Quilted and Just Walk - Conversations at the 2011 Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy

Quilted and Just Walk - Conversations at the 2011 Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy

Corey Reidy

Story by: Corey Reidy/ Transcription by: Isabel Antreasian

Two weekends ago, July 8th- July 10th,  the worker-owned world of Baltimore geared up to host this year's Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. In ECWD's own words:

The Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) is a non-profit cooperative organization established to aid in the continued growth of the workplace democracy movement. The ECWD is managed by the Coordinating Council, which is a group of worker-owners and members of support organizations that were elected by the general membership of the ECWD. The ECWD works in cooperation with the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives to promote and develop worker-owned enterprises regionally and nationally. The main work of the ECWD includes holding a conference every two years, in the Eastern United States, for the purpose of bringing together worker-owners, employees of democractically run ESOPs, companies and organizations that provide support to democractic workplaces, and anyone interested in the workplace democracy movement.

Filled with workshops, showcases, meetings, open discussions, and uncharted gatherings, the conference converged on Charm City. Those defining a world without bosses - with innovative, with creative - with practical and utopic organizational structures and processes; people, from all around the region, participated in discussing their own cooperatives and learning from others.

The Cooperatives, Their Perspectives

A conference on workplace democracy would be nothing without the active attendance of those creating cooperative economies and frameworks. Below is audio from/ and transcriptions of two interviews with ECWD participants: Ben Mauer of Quilted and Joshua Stephens from Just Walk.

QUILTED

 

Listen

Ben: My name's Ben Mauer and what brings me here today and yesterday, is just to get a broader sense of what's going on in the country and especially on the Eastern side of the country with worker co-ops. I helped start a worker co-op a couple years ago, four years ago, in Boston and Berkeley. Being on the East Coast ,with just a couple other members of my cooperative, I sort of want more community on the East Coast.

Indyreader:  Do you want to talk about your cooperative?

Ben: Sure, so my cooperative is called Quilted.  We're five people. One on the East Coast in Boston and four on the West Coast in Berkeley. We do web development for social justice organizations, small businesses, and other worker cooperatives. We started in 2007 and before that we had been a sort of loose collection of freelancers for about three years, since 2005. And in 2007, we sort of decided to take the plunge and actually remove all the barriers that are … the sort of paperwork barriers around subcontracting to each other that being independent contractors has. So, we were like, let's just incorporate. That way we can work together more easily and collaborate as a default, rather than as an exception.

Indyreader: I heard through the grapevine that Quilted, all of you have real wages and healthcare and stuff like that. How did that happen? How are you able to be that fiscally sound?

Ben: Sure, well I think that the first piece is actually just a lot of privilege in having skills and knowledge that are very in demand right now. Part of it's just happenstance, you know. I happened to get into computer stuff when I was really young, at the luck of having a dad who  is in information technology in a library. So I was exposed to computers at an early age. Other members have different stories. But I think there are a couple reasons why I think we have pay, like good pay, and healthcare and benefits. One is that the work we do is just highly paid work. It’s highly skilled work. But another reason is that we set out at the very beginning to pay ourselves for all the hours that we worked. And to have health benefits. And to go above and beyond regular health benefits and like offer things like preventative health stipends. So we set that as a goal. And a lot of our financial decisions are based on that. And we do make some compromises around... you know we're not always in a position to take on pro-bono work for instance. And sometimes we don't . And we take on a job that's less interesting but pays more money. You know, for no less a good cause certainly, but for like a larger non-profit, or a national chapter organization, something that has a little more resources.

The other way that we do it is by having a mix of clients, from large national non-profits to scrappy grassroots clients. We work on a sliding scale, so we charge our clients anywhere from $175 an hour - to $0 an hour. And we expect our clients to pay what they can afford. So, the folks who can afford it, we expect them to pay it. And we'll shop a job at $175 if we know they can afford it. And if we know that they can't , we'll go a little lower and then we'll negotiate down from there. So yeah, I think it's a combination of privilege, setting goals around having it be our primary work, and really working to meet the financial needs of our clients. But creating a mix of highly paid work and work that's valuable in other ways.

Indyreader: One of the goals of this conference is for other cooperatives to begin networking. How does a cooperative like Quilted collaborate with other cooperatives?

Ben: Yeah, I mean I think we … one way that we've collaborated with a few different cooperatives actually is work trades. So Gaya Host ,which is a web hosting collective, who hosts most of our client's sites, we traded with them. We traded some free hosting from them, for redesigning some pages on their site. So you know, we got about a year and a half of free hosting and they got a brand new web design for the whole site. And especially their control panel was kind of hard to use, so we helped them work that out. And then we also did a work trade with AORTA, which is an anti-oppression training collective based in Philadelphia and the Bay area, and they were great. So we did their website and they gave us some facilitation, some anti-oppression trainings, and both of those work trades were just so valuable. It was just a clear case of mutual aid. We needed those things. We had those things for each other. And we made that happen. Those are the two big examples I can think of.

Indyreader: So what did you personally take away from this weekend?

Ben: I guess one is that, you know, there's a lot of activity happening in the US right now. This is the first worker co-op conference that I've been to. And so, I was just really impressed and inspired by just sharing space with so many awesome people doing really awesome things. And people thinking really big thoughts; people thinking, “How do I pay myself tomorrow?” And just being around a mix of people, was just super inspiring to me. So I think what I got out of it was just some really awesome conversation started with a bunch of people and also just inspiration to keep doing what I'm doing.   

Indyreader: How do you think in future years it could better facilitate the movement growing?

Ben: I mean I think that one step this year was just having simultaneous translation or interpretation of all the events, and I think that that's a good first step. I think that... I wrote this in my evaluation, but I feel like it seems like people who are in the know, know that, like, certain low-iincome, or like Person of Color co-ops, are being started. And they know where they're being started. And all we've got to do is reach-out to those people...like reach-out to those people and fund them to come to the next conference. There's no reason why every single cooperative, that is in that space, shouldn't just get a free ticket to the conference. I mean there are folks that can afford to pay a little more to bring those folks here. And the outreach should be intentional. So I think that's one thing that we can do that's really concrete.

Indyreader: Do you have any final thoughts?

Ben: Yeah, I'm just so excited to be in a worker cooperative at this moment. And in a way, I feel like the financial crisis has been a real blessing for our movement-  in that businesses are pairing down to the absolute essentials of what needs to be done, as a business. And I truly believe that worker cooperatives are the most efficient, lean, effective way to start a business and have it be sustainable. So in that environment, I feel like worker co-ops will naturally succeed at a greater rate than other businesses. So I don't know-  it's a war of attrition, maybe over time. But I have faith.

JUST WALK

 

Listen

Joshua: My name is Joshua Stevens and I am here to take our workplace, The Just Walk Collective, into a broader community of cooperative enterprises. And see what we can learn from that - and maybe figure out what we have to offer to that.

Indyreader: Could you explain what Just Walk is?

Joshua: We are a worker-owned and operated collective of dog walkers and pet care professionals in: Washington D.C., Baltimore, and New York City.

Indyreader: For you and your business, what is the importance of worker-owned and operated businesses?

Joshua: I mean I could probably say that there's this broader political vision and whatnot. But even if I didn't have faith in that,  I would say... that just on an ethical level -  I don't think I would be able to look myself in the mirror, [while] extracting value from other people's labor.

I think that the only way to engage in entrepreneurial sorts of endeavors, assuming that someone doesn't want to be a wage slave somewhere as an employee, the only way to do that entrepreneurial sort of thing, is on equal footing with other people in collaboration, a spirit of mutuality, and cooperation.

And so, even if I didn't have aspirations for prefigured politics or a broader political vision, I don't really think I could look myself in the face in the mirror every morning if I were doing it any other way.

Indyreader: What do you think the importance is of having conferences like this?

Joshua: Well I think that, I mean I don't have any specific expertise or training in like running a business -  or a cooperative business much less. I'm a high school drop out.

So, this is an opportunity to share best practices. And it seems like there's so little information out there and so little available in an organized way – in the way of:  skill-sharing or best practices or training... or you know things that have been perfected or honed or whatever. It's an opportunity to learn from other people and an opportunity to maybe try in an organized way produce a body of knowledge that is centrally accessible in some way. I just came here to try to learn from other people.

Indyreader: Cool! Do you have any final thoughts?

Joshua: You know the plenary was just so fantastic, like the sort of holistic quality of it. And the way that people were just centralizing a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression politics, in a way that isn't fetishizing. It isn't about like, “Well, let's do an anti-oppression training or whatever...”

But actually this is like, there's a very clear sort of ethical way of infusing this and making this a central consideration. And as much as anti-capitalism or democratic work places or whatever are an ethic...  that anti-racism and anti-oppression and making that manifest in everything we do, is just as much an ethic.

That was really heartening, because that's the kind of thing I hear people giving a lot of lip service to at other progressive and radical sorts of conferences and things. But people seem to have almost zero sense of how one lives that and inhabits that in one's body or in what one does day-to-day.

And so to see people, who are literally just here to talk about worker-owned businesses and stuff, doing that. And doing that in a really smart, savvy, and arguably sexy way was just awesome. That just totally blew the lid off of it for me.

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Corey Reidy has been an Indyreader collective member since the start of 2009. And.. she adores it with all her heart. When Reidy isn't editing, writing, interviewing, or other Indyreader-centric organizing, she works to do other forms of radical activism -- including, but not limited to, organizing/being a board member of Hollaback! Baltimore. If she's not organizing, Reidy is most likely reading, biking, or practicing/studying yoga (of which she adores and will 100% go to bat to defend and promote).