by Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo with Jessica Gordon Nembhard
and help from the Eastern Coordinating Council and Bob Stone
In documenting the history of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy all roads lead to Bob Stone. Most people remember Bob as being the instigator. Stone is a philosopher (Sartre expert), and an editor and organizer with Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) collective, which publishes GEO Newsletter (the national and international news source advocating for and documenting alternative economic practices). Stone had been reporting on worker cooperatives in the United States for several years. He interviewed Tim Huet (of Rainbow Grocery, Center for Democratic Solutions, and the Western Worker Cooperative Conference) first in August 2000. The Bay Area organization of worker cooperatives, NoBAWC (the Network of Bay Area Worker Co-ops, pronounced “no boss”), was already in existence and the west coast had been holding a regional conference every October in Breitenbush Hot Springs, Oregon. Huet talked about a national federation.
“Tim and the West coast folks had already had a conception of a national federation,” Stone explains. “All of my own work on ECWD was in light of that ultimate national goal.” Stone began helping to organize metro-area networks of worker cooperatives around the country. He was particularly successful in Boston and Amherst, Massachusetts. “The key events in preparing for the first ECWD meetings,” describes Stone, “were organizing trips to Amherst and Boston in 2000. It was AFTER those trips, in the spring of 2001, that I got to Washington, DC, where I broached the idea of an eastern regional worker ownership conference with Richard Dines of NCBA and Jessica Gordon Nembhard (University of Maryland, College Park, and subsequently GEO).”
In addition, GEO had just published An Economy of Hope, a directory of U.S. worker cooperatives, worker-owned businesses and support groups. This meant that there was a good sense of the possible universe of worker cooperatives and entities devoted to and practicing workplace democracy. Stone pulled together support groups on the east coast with the Massachusetts co-ops, co-ops along the east coast, and worker-owned businesses in the east. This group became the first “steering committee” that organized the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD). Our first conference was held in July 2002 on the campus of The University of Maryland, College Park, co-hosted by the university’s Democracy Collaborative and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA).
On the Road to ECWD
After his interview with Tim Huet in August 2000, Stone organized an “inter-cooperation” meeting in Boston in October 2000 to create a local network of worker-owned businesses. This meeting was attended by the following co-ops and support organizations: Equal Exchange, Dollars & Sense, Red Sun Press, Community Builders Co-op, Ownership Associates, ICA Group, Cooperative Charitable Trust and Cooperative Development Institute. There was strong support for such inter-cooperation. The Boston group became the Worker-Owned and Run Cooperative Network (WORC’N, pronounced workin’). Stone pulled together a similar group in Amherst, MA.
In 2001, Stone approached the Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Business Association, the trade organization for cooperatives in the United States, about organizing an eastern worker ownership conference with the ultimate goal of fomenting a movement to create a national federation of worker cooperatives. The idea was to foster mutual aid among the lonely worker cooperatives already operating in scattered places around the eastern United States, meet their needs, and to build a national workplace democracy movement. NCBA’s response was enthusiastic. They agreed to help organize such a conference. GEO, NCBA and nine other cooperatives and cooperative support organizations came together through telephone conference calls to start organizing a conference. Huet also participated as an advisor, and the Western Conference later elected him to be a liaison between the two conferences. Many worker cooperatives in the east indicated interest, and some worker-owners agreed to help plan the conference. At an August 2001 phone conference, work to organize the conference began in earnest with 15 people who had expressed interest and/or who had agreed to serve on planning and support committees. A survey was sent out asking about interest in such a conference, best location, timing, and topics to be covered. The committees began to outline their duties and delineate a time line and tasks to be performed (based on models provided by the western conference staff). The Support Committee did most of the conference organizing and planning. The Program Committee focused on the conference agenda, issues, topics and potential speakers. The host organizations (Democracy Collaborative through Jessica Gordon Nembhard, and NCBA through Leta Mach) handled logistics and administrative tasks.
There were important early discussions about the types of organizations the conference would include, and the goals and learning objectives of the conference. A question arose about whether or not it would be appropriate at this conference to include democratic ESOPs with worker-owned cooperatives. There was interest in combining worker cooperatives with other democratic employee-owned businesses (not just democratic ESOPs). Concerns focused on how to best serve the variety of needs that would arise and how to best anticipate areas of confluence and areas of difference, and how they could be balanced at such a conference. It was eventually decided to be inclusive (hence the decision on our name), but to keep an emphasis on worker cooperatives and support for worker ownership. The following language (which appeared on our first brochure) resolved the issue in the first year and was the basis for future conferences:
"Join worker cooperatives and majority-owned worker firms at this historic event to discover how to fulfill and share the promise of economic democracy by learning from each other, fostering inter-cooperation, and building a workplace democracy movement. Worker cooperatives and other democratic employee-owned businesses (including collectives and democratic ESOPs) will gather together … for problem-solving, education, and movement building discussions. Established worker co-ops will share experiences with start-ups and those interested in workplace democracy. Because support organizations and kindred spirits are important partners in workplace democracy, they are invited and will be introduced and encouraged to distribute materials, particularly at the Friday Cooperative Support and Networking session. However, unless invited to join in at other times, such partners should be observers and resource persons for the working sessions."
Attendance of democratic ESOPs has been sparse but the conference does attract some representatives from democratic employee-owned businesses like Chroma Technology, and collectively run and/or owned businesses and non profits.
It is important to mention that the conferences have always depended on in-kind support as much as if not more than financial support from all sponsors and supporters – both to keep our budget in the black and simply to pull off the logistics (though a staff person, Mary Hoyer, was finally officially hired for the 2005 conference). All the program, steering, support and coordinating committee positions are volunteer. In the first year NCBA covered conference call costs, and NCBA, Democracy Collaborative, Cooperative Development Institute/Co-op Life, GEO, and Ohio Employee Ownership Center provided most of the administrative support and outreach in-kind. Red Sun Press designed and printed the brochures. Collective copies contributed copying and printing. Leta Mach, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, and Bob Stone kept minutes for the first two years, and Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo and Noemi Giszpenc in the third year (Hoyer then took it over in the fourth year). Jessica Gordon Nembhard acted as Treasurer, and was elected to the position at the 2003 meeting. Dan Bell of OEOC has maintained the data base, originally digitizing the data from An Economy of Hope and keeping our Eastern data base as up to date as possible, with help from members like Randy Zucco and Carol Haack. Susan Halevi Verran (the same Susan Cole Halevi) volunteered for the first 3 years to organize the auction (with help from committees), and Loren Rodgers has been the auctioneer the first 3 years.
College Park July 2002 July 19-21, 2002
The first Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy took place at the University of Maryland campus in College Park, with the theme “Sharing the Promise: Economic Democracy at Work.” NCBA’s Leta Mach and GEO’s Jessica Gordon Nembhard (also of the University’s Democracy Collaborative and African American Studies Department), were the co-hosts of the conference, deemed the first on the east coast in 20 years.
“We doubled our attendance expectations,” said Mach in a press release after the conference. “Much of the credit goes to the collaborative efforts of the conference committee in structuring a program to meet the needs of democratic workplaces.”
Ninety-six people from 34 cooperatives came from Maryland, Washington, D.C., Vermont, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana and California. Cooperatives from Canada and Nova Scotia also came. Among the workplaces in attendance were: Chroma Technology Corp., of Brattleboro, VT; South Mountain Co., of West Tisbury, MA., Casa Nuevo, of Athens, OH; Weaver Street Market, of Carrboro, NC; Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, Equal Exchange, of Canton, MA, Cooperative Economics for Women, of Jamaica Plain, MA; Inkworks Press of Berkeley; Big Timberworks of Gateway, MT; Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, of Bronx, NY; Collective Copies of Amherst, MA , Community Builders Cooperative, of Somerville, MA. Some of these same groups co-sponsored the conference: Chroma Technology Corporation, Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), The Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO), the ICA Group, National Cooperative Bank, the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University (OEOC), Ownership Associates, Red Sun Press and Vermont Employment Ownership Center (VEOC). The Cooperative Fund of New England, Equal Exchange and Collective Copies also contributed money for scholarships, to help pay the $200 conference fee for members of cooperatives who could not afford the cost.
Conference attendees were warm, excited and enthusiastic, all charged up by the turnout and the experience and optimism in College Park. We were introduced to one another through a “workplace democracy Bingo” game that encouraged participants to mingle with imperatives on a board suggesting “find someone who is a member of a cooperative where everyone receives the same wage,” or “find someone who has been a member of his or her cooperative for more than 20 years.”
In panel sessions, co-op veterans calling themselves “gray beards” who had 30 years experience in co-ops on the West Coast, talked about the need to institutionalize what the movement had learned about successfully running cooperatives. Construction workers from Boston talked about the need to organize housing cooperatives in Boston so that they could continue to attract members because a $70,000 salary wasn’t enough to afford to live in the city. Another co-op talked about “franchising” the business to make it easy for people who wanted to get into a business. University of Maryland political economist and historian Gar Alperovitz talked about the need to be in the movement for the long-haul, building a strong foundation for the next level of the organizing. A keynote panel addressed “The Historical Perspective on Co-ops and Worker Ownership” with worker cooperative veterans Huet (Western Conference and Center for Democratic Solutions); Frank Adams (Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership SACCO); Hazel Corcoran (Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation); and Jim Megson (The ICA Group of Boston), reflecting on their experiences in the movement.
Workshops addressed needs that co-ops said they wanted help with: democratic participation, involvement and leadership development, basic finances, human resources, open book management, facilitation and consensus building, recruiting and educating members, cooperating among cooperatives, building and replicating models, transiting to workplace democracy and movement building. An auction of goods donated by cooperatives raised money for scholarship for the next conference. The goods included SweatX active wear made by Team X worker cooperative in Los Angeles, and a rare copy of an Oakland Black Panther Party photo documentary published by Inkworks Press, a green business using recycled papers.
The west coast proposal to form a United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives was discussed and supported. Three representatives from the eastern conference were chosen to join a committee to organize a national conference to found the U.S. federation and keep momentum going – Randy Zucco, Lisa Russell and Josh Brown. Tom Pierson, a co-op member from Minneapolis, also attended after he had gotten a call from Bob Stone. During the ECWD, Pierson committed to organizing a mid-west regional conference in 2003. GEO advocated for updating its An Economy of Hope, a listing of cooperatives and democratic workplaces in the United States, with a database of new enterprises. We were on the road to a national federation.
Participants went back to their various homes charged up with the imperative to keep the momentum going. A second conference was planned for Amherst the following year to consolidate the foundation developed that year. Commitments were made to pursue a national conference.
Amherst, July 2003
The second annual conference took place July 14-16, 2003 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The co-hosts were Lynn Benander of Cooperative Development Institute and Co-op Life (Greenfield, MA) and Randy Zucco of Collective Copies (Amherst, MA). Collective Copies is a 20-year-old cooperative that organized when the owners of a copy shop closed down after the workers went on strike over union organizing. Cooperative Development Institute is a leading cooperative development organization and support group, and Co-op Life is a network of northeast cooperatives. The conference theme was “Democratic Workplaces: Effective Strategies for a New Economy.”
More outreach for this conference was accomplished, partly because it took place in the New England area which has one of the highest concentrations of cooperatives in the Eastern United States. New participants came from New York, Rhode Island, and other parts of Massachusetts. Organizers experimented with holding the conference during the week, which resulted in a slightly lower attendance, though a wider variety of participants. At this conference, the ECWD reached out to build more alliances and to link with larger economic issues.
Bruno Roelants, general secretary of CICOPA, the International Organization of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Co-operatives, the worker co-op arm of the International Co-operative Alliance, was able to attend from Europe. In his keynote he urged participants to organize a national federation, as the world was excited that worker cooperative organizing was taking place in the United States - the last of the industrialized countries to do so. He warned of the challenges facing worker ownership around the world. He discussed the benefits from, and necessity of, federalization. Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy in Boston spoke about growing wealth inequities and how worker co-ops could help build a just economy. Joe Alvarez of AFL-CIO discussed rebuilding solidarity that once linked the co-op and labor movements.
Like the first conference, comprehensive workshops on finances, leadership, boards of directors, personnel and other issues took place. Again there were nuts and bolts education and movement building tracts. There was an official full track introducing worker ownership, lead by Jim Megson. That year’s conference also had an all day pre-conference on Customer Service Training. Conference members were treated to tours of Collective Copies, and the solar panel work of PV2.
It was at this conference that participants elected a board of directors called the Eastern Coordinating Council. One of the first tasks was deciding who would vote at the conference – those who were already part of the conference or everyone who attended. At its Sunday business meeting, participants determined that everyone who had attended the business meeting would be voting members at that meeting. The intention was clear that worker-owners were to dominate the board membership. Membership terms on the board were staggered so that there would always be members who already had experience organizing a conference. A seven member board was elected, consisting of: Randy Zucco, of Collective Copies (Florence, MA); Lisa Russell, of Equal Exchange (Canton, MA); Josh Brown, of Casa Nueva (Athens, OH); Lynn Benander, of Cooperative Development Institute and Co-op Life (Greenfield, MA); Carol Haack, of Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership (SACCO) (Asheville, NC); Jessica Gordon Nembhard, of Grassroots Economic Organizing and Democracy Collaborative (MD and DC); and Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, who was organizing a startup in Washington, D.C. and later became a member of GEO. Noemi Giszpenc, of Ownership Associates (Cambridge, MA), and Don Campbell, of PV2 (Greenfield, MA), were elected alternates. Gordon Nembhard was elected treasurer. The ECC board was charged with proposing membership eligibility, a structure, and election procedures and was to report back to the 2005 conference. Zucco, Russell and Brown were re-elected to the national conference planning committee. Ifateyo was later to replace Josh Brown when he was no longer able to serve.
The auction was again a success, scholarship money was raised. The sponsors of the 2003 conference were most of the same reliable groups: Collective Copies, Cooperative Development Institute, Cooperative Fund of New England, The Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, Grassroots Economic Organizing, National Cooperative Bank, National Cooperative Business Association, Ownership Associates and Red Sun Press.
Participants left the 2003 conference aware that next year’s work would be getting to Minneapolis for the founding conference of the proposed “federation of democratic workplaces.” The ECWD voted to loan the national committee $2000 as seed money for the national conference (later the ECC voted to turn the loan into a donation from the ECWD, so the ECWD would be a co-sponsor of the first national conference of democratic workplaces). ECC national representatives continued their participation on conference calls to organize for Minneapolis. And the ECC began periodic meetings to begin to address the mandates given by the ECWD membership and to support the planning of the national conference.
2004 U.S. Federation Founding Conference
No eastern regional conference took place in 2004. Instead ECWD members headed to the Midwest to be a part of the founding conference for the United States Federation of Democratic Workplaces. More than 100 participants attended. CICOPA’s president, Rainer Schluter, was the keynote speaker. Schluter noted that Europe has witnessed an increase from 2,500 worker co-ops and related models in 1980, to 85,000 today, with a membership of one and half million worker-owners. In his conference keynote he also stressed the growth of the “social economy” in Europe, where businesses are increasingly based on serving people’s needs rather than maximizing profits for absent investors.
“Cooperatives have a golden opportunity to help build an economy based on equality and justice,” Schluter said, “but if we are going to be effective, we have to be heard, and the only way to do that is by linking at the local level, the national level, and the international level.”
April Bourgeois, a member of the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation delegation at the conference, and also a CICOPA representative, encouraged participants that this was a great time for the United States to form its federation for workplace democracy.
"This will give your worker co-ops a seat at the table in the international realm," she said. “We have (CICOPA) members in Canada, and in Central and South America; the USA's absence has been pretty conspicuous."
Much of the conference involved the business of actually forming the federation. Definitions were decided, and decisions were made about who could vote. Voting member criteria threatened to be a big issue, but in the end members decided to follow the CICOPA guidelines and definitions of worker ownership, and allowed groups to self identify. Meetings were expertly run, and many ideas were put on the table for services the new federation could provide. Regions were divided. For the first time, a southern region was defined and caucuses took place in all four regions. Each region elected one representative each to sit on the newly formed national board. At-large members were elected by the entire body.
From the east, Ifateyo was elected (re-elected) to represent the Eastern region. Omar Freilla of Green Worker Cooperatives of Bronx, NY was elected as an at-large member. Ifateyo was a member of the U.S. Federation’s Membership Development and Communications committees; Freilla of the Finance and Outreach committees. The other members of the first national federation board were: Brahm Ahmadi (People's Grocery in Oakland, CA), Lori Burge (People's Co-op in Portland, OR), Kirsten Marshall (Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco), Bob Cahill (Arise Bookstore & Resource Center in Minneapolis, MN), Tom Pierson (Center for Prosperity, Minneapolis, MN), Alice Murphy (Blue Moon Cafe, Asheville, NC, and then replaced by alternate Frank Adams of SACCO, Ashville, NC), and Ajamu Nangwaya (Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, based in Epes, AL). A few months later the new board declared the formation of the first U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.
Leading up to 2005
In preparation for our 2005 conference, the ECC conducted a survey to determine what month would be best for the conference (whether summertime or some other time would be best), what part of the week, and what location to hold the 2005 conference. New England was favored; summer and week-end. The offer from Chris Clamp to hold the conference at Southern New Hampshire University was accepted in great part because of the university’s School of Community Economic Development and co-op curriculum. Planners thought this would be an opportunity to discuss the relationship between worker ownership and community economic development, and include cooperative scholars. Also the conference venues would be free, and Manchester, NH airport is accessible and affordable. The ECC officially hired its first staff person, Mary Hoyer to handle logistics and general conference planning. Charles Uchu Strader, of GAIA Host Collective, created our website this year (partly in-kind) and was webmaster.
The third ECWD conference took place at SNHU July 15-17, 2005 in Robert Frost Hall. The year’s theme was “Growing Stronger Together.” William Greider was the keynote speaker. This conference continued to have three major tracks – creating democratic workplaces, managing democratic workplaces, and building the workplace democracy movement. In addition there were open space opportunities during every concurrent workshop slot. There were 30 workshops offered - more than ever before - plus a plenary on “Community Economic Development and Worker Ownership,” and ample opportunities for networking and taking care of ECWD business.
2005 was also a banner year for sponsorships – we had more worker co-ops and worker-owned companies as supporters than ever before. Sponsors and supporters included: NCB , NCBA, Chroma Technology , Cooperative Development Foundation, Cooperative Development Institute, Cooperative Fund of New England, Cooperative Home Care Associates, Democracy Collaborative at University of Maryland, GAIA Host Collective, Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter-EDINA, Once Again Nut Butter, Red Sun Press; Chelsea Green Press, Collective Copies, Carey Center for Democratic Capitalism, Dollars and Sense, Equal Exchange, Ownership Associates, Red House, South Mountain Company, Vermont Employee Ownership Center.
Several changes occurred in the composition of the ECC between 2004 and 2005. As a result of the new regional boundaries decided by the national and the need to organize the southern region, Carol Haack decided to leave the Eastern region and work to build the Southern region. Lisa Russell left the board after having done intense work for the national conference. Alternate Noemi Giszpenc had already replaced Josh Brown on the ECC in 2003 (Ifateyo had replaced him as a rep to the national board and then was elected in 2004 to be the eastern rep to the board). Charles Uchu Strader replaced Russell in 2004. The ECC was left with one vacancy (Alternate Don Campbell could no longer serve). The ECC sent out a call for nominations to fill the vacancies. Strader was the only one able to serve. Hence one seat remained vacant until the conference; and there were no alternates. Dan Bell, Richard Dines, and Christina Clamp agreed to work with the ECC as non-voting support members. Susan Halevi Verran agreed to head the auction committee again; and Loren Rodgers, to be auctioneer again. The ECC also set up an advisory committee of worker owners to help the ECC plan our third conference: Billy Brett and Siri Gunnarson (The Little Grill, Harrisonburg, VA), John Abrams (South Mountain Company, Inc.), Sue Bob (Community Builders Cooperative, Somerville, MA), Michael Elsas (Cooperative Home Care Associates, Bronx, NY), and Julie Petot (Equal Exchange, West Bridgewater, MA).
Elections were to be held at the 2005 meeting. Seats on the ECC have staggered terms. Three of the seven seats on the ECC were slated to be re-elected at the 2005 meeting (Giszpenc, Strader, and Zucco) plus the empty seat, the other three continue two more years (Benander, Gordon Nembhard, Ifateyo).
The ECC also presented proposals for membership, regional boundaries, elections for the ECC, and other issues in its mandate at this conference (see separate proposal).
The 2005 conference was the first eastern conference since the actual founding of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives - the dream of Bob Stone, GEO, Tim Huet, and the hard work of many others. We’ve come full circle. Now our work really begins. Our region needs strengthening, as the U.S. worker ownership movement consolidates. In addition, Stone’s vision has expanded: “Once Betsy [Bowman] and I finish our book on Sartre we want to do a national tour here to help start a Mexican federation. The vision there is a coalition between the CA/US/MEX federations to take down NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. We'll have to start and include worker co-op federations in Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama if CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement] is passed. Piece of cake. Then on to South America.”
“Never pursue small ideas,” contends Stone.