For good reasons, the spotlights of media have been shining brightly on the fate of our electoral democracy; undoubtedly this intense focus will continue long after the midterm elections.
But it’s an error to gaze only where the light shines most brightly. Important developments pertaining to our democracy, particularly to economic democracy, are unfolding in many places outside the spotlight. At first glance, the developments may seem modest. But they have far-reaching consequences for the well-being of working people and for civil society at large.
In a northeast corner of Los Angeles, not far from where I live, there’s a neighborhood called Atwater Village, and in that neighborhood an enterprise called the Proof Bakery does a thriving business selling a wide range of pastries, cakes, sandwiches, coffees, and other popular items. Three years ago, its founder and owner, Na Young Ma, decided to relinquish ownership after running the business for almost 10 years. But instead of selling the bakery to an outside owner, with all the possible consequences that could accrue from such a sale (including the firing of employees), she took the more challenging, time-consuming path of initiating a transition to a worker-owned cooperative, inspired by the long-running, successful Cheese Board Collective and Arizmendi Bakeries in California’s Bay Area (Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, San Rafael, Emeryville)
Ms. Ma sought out advice from a non-profit consulting group called Project Equity, and after two years, she sold the bakery to her employees in August, 2021. Eleven of the employees stepped up to become worker-owners, with another 13 remaining as employees. An employee can become a worker-owner after working for the bakery for a year and investing $2500 in the business, either up front or through paycheck deductions. Since the bakery opened as a cooperative a little over a year ago, it now has 13 worker-owners and 12 employees.
Visiting the bakery recently, I spoke with one of the worker-owners, James Lee. Formerly an employee when Ms. Ma was the sole owner, Mr. Lee is now a member of a three-person management team, and, like the other worker-owners, he participates in collective decision-making about a wide variety of issues pertaining to the running of the enterprise, including compensation and benefits.
I asked him about the transition to a worker-owned co-op, and he was candid about the challenges that it entailed. He discussed the very different expectations that the new worker-owners brought to the fledgling enterprise, and about the efforts to get to know one another as they continued to work through those differences.
But he also spoke about the value of sharing not only the profits but also the stresses associated with running the co-op, stresses widely acknowledged as very high in the food and restaurant businesses. And though he didn’t use the term “economic democracy,” he spoke of ongoing work-related conversations that focus on much more than the bottom line. “We talk a lot about community, accountability,” he said. “The conversation is about people, about us.”
According to the Democracy at Work Institute, a policy and action center supporting worker cooperatives, there over 600 such cooperatives in the U.S. today, an increase of 30 percent from 2019 to 2021. The co-ops operate in a wide range of economic sectors, from the food industry to construction, manufacturing, home care, and digital production, to name only a few. In other nations, there are thousands more cooperatives, and one of the largest aggregations of such businesses, the Mondragon collective in the Basque region of Spain, has received increasing attention for keeping workers employed during the pandemic and for helping control inequality in its home region by means of the co-op principle of sharing wealth.
As an engineer from one of its enterprises, a manufacturer of solar panels, explained, “the objective of the cooperative is not to produce rich people, it’s to produce rich societies.”
As we consider the aftermath of the midterms, and extend our gaze beyond the brightly-lit theater of political action, it may well be worthwhile to ask how rich a society we really are. And, perhaps, how real richness might someday emanate from an enterprise on the very next block in our neighborhood.