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A Worker Cooperative


Today is Sydney's 11th day(1) of having no locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, which means this is probably going to be the last post in the "Lockdown Thoughts" series. If you've read any of the previous posts in the series (there's only like two of them, c'mon dude), then you'd probably assume I only think about video games and anime.

(1) It took me 3 days to make this post and each time I've had to go to this twitter update this link.

And you're correct. That isn't going to change today.

Have you played Dead Cells? It's the only metroidvania I've ever enjoyed (unless you count the first Dark Souls) and is made by a company called "Motion Twin" which is based in… France?! UGH! I hate the French! YUCK!

But let's go onto their website to see if they have any job openings, because you know… uhh… I want tooo… critique their web design? Yeah I think that seems reasonable. I don't actually have any desire to enter the video game industry and making websites is a part of my job. Also, French people can't make websites because websites are rectangles and the only things the French know how to make: baguettes and croissants, are not rectangles. This is a very well known fact to any person with common sense.

Here's the first thing you see when you open their website.

motion twin site

Wait, what is this? What am I reading?

"No boss"?

"Equal pay"?

What? I'm so confused. Are you allowed to do this? Is this a French thing I'm too civilised to understand? This goes against everything capitalism stands for! What the heck?!

Yeah I'm sure you saw this coming. This post isn't about video games, it's actually communist propaganda. So there you go, the three things I think about: video games, anime, and communism.

Anyway, this is called a "worker cooperative" or "worker co-op" for short, which usually refers to a business that is owned and managed by it's workers. I mean, this is literally just communism, if every business was structured like this then we would have communism(2). What I'm a little surprised about is that you can actually do this under our modern capitalist society. I've been reading anarchist theory since I was 16 and not once did I realise this was a thing (or maybe I wasn't paying attention).

(2) Sort of. This would actually be market socialism, we need a bit more for full on communism.

For some reason, I guess I've just been assuming that there was something stopping people from making worker co-ops in modern times unlike in the past which is why I never saw them. It's a little disappointing that I'm only hearing about this now (and the first one I found is French :/), but in the US there are only 465 verified worker co-ops[1] so they don't seem to be very widespread.

But back to the topic. Normally to adjust to traditional consumer cooperative law, each member would have an equal share in the cooperative, but there also seems to be things called "multi-stakeholder cooperatives" which are cooperatives that has more than one class of members. For instance, the British Ecological Land Cooperative, has three types of membership with each sharing a proportion of voting rights:

  • Investor Members have invested money in the cooperative, share 25% of voting rights and receive returns on their investment.

  • Worker Members are those people that work for the cooperative. Like Investor Members, they also share 25% of voting rights. Worker Members are employees and volunteers that work at least 15 days each year.

  • Steward Members are ecological land managers and share the remaining 50% of voting rights.

But I'm an anarchist and I don't like "classes"(3) so I'm going to ignore this and pretend it doesn't exist.

(3) Is this why I hate object-oriented programming?

Every worker co-op I've looked at seems to all be structured in a variety of ways, and there doesn't seem to be any real standard. CICOPA, the International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Cooperatives, gives an 8-page definition in their World Declaration on Workers' Cooperatives, which was approved by the International Co-operative Alliance General Assembly in September 2005. They give us a section on the basic characteristics of workers' cooperatives:

  • They have the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of the worker-members, dignify human work, allow workers’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
  • The free and voluntary membership of their members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
  • As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise are members and vice versa.
  • The worker-members’ relation with their cooperative shall be considered as different from that of conventional wage-based labor and to that of autonomous individual work.
  • Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the worker-members.
  • They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labor relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.

Okay, that's neat and all, but that doesn't really explain how it's supposed to work.

So I'm gonna make up a structure myself as a fun exercise, because thinking about communism is fun. Most cooperatives are pretty small (Motion Twin is only 6 people) so it's going to be interesting to see how this could be scaled up to an "Apple-like" company. Let's start with the stuff you should have already gotten from reading the start of this post.

Each member in a cooperative has an equal share with one vote. Wikipedia says that "workers also often undergo a trial or screening period (such as three or six months) before being allowed to have full voting rights". I think that makes sense, although six months is a bit much so three is more reasonable.

A thing I haven't really seen talked about is how finances are managed. Like that seems pretty important, you still need to deal with capitalism and money is how it works.

The most common thing is that members get equal pay no matter what work you do. Again, some "multi-stakeholder cooperatives" have different salaries depending on what type of member you are. So, a "cashier" member might get a different salary to a "warehouse" member. But… why? On what basis are you saying the cashier should be paid more or less than the warehouse worker? Most people say it's based on the amount of work you do, but can you really say that one of these people does more than the other?

Let's use a more extreme example actually, the good ol' question: "should a CEO be getting paid >10x more than the janitor?" Which basically boils down to: "does a CEO do >10x more work than the janitor?" I'm sure you already have an opinion on that so I'm not going to bother.

But actually, there's an even easier solution to being able to have equal pay. A pretty common complaint of communism is "who will be the janitor if everyone is equal and free to do whatever they want?" To which the answer should be "no one", there should be no janitors. Like why do we have people who spend 8 hours a day cleaning toilets and shit? Everyone should be spending a little time every week cleaning their own shit, there shouldn't be a need for janitors.

Anyway, most small businesses operate on a loss, at least for the first few years. In the start-up world, it's pretty normal for the CEO to forgo a salary for a while to keep their employees paid. Assuming the financial situation is the same for the cooperative, operating with equal pay should be similar.

Although there is no CEO (because everyone is the owner), the most well off members would forgo a salary to keep the cooperative alive (if they want to obviously). This might not have as big as an impact because their salaries are the same instead of having a CEO with proportionally higher pay than their employees, so a few people may need to do it. Otherwise, you could always just vote to lower salaries or find ways to cut costs like any other business, but it's better because it's direct democracy.

If you're afraid that people would get lazy and not do any work if everyone has the same pay. You could implement some sort of system for bonuses, where people get rewards (probably money) for doing extra work. In most cases it's better to use rewards as incentives instead of penalties. This would probably be capped as well to make sure you aren't being underpaid and just expected to be doing more work to get bonuses. Nudge tip culture in America nudge. I do like the idea the people should be compensated more for their hard work, but oh boy, is that easy to exploit.

Assuming the cooperative isn't in any real financial difficulty, this would come from a "common fund" which is just a shared resource pool added to after all the expenses had been paid. The common fund could be used for much more as well, like enabling people to have start-up capital when starting new initiatives, and be a safety net if revenue starts slowing down.

For some reason most big businesses don't do something like this, where you just save some revenue in case stuff goes wrong (like maybe there's a global pandemic or something I dunno ¯\_(シ)_/¯). I'm assuming this has something to do with economic methodologies like "Just-in-Time" (JIT), which is a really good idea if you're know you're going to get your supplies when you ask for them, but what happens when you don't? Is this not a thing people think about? Is everyone just like "nah mate, IT'S OK! You seem them stonks?! They always go up! That means the economy is always going to be good!"

Maybe I should leave my rant on the entire field of economics for another time actually.

I haven't given any solid numbers because all this obviously depends on the cooperative, it would need to be fine tuned to each. But just as an FYI, Apple's net income for the quarter ending June 30, 2020 was $11.253 billion.[2] And they employ 137,000 people[3], so assuming 50% goes into the common fund (which is way more than it should be for most cooperatives), each person still gets $331,176 per year. Which if I remember correctly is very close to the amount of money you need before having more stops making you happier and you're able to live a very comfortable life. Wow! What a coincidence!

Now let's talk about how this would be managed. Because this is a direct democracy, technically every one would be a manager and I don't see why you couldn't just structure this like any other anarchist group. This is pretty simple for a small business, but what about Apple? The simple solution is to just not have so many members, as many companies only have so many employees because managers like having people to manage.

But either way, you could have people split up into groups of ~150. And since there isn't just one person whose job it is to micro-manage peoples' toilet breaks, everyone will need to know a little about what the others are doing to be able to coordinate. Each group would have representatives (elected democratically or through sortition) that meet with other group representatives to coordinate between groups. This is a standard anarchist system, if you're curious, I've talked about this before here.

Honestly, it doesn't actually seem all that different with how a business looks now. The difference is that the power is "bottom-up" instead of "top-down" where the members have the power over the hierarchy instead of people at the top, because of DIRECT DEMOCRACY BABBYYYYYYYYYY.

To be fair, I think many people would actually hate being in a worker cooperative. Lots of people take pride in how much more money they make than others or how high up the corporate ladder they are. Which is good, because I don't want to work with them. It's way more likely that I would enjoy working with someone who thinks this is a good idea than someone who doesn't.

And that's pretty much all I'm bothered to write. God I hate writing closing lines to these posts because I have no idea what to say.

But whatever, good bye. Au revoir.

[1]: https://institute.coop/what-worker-cooperative

[2]: https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/AAPL/apple/net-income

[3]: https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/AAPL/apple/number-of-employees