Workers' co-operatives: crashing in the same car

The Rainbow grocery co-op

A worker-owner in worker-run co-operatives gives their understanding of co-operatives in capitalist society, and their lack of revolutionary potential.

Submitted by Steven. on April 2, 2014

It's difficult for me to describe the deep fluttering of excitement, the too-good-to-be-true feeling, the dawning awareness, that I had been selected to be a worker-owner at San Francisco's storied Rainbow Grocery Cooperative.

San Francisco knows Rainbow as a truly special place, a destination, not because it seeks to be, like other grocery stores do, but simply by virtue of what it is. With (as of this writing) 250 worker-owners and 0 managers, it is a sizable example of a truly horizontal, entirely worker-run enterprise that is also consistently profitable.

Our benefits for workers include all profits shared, health care, dental, vision, massage, reiki, fitness benefits, leaves of absences, queer-friendly policies extending to loved ones and different formations of families, a 20% discount, and more. Because of this we are well-known in this city. We have the highest starting wage, by far, in the industry. If memory serves my starting wage as a stock clerk was $14.93/hr. There are multiple chances for raises each year (I was past $15 before I had worked there a year).

The workers at my store have built a good situation over the nearly 40 years we've been at it. And yet, what excited me so much when I got the call to interview wasn't the long list of benefits, which are impressive, no doubt, but if anything, those perks were just confirmation to me of how well a workplace can run when the people doing the jobs make the decisions. Who else knows better?

Here's a large store, nearly a whole city block in San Francisco, built from scratch by the workers, run successfully by the workers, where the horizontal, democratic decision-making process has never been sacrificed. In this store I saw so much possibility - not least of which was a working model of how things could be run in other workplaces, and not just grocery stores, but in all industries.

It felt good to finally catch up to my hopes.

I was "on fire" for co-operatives, full of passion, and doing what I believed in. Do you know that feeling of finding something bigger than yourself that gives your day-to-day just a little bit more meaning? It made me want to talk to everyone about it, including my co-workers - which is when I got a question back that I hadn't considered before.

I remember standing in the aisle where I work, casually chit-chatting with a co-worker, wondering aloud about what things would be like if all workplaces were run entirely democratically like our store. I figured without hierarchies (formal ones, anyways), that big changes could be realized. Workers would own and run everything. It would be the end of capitalism. And then my co-worker said, "Yeah, but if you flipped a switch and tomorrow every place was a co-op, we'd still all be competing with each other, just without bosses."

That thought knocked the wind out of my sails. It also planted a seed of discontent. The dizzying possibilities of broad social change that I imagined coming from democratic workplaces all over had been shown to have serious limitations. Even with bosses eliminated from the equation (what I would later learn to think of as "personifications of capital"), the logic of capitalism remained. Perhaps even worse is that it would be left to us, the workers, to enact the conclusions of capital on ourselves. In unprofitable years, if things got bad, we would be forced to fire ourselves, reduce health benefits, or cut our own wages or hours. Certainly we would have more say making those tough calls than if a manager were deciding those things for us and about us. But more say in the operations of capitalism is all that workers cooperatives can offer the working-class. It reminds me of one of the old rides at the amusement park I went to growing up. The antique cars you could "drive". You could steer the wheel, honk the horn, speed up (to a point), but you could never get off the track the car was stuck on.

The meaning and clear vision that cooperatives had provided me turned out not to hold up after looking a little deeper. Seeing the wind had gone out of my sails and figuring I might be ripe to consider a different perspective on class relations and ways of struggle, a friend introduced me to a member of the IWW. God only knows what kind of strange ideas and questions I brought with me to that first conversation.

Disappointingly, talking with Wobblies didn't offer a succinct answer that cleared up all my questions of how to arrive at a post-capitalist world like I craved. Why is an oracle so hard to find? Looking back now, I know that if I had been given an easy answer, that I shouldn't have trusted it anyway. Instead I got conversation and questions, mostly about where I was and how I saw the world, and then questions back to challenge me.

My involvement deepened over time. I started as an outside organizer, where I got to ask questions, spend time with committee members who were organizing their workplaces, and develop my own understanding of the antagonistic class relations that the Preamble to the IWW Constitution lays out. Some ideas were familiar, but most were new, and I was humbled by just how much I had to ask others to slow down and explain, and how much there was to learn. Silly, I used to think I knew something.

The whole time I’ve been developing as a Wobbly I’ve still been working at a cooperative, and I mean a truly horizontal worker-run-and-owned co-op, not a business with a hierarchical structure that still calls itself a cooperative. It’s been through day-to-day experience that I know that even the most ideologically pure cooperative can only "challenge" capitalism in the most superficial way. This has already been hashed out on Libcom and the IWW doesn't need to expend time and resources to confirm what we already know. Worker co-operatives are a shuffling around of the roles that capitalism casts us in, and short-circuits the building of working-class confidence that comes when we confront capital together. Cooperatives in no way challenge capitalist markets, the drive for valorization, or the need to work for wages. I have never heard proponents of worker cooperatives, who believe they can end capitalism, satisfactorily explain how acting as a boss and a worker will challenge capitalist relations, except in the most superficial and rhetorical of ways (i.e. coops end hierarchies in the workplace and demonstrate that workers can run things, too). The union cannot strive to turn workplaces into worker cooperatives and also maintain its revolutionary trajectory.

With this realization I have made a personal commitment to leave my job at the worker cooperative, where there is no revolutionary potential, and sell my labor-power where I can develop as a militant working-class revolutionary.

By Ogier



10 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on April 2, 2014

Now, I think this is a good article overall, and I agree with it. However I hope the author doesn't quit her/his current job at a co-op to get a different one, unless the new one is better.

While I agree that workers' co-operatives are not revolutionary in themselves (other than, as the author says, demonstrating that workers-control is possible), revolutionary individuals shouldn't sacrifice their material well-being for "the cause", unless to do so would be a violation of the principles of working class solidarity (like scabbing, or working for the police etc).


10 years ago

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Submitted by Pennoid on April 2, 2014

I think this is a great piece, and I think maybe a way to add some nuance, Steven, is to suggest that other revolutionaries shouldn't put formal or informal pressure on workers in good jobs to quite for ones that show potential for organizing. But if someone feels more comfortable in a job that pays 2-3 dollars less, where they feel like they can contribute to the class struggle more, I see no reason to forbid them.

I will say, that taking over the factories or means of production and changing them/running them ourselves is a part of the the revolution, so I don't think that the I.W.W. has to forsake extending workplace control by workers, but has to sufficiently challenge market forces in terms of distribution of product. How this can be done in capitalism/outside capitalism while it is dominant is not clear. I'm not beholden to the idea, but theoretically couldn't a host of co-operatives find a way to share goods, services, initiative, etc? Or rather, plan their distribution among themselves?

In less extreme cases, workplace control does present some contradictions. But to sound thoroughly Marxist, we can only overcome those contradictions by pushing them to their limits and exposing ways forward that negate the law of value. In English that equals: We can only solve the problems we're able to uncover in the first place.

Juan Conatz

10 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 3, 2014

I agree that we shouldn't necessarily "sacrifice [our] material well-being", but I think there's a difference between that and getting a job that has more potential for organizing. In any case, I'm not even against people getting jobs way below what they can get, if they're realistic with themselves about it.


10 years ago

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Submitted by ajjohnstone on April 3, 2014

Again i concur with those who caution against self sacrifice for an equally illusory job where you can develop into "revolutionary militant" , whatever that is. We don't need martyrs to the cause. You can spend valuable time explaining to fellow co-op members about the limits to it and your personal experiences should be publicised.

I'm coming across many on American websites who support Richard Wolff and Ger Alperovitz visions of worker owned co-ops as stepping stones. They then easily lead to Ellen Brown's state-owned banks (state as in North Dakota state) and what was once called "municipal" socialism (not-for-profit local utilities) but also once known less graciously by some others as "sewer socialism"


9 years ago

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Submitted by JeremyBamford on April 9, 2015

It's really a nice article overall. People seems to be very much over possessive these days when it comes to enjoying the life. I don't think its really that necessary to have someone very close to you or even a partner to take the charm of life. After reading this article I can say if you are busy in doing something or you're living in a working environment then you actually taking the charm of life. Because its all about doing things which the situation wants from you and that to in a positive way.

Thanks to you for this article as gives so much information about the life in an working organization or you can say the corporate life with your colleagues. Being a youth its obvious that you'll enjoy your life the way you want and that to with all your friends and colleagues. No doubt you'll be busy in partying, shopping, watching movies in theater, going for a long drive etc. But, it also necessary you must think of yourself and your safety.

I am also in my mid 20's and also doing things like you have mentioned in your article. It's natural that everyone wants to enjoy the life, one can't really like too much of work. There should be fun and entertainment to make life interesting and to gain mental stability to handle tough work pressure. I really like to enjoy a long ride in my car every time I free myself from a heavy work schedule and at the same time while running away from my place I always prefer to drive slow and in my control. Even though I am skilled car operator, but you can avoid upsets in life. Life sometimes costs you more without any crime. So, one must follow the driving tips, rules or guidelines whatever you say with the traffic guidelines. Particle I insist all the youth like me and also the underage guys mustn't try car driving on freeways or any other roads having heavy traffic if you're not that much skilled or capable of driving. I like this sort of message or information through and I have found this to make us learn things that we shouldn't try if we're not capable of. I also request the transport authority to keep your eye-on such things and shouldn't young people to drive on highway without a proper test drive. And lastly reckless driving is deadly dangerous.