help them build their regional organization.
- Holding ECWD in the South was an opportunity to build inter-cooperation with groups like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, which focuses on agricultural cooperatives but is interested in worker cooperatives.
- Holding the conference in the South as also an opportunity to strengthen cooperative support organizations such as Southern Appalachian Center for cooperative Ownership.
After much discussion and an attempt to find a non-university location (one of the suggestions at the 2005 conference), the University of North Carolina Asheville was chosen as the most affordable and accessible of the various options. There was some resistance in the northeast (which had the most cooperatives) to making the long trip to Asheville but, in the end, everyone thoroughly enjoyed this destination city with its mountains, lush trees, fragrant flowers, and abundance of culture and entertainment. The conference was held July 20th - 22nd, and a full contingent of northeasterners attended, sharing many amusing stories about their road trips south.
The Eastern Coordinating Council, which planned the 2007 conference, consisted of: Lynn Benander, Sue Bob, Terry Daniels, Aaron Dawson, Noemi Giszpenc, Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Charles Uchu Strader, Jeremy Thaler, Adam Trott, and Doug Woodhouse, as well as appointed advisors Dan Bell, Christina Clamp, and Richard Dines.
Several advisors from the South were added to help plan. They included Frank Adams, John Zippert, Carol Haack, Daisy Garrett-Campbell, and Jeffrey Brite.
Co-Hosts for the First Time
For the first time in ECWD history, the conference was co-hosted by two other organizations--the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a predominantly black agricultural cooperative with offices throughout the South, and the Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership based in Asheville.
For the second time, Mary Hoyer served as Lead Organizer with much support from members of the Eastern Coordinating Council and donated time from Jen Gutshall and Kathleen Fekete Bauerlein from Cooperative Development Institute in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Following the trend in 2005, most of the financial support in 2007 came from worker cooperatives, collectives, and employee-owned businesses: Cooperative Home Care Associates, Chroma Technology, Equal Exchange, National Cooperative Bank, ECWD, and U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops each donated at the patron level of $1500 and up. Once Again Nut Butter, Red Sun Press, Carey Center for Democratic Capitalism, Cooperative Development Institute, Cooperative Fund of New England, GEO Collective and National Cooperative Business Association each donated at the sponsor level of $500-1499. Contributors (up to $499) included Brattleboro Tech Collective, Community Builders Cooperative, Cooperative Development Foundation, Ownership Associates, Gaia Host Collective, South Mountain Company and Vermont Employee Ownership Center.
The 2007 conference drew 146 people from 75 organizations and 26 states. Twenty-two percent of those attending came from the South (North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, southern Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee). Double that -- 45 percent -- came from the Northeast (Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania). The remaining 33 percent came from the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and other scattered places (Maryland, DC, northern Virginia, California, Washington state, New Mexico, Wyoming, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa). Attending from Asheville and the surrounding area were the Ariel Co-op Gallery, Electric Embers Cooperative, Western North Carolina Workers Center, Appalachian Coalition for Just and Sustainable Communities, and unaffiliated individuals. Bena Burda of Maggie's Organics in Ypsilanti, Michigan, also attended. Thirty people, or 21 percent of the participants, were people of color, the highest attendance at any ECWD conference.
Being held in Asheville allowed Little Grill Collective in Harrisburg, Virginia, to send a whopping fourteen cooperators. Northern cooperatives were also well represented, making the long drive down to Asheville: Equal Exchange of West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, sent thirteen people; Once Again Nut Butters of Nunda, New York sent eight; Green Worker Co-ops/ ReBuilders Source of the Bronx, New York, sent five; and other co-ops averaged two to three people. Representatives from the Federation of Southern Co-ops and their affiliates, the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives and Beat 4 Co-op, were well represented with seven people. Representatives from Maryland Food Collective attended for the first time, with a contingent of four people.
The keynote speaker was Mr. Lynn Williams, former president of the United Steel Workers of America and advocate of employee ownership, who helped convert a number of traditional businesses to worker ownership. In his keynote, Mr. Williams gave examples of companies converting to employee ownership and strongly urged coalition building with unions. He also talked of some of his work in the Canadian prairies and the U.S. Midwestern region using employee ownership to retain jobs and in negotiating innovative participatory bargain agreements. Under the positive influence of Mr. Williams, one resolution to come out of ECWD 09 was the establishment of a committee (with a budget to ensure that it could get the job done) to investigate deeper relationships between cooperatives and unions. A report back was mandated at the ECWD 2009 conference.
Plenary Panel: Dealing with Race as an Obstacle to Organizing Workers
The Eastern Coordinating Council realized that what we had in common was that we were workers wanting a better situation, whether in worker cooperatives, in unions, or outside of unions. As a unifying tactic, the opening Friday night plenary panel was entitled "Organizing Workers in the South." On the panel were Frank Adams of SACCO; Pam McMichael of Highlander Research and Education Center ;John Zippert of Federation of South Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, and Jessica Gordon Nembhard of University of Maryland and Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective. Gus Newport, former San Francisco mayor active in rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, was unable to attend at the last minute due to illness.
Pam McMichael laid out a history of organizing in the South, including the African American struggle for civil rights, stating "The challenge for worker cooperatives is how to build multi-racial collectives in a society sustained by racism and white privilege. We are up against some big things to turn this country around." Adams, who has been organizing in North Carolina for decades, agreed: "Race is a universal hurdle that we face." Their remarks would later be the subject of controversy at the ECWD business meeting.
During this session, Shakoor Aljuwani, organizer with St. Luke's Homecoming Center, along with Erin Rice, former Collective Copies member and current resident of and graduate student in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, made an impassioned plea that the next conference take place in New Orleans. Aljuwana said people are ready for economic alternatives and need the benefit of the knowledge and skills of people in the room. Rice also pleaded for people to come to New Orleans to work and give classes. Here the seeds of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives conference and work week to be held in 2008 were planted. Subsequently, USFWC decided to have its conference in New Orleans and organized a successful week-long work week there.
Over thirty workshops were held. With the goal of helping getting worker co-ops started, this year's conference included several "how to organize" workshops: How to Organize a Construction Co-op, Setting up a Cleaning Co-op, Setting up a Child Care Co-op, and Setting up an Artists Co-op. Other workshops included Building Alliances with Labor, Unions and Worker Co-ops,; and Organizing in the South led by Juan Ignacio Montes and Francisco Risso of the Western North Carolina Workers Center in Morgantown, N.C. Other workshops included Business Structures: Worker Owned Businesses Compared with Traditional Business Structures and Other Co-op Forms; Innovative Financing for Worker Cooperatives: Grants, Investments, Loans; and Uncovering Assumptions/Creating an Inclusive Workplace.
Participants were treated to a tour of the Ariel Gallery co-op and other co-ops in downtown Asheville, a skit by the young people of Toxic Soil Busters Co-op of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a book signing by John Abrams of the South Mountain Company, author of The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place.
This year our veteran auctioneer Loren Rodgers was unable to attend but was replaced by Kim Pinkham of Pioneer Valley Photovoltaic in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and Adam Trott of Collective Copies in Amherst, Massachusetts, who with help from Ms. Muffy of Lusty Ladies worker co-op and Network of Bay Area Cooperatives in Oakland, California, added their own pizzazz and humor to the auction.
Daisy Garrett, (Mississippi Association of Cooperatives), Nick Reid (Equal Exchange), Kai Degner (Orange Band Initiative) and Kim Pinkham (Pioneer Valley Photovoltaic) were elected to replace Lynn Benander (Northeast Biodiesel), Aaron Dawson (Equal Exchange), Noemi Giszpenc (Ownership Associates) and Jeremy Thaler (Once Again Nut Butters). Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo (GEO Collective) was re-elected for another term. Thaler, Terry Daniels (Long Island Home Enterprise), Jessica Fox (Beat 4 Co-op), and Colleen Gorman (Little Grill Collective) were elected as alternates. Jessica Gordon Nembhard (GEO Collective) was appointed as an advisor-AND MORE?
The following decisions were ratified.
- ECC will consist of seven voting members (serving four year terms) and 4-6 alternates to at least two members of under-represented groups -- people of color, women, elders, youth, gays and lesbians, immigrants, the disabled, members of low-income cooperatives, and non-English speakers.
- There will be no term limits
- ECC representatives will be moved to the alternates list if five or more meetings are missed
- A committee is formed to work on collaboration between worker co-ops and unions for mutual benefit.
Plenary Panel Discussion of Racism Results in Conflict
During a request for feedback/critique of the conference, the plenary panel which addressed organizing in the South was criticized by a few people as "negative" and "depressing." Others felt these criticisms indicated intolerance and a desire to dismiss history. Some members saw this exchange as a reason to do more work around diversity and inclusion, especially at the national level. The rationale was that, as we grow and attract an increasing variety of people, more of these issues are bound to surface so we should start educating our membership on these issues. This resulted in Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo and Melissa Hoover working to organize an Inclusiveness Circle as a committee of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and a workshop at the national conference to be held the next year.
Just prior to ECWD in Asheville, the U.S. Social Forum was held in Atlanta, creating a connection between the U.S. South and the Global South in terms of underdevelopment and lack of basic goods and services. The decision to hold ECWD in North Carolina was in line with this thinking, though it was made independent of the Social Forum.