Amid the economic downturn in 2007, economist, professor, and Truthout contributor and advisory board member Richard Wolff laid out a vision for a radical reorganization of labor wherein employees had control of their workplaces. From choosing their work hours to coming to consensus about everyday business operations, employees would act together as their own bosses to combat inequality in the workplace.
The Story of Beyond Care
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After facing insecure jobs, low wages and toxic unemployment, Susana Peralta and 19 other women turned that radical restructuring of the workplace into a reality. Their cooperative brainchild Beyond Care blossomed in 2008 as a new way to provide quality employment for their community in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The alternative workplace provides a necessary service of part- and full-time childcare where the women are their own bosses and chose their own hours and wages, a welcomed change from traditional workplaces.
“Not only did we create a space with fairer wages, but we found a way to employ our entire community,” Peralta, the Beyond Care cooperative president said.
Peralta and her coworkers are exactly what Wolff and his new organization Democracy at Work, a collaboration with Truthout and several other partners, conceptualized for the future of employment.
Democracy at Work was born in 2011 after Wolff’s weekly radio show Economic Update, supported by Truthout, became syndicated in ten cities and listeners grew desperate for a solution to the abysmal employment and economic crisis.
“People wanted a solution, so we had to answer this demand,” Wolff said. “The answer we came up with is democracy at work that would respond to the criticism we’re making about the failures of the system to solve its own problems, to the failure of the old traditional socialism to be a model that attracts people and excites them.”
The fundamental idea of Democracy at Work is to create a society based on workers’ self-directed enterprises. Fully egalitarian in every sense, workers run the business, share the assets and create a workspace that runs in harmony with not only its workers, but the entire community.
Wolff’s argument is that workers in control of their own workplaces are much less likely to ship their own jobs overseas, underpay employees or pollute their own communities. As workers’ enterprises become fully functioning, they benefit those who participate as workers as well as the customers and communities they serve.
But before Beyond Care came into full operation, the women worked every day just to promote the business to get its first clients. Because they had to build up the daycare on an idea alone, with no money, it was completely up to them to gain momentum for the business. They put up flyers all over their neighborhood, trying to spread the word about their cooperative. After four years of word-of-mouth promotion and advertising, the collective got its first client.
Now, Beyond Care has more clients than it can handle; the childcare center now has to turn down nearly seven clients each week because of its growing popularity. Parents love that their children are learning Spanish and that Beyond Care is entirely democratically run, Peralta added.
The women are constantly attending trainings and are currently working on expanding their services to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Unlike traditional workplaces, pleasing its customer-base is vital to Beyond Care’s survival.
“If you work with an agency, you work to please your boss; when you work for a cooperative, you have more incentive to please the customers because your job depends directly on it,” said collective developer Emma Yorra.
But perhaps most importantly, Peralta said, is the job security a collectively run workplace provides. No one worries about not having clients or being fired with nowhere to go. There are always clients and work to be done for the community, she said.
“We all have equal benefits and security now,” Peralta said. “It isn’t just for those of us who started the co-op; we’re interested in something that benefits the entire community.”
This “radical reorganization and democratization of enterprise,” according to Wolff, gives workers complete control of their own workplaces, allows them to decide their wages and work fair hours, just as Beyond Care has been doing for the past four years. In a democratic workplace, no longer do bosses or agencies dictate how much employees should be paid – solving the issue of struggling workers barely able to pay for basic living expenses.
But job security would be the most beneficial outcome of worker self-directed enterprises, adds Jen Hill, co-founder of Democracy at Work.
“When people are secure in their work-life, they have the freedom to participate in politics, home life and have time with their families, which would produce a more educated and creative society where everyone has a voice,” Hill said. “Generations would be self-expressed, more equal and more secure. The opposite of what capitalism has done for us: insecurity and inequality.”
Red Emma’s Story
The freedom and democratic control of a cooperative gave the founding members of Red Emma’s bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland, the freedom to expand further than a traditional business. Collectivized at the end of 2004, Red Emma’s has flourished into a fully sustainable business, complete with a cafe serving fair-trade coffee, a space for political discussions, a free computer lab and a template for others to begin their own collective.
“We wanted to build an infrastructure that creates the world we want to see and a space that allows us to put our politics into practice,” said Kate Khatib, a Red Emma’s founding collective member. “Emma’s is an experiment, a laboratory to see if these things we talk about in our literature actually work, and if not, why doesn’t it work? What can we do instead?”
Owned and operated by 14 collective members and a group of volunteers, Red Emma’s grew into a product of its own politics, giving each member a say in every aspect of the operation. But Emma’s still has a few of the same obstacles many other independent bookshops across the country have. The collective still has times when it struggles with book sales or building repairs.
And although Emma’s is an open collective, it takes six months to become a full member. After three months of volunteering for five hours each week and a series of checkpoints and reviews, the collective must come to a complete consensus before inviting someone to join. Then after three more months of working as a provisional member, they are eligible to become a collective member and officially added to Red Emma’s ownership documents.
“Collectives offer a way to change the way we think of work,” John Duda, another founding collective member said. “It’s a space that changes people’s expectations of what labor can look like.”
Consensus becomes the basis of each workday. Every member and volunteer knows which lightbulb goes where, how much money was brought in that week and where the cooperative’s produce comes from (local, family-owned grocery stores) and is encouraged to participate in each business decision.
Weekly collective meetings are run so every participant has a chance to speak. Each member focuses on a certain aspect of Emma’s: public relations, book ordering, volunteers and logistics. Direct democracy developed Emma’s into one of Baltimore’s destination bookstores and into a worker self-directed enterprise that’s able to be replicated by other business ventures.
“It’s rewarding to see that it is possible to build something that is sustainable, that has a capacity to reproduce itself as an institution,” Duda said. “It opens a space where people learn to live a little differently.”
Democracy at Work is spreading this template to make it easier for collectives and cooperatives to sprout in cities where unemployment is deteriorating entire neighborhoods. The organization is developing informational videos to make these methods more accessible, and there are plans to organize a training institution where ideas are manifested into concrete business plans.
“We are developing a movement. We have the basic idea. We have a very enthusiastic audience,” Wolff said. “It’s growing, but the trick is how to find a way to glue people together, give them enough to do that they feel part of something because that’s what they want.”