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