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Workers Self Directed Enterprises and alternatives to crony predatory forms of capitalism.

Workers Self Directed Enterprises are an alternative to the non-producing private absentee-owner capitalist economic system currently nearing collapse.  Endgame is hear. Hear what Professor Richard D Wolff teaches us about our future economy.

How do Workers Self Directed Enterprises of all types actually work in the real world? Unlike other kinds of enterprises, they seem to frequently fail because the workers are too inclined to put up with poor business practices.

How do coops of all types actually work in the real world? Unlike other kinds of enterprises, they seem to frequently fail because the workers are too inclined to put up with poor business practices.

My questions are about how Workers Self Directed Enterprises of all types actually work in the real world. I know that frequently they fail. Unlike other kinds of enterprises, they seem to frequently fail because the workers are too inclined to put up with poor business practices (for example, taking pay cuts rather than deal with inherently unsustainable business practices or an unrealistic market) – perhaps a form of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. I don’t think this is just because we’re ideologues, but that may be a big part of it!

The term “coops” or WSDEs covers many different things: collective buying institutions (e.g. food coops), collective selling institutions (individual small capitalist enterprises who get together to sell their products), collective owners (farmers who own collectively the land they farm in individual farms). We are mostly interested in yet another type or meaning of coop: when workers in an enterprise collectively function as their own board of directors, thereby not needing any separate group of people functioning as a board of directors. We call this sort of coop a Workers Self-Directed Enterprise or WSDE.

There really is little broad evidence that compares businesses that are otherwise alike (what, how and where they produce) except that some are run as top-down hierarchical capitalist enterprises whereas others are WSDEs (coops in the sense of worker self-directed enterprises). WSDEs still remain relatively few compared with capitalistically organized enterprises. In any case we don’t have grounds to say that WSDEs, for example, fail at any greater rate than capitalist enterprises. Where we do have some evidence – for example, with the huge Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in northern Spain – it is quite clear that its member coops (WSDEs) have failed at lower rates than their capitalist counterparts over the last 50 years.

Historical evidence suggests that enterprises are very complicated and complex things utterly dependent for their survival on the interplay of external conditions (over many of which they exert little or no control) and internal conditions (all the technical and interpersonal aspects of producing and distributing goods and services). Special sets of conditions bring enterprises into existence. Changing conditions change those enterprises. And new conditions often end the useful lives of many enterprises. No one aspect of a business (whether it is hierarchical/capitalist versus WSDE) ever determines success or failure; those results always depend on the interplay of many factors.

Also, we need to be careful about the word “fail.” It means different things for capitalist enterprises than for WSDEs. Capitalistically-organized enterprises focus on “bottom lines” such as profit rates or growth rates or market shares. If they don’t get those big enough, they “fail.” Quite differently, WSDE’s do not focus on one, two or three measures. They are concerned about profits and growth but also about the welfare of workers and their families, of surrounding communities where they live, of the quality of life and personal development on the job, and so on. In a word, a WSDE that did well on many of those issues even if its profit rate was low would not be viewed or treated as a failure. From the WSDE perspective, a capitalist enterprise that scored high on profits and growth but treated its workers and the surrounding community badly might well be judged a “failure.”

Capitalist enterprises and WSDEs are basically different ways of organizing production. They likely produce correspondingly different ways of working, thinking, relating to other people, and so on. They have different ways of serving people’s needs. Likewise, if and when an enterprise “fails” and disappears, the two systems differ in how they handle that failure. Capitalist enterprises typically dissolve in bankruptcy where capitalists and workers are on their own to search for alternative livelihoods. Coops – for example in the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in northern Spain – are more likely to work out elaborate systems for finding other work in partner cooperatives for workers from a failed enterprise. If there is not enough work for all, for example, then unemployment is shared (everyone does 2 hours less work per week rather than some being completely unemployed). Secure employment is a major priority for WSDEs in ways that it is typically not for capitalist enterprises.


What is a Co-operative?

A cooperative is defined as an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.

A cooperative may also be defined as a business owned and controlled equally by the people who use its services or who work at it.

There are different types of co-operatives:

Housing cooperative

A housing cooperative is a legal mechanism for ownership of housing where residents either own shares reflecting their equity in the co-operative’s real estate, or have membership and occupancy rights in a not-for-profit co-operative and they underwrite their housing through paying subscriptions or rent.
Building cooperative

Members of a building cooperative (in Britain known as a self-build housing co-operative) pool resources to build housing, normally using a high proportion of their own labour. When the building is finished, each member is the sole owner of a homestead, and the cooperative may be dissolved.
Retailers’ cooperative

A retailers’ cooperative (known as a secondary or marketing co-operative in some countries) is an organization which employs economies of scale on behalf of its members to get discounts from manufacturers and to pool marketing. It is common for locally-owned grocery stores, hardware stores and pharmacies. In this case the members of the cooperative are businesses rather than individuals.
Utility cooperative

A utility cooperative is a public utility that is owned by its customers. It is a type of consumers’ cooperative. In the US, many such cooperatives were formed to provide rural electrical and telephone service.

Worker cooperative

A worker cooperative or producer cooperative is a cooperative that is owned and democratically controlled by its “worker-owners”. There are no outside owners in a “pure” workers’ cooperative, only the workers own shares of the business, though hybrid forms in which consumers, community members or capitalist investors also own some shares are not uncommon. Membership is not compulsory for employees, but generally only employees can become members. However, in India there is a form of workers’ cooperative which insists on compulsory membership for all employees and compulsory employment for all members. That is the form of the Indian Coffee Houses. This system was advocated by the Indian communist leader A. K. Gopalan.

Consumers’ cooperative

A consumers’ cooperative is a business owned by its customers. Employees can also generally become members. Members vote on major decisions, and elect the board of directors from amongst their own number. A well known example in the United States is the REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) co-op, and in Canada: Mountain Equipment Co-op.
The world’s largest consumers’ cooperative is the Co-operative Group in the United Kingdom, which offers a variety of retail and financial services. The UK also has a number of autonomous consumers’ cooperative societies, such as the East of England Co-operative Society and Midcounties Co-operative.
Migros is the largest supermarket chain in Switzerland and keeps the cooperative society as its form of organization.
Coop is another Swiss cooperative which operates the second largest supermarket chain in Switzerland after Migros.

Agricultural cooperative

Agricultural cooperatives are widespread in rural areas.
In the United States, there are both marketing and supply cooperatives. Agricultural marketing cooperatives, some of which are government-sponsored, promote and may actually distribute specific commodities. There are also agricultural supply cooperatives, which provide inputs into the agricultural process.
In Europe, there are strong agricultural / agribusiness cooperatives, and agricultural cooperative banks. Most emerging countries are developing agricultural cooperatives.