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Cooperative Regional Economies & Radical Human Resources

Here are my workshop notes from day 3 of the EWCD. Before I get into that, though, I want to take a moment to mention that I met with Tom Pierson of North American Students of Cooperation. I will likely present at their fall conference, and Tom will be up in Quebec city for 5 days of international coop conferencing in October.

Building Co-operative Regional Economies

The Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops presented their experience building up an economic cooperation between co-ops in their region. This effort grew out of the environmental and social justice movements, and they felt it was important to establish a two-prong definition of worker co-ops. For the VAWC, worker co-ops are an ownership model, in that co-ops are worker owned and controlled, but also a governance model, in that they felt it was important that co-ops practice some form of participatory democracy. New notions of co-opreneurial, as opposed to an entrepreneurial engagement, and interco-operation, were mentioned.

The VAWC invited us to break out on our own and look into co-operative cooperation in our own regions. I was the sole representative of Montreal, so I set out to draft up a list of resources, starting with the Coopérative de développement régional de Montréal-Laval. CDRML is mostly a service organisation, but seemed a likely place to start in terms of building up momentum for economic cooperation. Another big opportunity will probably be the Quebec city conferences in october.

I will spare you my laundry list of co-ops, and jump right into the obstacles. I think one of the first is going to be language. CDRML provides services exclusively in French, and there are understandable reasons for that, but it does mean that a substantual proportion of Montreal residents cannot access their resources in the language they are most fluent in. More significant, I feel, is the potential barriers to Quebec co-ops and allied organisations in participating in broader national and international events, predominantly organized and delivered in English. Since these conferences provide a natural place for groups to meet each other and network, I feel it is in their best interests to develop shared translation services.

An equally significant challenge, I feel, lies in the breadth of the co-op movement. Although democratic governance has been a major theme at the ECWD, it is not my experience that Quebec co-ops apply this as a principle in a very systematic way. In fact, I have had the dubious pleasure of being a rank-and-file worker with no membership rights in no less than three different worker co-operatives, in my trajectory through Montreal's kitchens. Add to that a number of collectively organised workplaces incorporated as non-profits or traditional companies, and you have a pretty murky soup.

In that sense, I feel that a federation or alliance of organisations working under shared values, but with a mix of legal structures, would be more up my alley than a more homogenous organisation of co-operatives.

Radical Human Resources

This workshop, originally billed as "Putting Humanity back in Human Resources", was presented by two members of the AORTA Collective and the Mariposa Food Coop, who avowed from the start, to never having used the term "Human Resources" to describe what they do before. After establishing a laundry list of concerns together, we attacked the issues by looking at a couple of poles in HR.

We defined traditional HR as a discipline designed to maximize worker productivity and limit the resources available to workers, to a necessary minimum of sick days and other benefits. It is difficult, if not counter-productive, to be seen as a complete human being under this model. HR in this model is reactive, not proactive, treating problems in simple ways using one-size-fits-all procedures.

As an alternative, we talked about a vision of HR that is collectively assumed by your group, where people bring their whole selves to work and try to see their co-workers as whole people. There is a concern with dealing with the fundamental issues of problems in the workplace rather than just reacting to them.

While this may seem like a tall order, we identified a number of simple strategies that can help to establish this practice. These ideas we could experiment with in our new teams and/or implement at Koumbit in a general way.

  • Comprehensive check-ins before each meeting, including where we are at in our lives and challenges both in and out of our workplace, as well as future plans as they become clear.
  • Collective bitch sessions that open up space to talk freely and evacuate feelings about problems and bugs.
  • Hanging out outside of the workplace or informally to build up a feeling of affinity.
  • Keeping a collective to-do list that is returned to in meetings, and rotating the reminder/follow-up role.
  • Doing a dreamdate activity from time to time to talk freely about our ideals and desires for our work teams and workplace.
  • Make sure we notice resentment when it comes up and avoid doing things out of duty or resentment whenever possible.
  • Mapping collective assets, like client discounts for our organisation or nearby or allied health practitioners.

To the question of dealing with fundamental issues and avoiding a reactive stance, we were presented an example of a Points of Unity document. This for me was a terrific example of how we can articulate our founding principles and values in ways that are actually helpful to us. Rather than being a one-word principle, each Point of Unity is a description or vision of how to enact and live a particular principle. I saw immediately how such a document was helpful in both understanding and identifying shared values and in using them to guide our actions. Most of Koumbit's founding principles started with something of the form "We believe". Most of those presented in this workshop started with "We do these things"

New members do not simply sign on to the Points of Unity. They meet with the collective and discuss them, suggesting changes and indicating their support for them. This helps the group to identify incompatibilities ahead of time, and also pushes the Points of Unity through a continual process of evolution. Finally, the new member is given the opportunity to fully appropriate and invest in these points.

As much as possible, these points are used as guidelines to drafting policies and procedures, and making decisions on alliances and actions.

Attached is a digital copy of the handout from the workshop, with sample points of unity and policies.

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I have started mapping collective assets in the wiki:

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