The United Nations has declared this year the year of the coop. Although cooperatives are a part of the private property system and only a small part of the world economy, a number of our readers (including me) continue to be enthralled with the idea that coops can serve as a transitional model for an economic alternative that will save us from capitalism. At the other end of the spectrum stand our Marxist sisters and brethren (including me-some of us are of two-minds) who scoff at the idea that one can end capitalism from within. These readers tend to think of cooperatives as a utopian model that can, at best, bring about limited reforms until there is a total revolution of the economic system.
Cooperatives Competing in a Capitalist World.
The ideal cooperative concept combines the worker, manager and owner in one person. Since the three elements are combined in one, the function of the coop is to provide for the worker's needs, not simple the owners profits. The coop concept is based on democratic control and equality and eliminates much of the exploitative mechanisms of capitalism internally both in terms of economic and social relations. The increasing networking of cooperatives into what seems like its own society further strengthens its influence as an alternative model.
Cooperatives still, however, have to compete for new capital (the one item that is not integrated into the model) in a world capitalist market whose exploitative practices undermine the coop model. In this diary I want to start an exploration of how coops might successfully fend off capitalist competition and and possibly even supplant capitalism.
Chinks in the Cooperatives' Armour. One of the ways that capitalists exploit workers is to make workers compete with each other for lower and lower wages --getting them to produce more for less --whatever they save in this process goes, of course, into the capitalists pockets as profits and capital for future investments. One way that capitalists increase exploitation is to make certain groups of workers -- racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, women -- less valuable than other workers so that they will work for less. Every country has identifiable workers in one of these groups; in this diary, however, I am going to focus on women since those characteristics which differentiate them from other workers is that they are found in all societies and the differences not simply socially constructed but include functional differences as well. Thus, in many ways, women workers are "the canary in the miner's shaft," a warning to the workers to stay alert. If the women workers are not treated equally, the whole cooperative construct is in jeopardy.
It is true that Cooperatives are continuing to grow in numbers and constitute an increasing percentage of almost all countries' economies. One of the large cooperative networks, Mondragon, provides work and sustains life for hundreds of thousands of people over several countries and have been operating for more than 50 years. In the vanguard with Mondragón are other networks of cooperatives that engage all elements of co-operative production by democratizing production, distribution and investment:
In Italy's Emilia-Romagna region three networks represent some 2,700 co-ops of all kinds employing 150,000 worker-owners; Venezuela has set up 5% of land for communal use and established city-planning councils (mostly run by women) which establish local cooperatives; The "people's movement" in India is organizing village-based agricultural and light-industrial production so that it uses social property (which now accounts for 84-100% of the income of the poor) combined with consumer, marketing, agricultural, electrical and housing coops, community development and banking initiatives, NGOs and the social and solidarity economy movement.(Hacker, et al., 1987)
The question, however, is not just how successful coop networks can be as businesses in a capitalist society, but how well they are doing in meeting worker's needs. And, since they are based on a concept of democratic control and equality, this must mean all workers' needs.
The Role of Patriarchy under Capitalism:
One of the more successful ways that capitalism exploits workers is by adapting and assimilating the earlier Patriarchal economic model and turning it into the individual family household. In this way the reproduction of the laborer remains inside the family and outside the market economy and thus provides "free" labor for capitalist. The male patriarch remains at the head of the household unit and all other family members (the wife and children) are subsumed under his rule. Economically,since the labor they perform continues outside the wage market, it becomes unpaid and invisible. Legally, the man became the "decider" for the family members in the public market sphere. Thus government and laws are largely created by men, even in the "democratic" Western legislatures where women are minimally included (17% of the U.S. Congress is women today even though women are over 50% of the population). Although the advent of capitalism did challenge the authority of the feudal patriarchal religions, it still chose to continue to use their religious dogma in the cultural arena as an argument to keep women oppressed.
The State of Women's Exploitation Under Capitalism.
It is relevant to consider some aspects of the marginalization of the status of women in the world caused by this double whammy of Patriarchal Capitalism by looking at the figures based on the documents from the United Nations. Some of the findings are:
- Unemployment Rate: Male unemployment rate decreased by 11% from 1984 to 1988 while for women, the unemployment rate increased by 0.5% during the same period;The effects of the long-term cumulative process of discrimination against women have been accentuated by underdevelopment. Graphically, while women represent nearly 50% of the world’s adult population and one-third of the total labor force, they labor nearly two-thirds of the total working hours but receive only one-tenth of world income and own less than one per cent of property.(Rural Women, 2003)
- Women in the Informal Sector: Without legal protection or security, women depend on informal trade for their survival. In Third World countries, a high percentage of food vendors are women: in Nigeria 94%, Thailand 80%, 63% in the Philippines;
- Inequality in Pay: All over the world women earn only two-thirds of men's pay and earn less than three-quarters of the wages of men doing similar jobs. Women form a third of the world’s official labor force, but are concentrated in the lowest-paid jobs and are more vulnerable to unemployment than men;
- Domestic Work: Women do almost all the world’s domestic work and coupled with their additional work in the productive spheres - this means most women work a double day. Unpaid domestic work is regarded as women’s work. Though it is vital work, it is invisible work, unpaid, undervalued and unrecognized. Yet, the women’s contribution to society in this regard is enormous;
- Agriculture: Women grow about half of the world’s food, but own hardly any land, have difficulty in obtaining credit and are overlooked by agricultural advisers and projects. In Africa, three-quarters of the agricultural work is done by women while in Asia, Latin America and the Middle-East, women comprise half of the agricultural labor force;
- Health: Women provide more health care than all health services combined and have been major beneficiaries of a new global shift in priorities towards prevention of disease and promotion of good health;
- Education: Women continue to outnumber men among the world’s illiterates by about 3:2 ratio, but a school enrollment boom is closing the education gap between boys and girls;
- Political Affairs: Due to poorer education, lack of confidence and greater workload, women are still under-represented in the decision-making bodies of their countries.(Rural Women, 2003)
Although women, in general fair better in cooperative structures than in capitalist enterprises, the effect of the continued repression of women in the capitalist world economy has influenced cooperative structures in a number of different ways:
Agricultural cooperatives represent a large part of the cooperative movement. In the past they have been (and still often are) primarily marketing cooperatives because the producing is done primarily on individual plots of land which are owned by the male head of the household and supported by discriminatory laws and practices for inheritance and land ownership. The land that women do own tends to consist of smaller, less valuable plots that are frequently overlooked in statistics. Furthermore, women are usually responsible for the household subsistence agriculture which is frequently not measured.
Because the women do not own the land, and are legally, in many countries, assimilated under the male head of the household, only the male household head is a member of the cooperative eliminating women from the decision making process. This process continues legally in many countries and to some degree in a de facto manner, due to cultural pressures, even in the U.S. and modern socialist states such as Venezuela.
The particular tasks done on farms by men and women also have certain common patterns. In general, due to women's role raising children, men undertake the physical labor of land preparation and jobs which are specific to distant locations women carry out the tasks located close to home such as care of the kitchen garden. Marketing is often seen as a female task, although men are most likely to negotiate the sale of crops.
As cash crops increase under capitalism, women's power can be further eroded. Some jobs are gender neutral. The introduction of a new tool, however, may cause a particular job to be reassigned to the opposite sex and men tend to assume tasks that become mechanized. Technological changes in post-harvest processing may even deprive women of a traditional income-earning task. Thus women are further placed at a technical disadvantage as societies modernize. And, as more and more female tasks are transferred to men in the market economy, more and more women are forced to make a living in the informal sector.
Gender Inequalities in U.S. Cooperatives.
Many theories concerning worker cooperatives suggest that the egalitarian nature of coops should naturally lead to more equality. Women do fare better in co-ops than in the capitalist labor force in terms of occupational attainment, hourly wage rates, and achievement of leadership roles in both underdeveloped and developed countries. However, studies in the U.K., Canada, Mondragon and the Israeli Kibbutz system show that in some cooperatives, even in developed countries, women are kept in the lower wage and lower skilled jobs. If, in fact, the cooperative ideal is in place, we have to ask how this comes to be. Is it caused by "left over" stereotypes and cultural norms" that can simply be educated away as the society progresses or are there structural changes in the coop system that have to be made to assure women's equality?
These studies have also pointed to challenges that women face specifically within co-ops. In a study of North American worker cooperatives, Julia Smith (2003), a researcher at the University of Victoria's BC Institute for Co-operative Studies (now the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy), reports:
... men [are] the majority in skilled labor, management, and director positions. Women who do sit on boards of directors or hold management positions admit that they feel alone, outnumbered, and are often afraid to speak up or fully realize their leadership roles. [...] The sexual division of labor (women as unskilled laborers and men as skilled laborers) is another challenge worker co-operatives face. This issue has a lot to do with larger societal structures of education, training, and taking time off to raise a family. [...] Ultimately, the gender barriers in worker co-operatives reflect the larger societal contexts in which they exist and, in many cases, worker co-ops have attempted to overcome gender barriers more actively than have many other businesses and organizations (Miller, 2011).The Effects of Unpaid Labor and how it Effects Women's Wages and Decision-making Power in Cooperatives.
"[however]The differences in the ways that co-ops and capitalist businesses are structured and operated results in differences in the ways in which gender relations play out amongst the two types of firms. In particular, the number of hours worked by members seems especially meaningful in constructing gender differences in annual incomes within the co-op sector (Miller, 2011)."
"It is important to analyze the material/economic consequences of gender (in)equality, focusing specifically on income levels. Amongst mainstream businesses in 2001, the median hourly wage for men was $11.36 and for women it was $9.57, yielding a ratio of women's to men's hourly wages of 84.3. That is, for each dollar earned by men, women earn about 84 cents. (Figures taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (2002)). BLS data also shows that for full-time workers, women's median yearly income was $26,572 and men's was $34,944, giving a wage ratio of 0.76 (BLS 2002). In contrast, worker co-operatives strive to keep wage differentials low between the highest and lowest paid workers in their business, often paying equal hourly wages to all workers. This suggests that we would find greater income-related gender equality within the co-op community. My survey data confirms this, as I find that women and men earn comparable hourly wages of approximately $17 per hour. However, when yearly salaries are compared, women are found to earn significantly less than men do in co-ops. Women's median yearly salary was $26,572 in 2001 while men's was about $40,000, yielding a ratio of women's to men's salaries of 0.76. When dividends and surplus from profits are included in total income, the median total income for women was $32,870, while men's was $43,000, giving the same income ratio of 0.76. Surprisingly, this is the same gender wage ratio that is experienced within the general (capitalist) labor force. However, because women's and men's hourly wages in co-ops is equal, this wage gap is due to differences in the number of co-op hours that women and men work…While men work an average of 40 hours per week in the co-op, women average 33 hours."(Miller, 2011)With an understanding of women's double role in paid and unpaid labor it is not a stretch to assume that the differential in working hours may be due to the demands of women's unpaid labor. In some cooperatives this differential in hours was actively built in in terms of flex hours or shorter hours to accommodate women in their unpaid role. In some all women cooperatives, the cooperative was actually started in part to enable women to work in the market economy while accommodating their needs in the reproductive sphere (i.e., Beyondcare Daycare coop). However, this is not always or necessarily a woman's ideal choice and results in significantly less financial remuneration for women workers.
Occupational Segregation in the Cooperative Community.
While traditional, capitalist firms emphasize hierarchy and job specialization, worker cooperatives emphasize policies of job rotation and cross-training as well as horizontal decision-making. This suggests that job segregation is less likely in the cooperative model, at least within each cooperative which statistics verify. However, in cooperatives in general, men are over-represented in blue collar (i.e., construction) and technical jobs (i.e., IT) and women are significantly overrepresented in white collar (i.e., office) and service (i.e., cleaning) jobs.
If fact, this has led to the formation of a number of all women cooperatives. Since women have frequently entered the paid labor market without the skills required for existing paying jobs, especially in a tight labor market, they are forced into creating their own jobs. Since many of the women are forced into the informal labor market, the cooperative model provides them with the potential of greater success with greater economies of scale. Moreover, they found they could develop the organizational and management skills necessary far more easily in an all women's environment, as well as building in special considerations such as the part-time and flex hours that women often need.The Women Canaries in the Mondragon Model. Perhaps the clearest indicator that the coop model may need some basic changes comes from the Mondragon network which is considered the most successful of the cooperative projects to date. While Mondragon took note of gender inequalities early on, eliminating many discriminatory cultural biases (i.e.in the beginning only married women could become coop members) and still retains a significantly better track record on comparable wages for women and women in management than capitalist firms, over the years it has, in its efforts to expand and diversify developed a number of hierarchical structures that move away from the model of democratic decision making and equal (or close to equal) pay intended by combining the worker/owner/manager. This diary will save the details of the potential metamorphosis of Mondragon into a more traditional capitalist firm for another diary, but will focus on women workers as a "warning".
However, since most of the cooperatives they started developed out of the skills they already possessed in the unpaid sphere (childcare, hairdressers. food and cleaning services), their remuneration in cooperatives, while significantly better than if working alone or not working, is limited by the market rate for such services. Moreover, while these types of cooperatives can, in many cases, develop to the point where they could save enough capital to purchase additional technology (a better phone referral system, a commercial rug shampooer, etc.) the surplus margin is generally lower and it is generally more difficult to develop than it is for all male cooperatives where members tend to come to the table with more education, training, capital and technical work experience. In fact, many of the most profitable and capital intensive high tech cooperatives that we are beginning to see are all or mostly male.
One shameful trend has been that many micro-lending institutions (so lauded as a way for women to get out of poverty) have been charging such high interest rates on the loans woman take out to get the capital start-up money for their project that their businesses go under. Even if they succeed succeed to the extent they are no longer starving or on welfare, they are merely making ends meet at a subsistence level and are unable to take advantage of the programs the micro-lending institutions offer like pension plans and thus cannot truly get out of poverty.
As Mondragon continued to grow and compete with capitalist firms, weathering several recessions, with the opening up of the global market, they found that, if they were to stay competitive, their traditional method of capital development for new projects was insufficient.
[Somewhere along the line] Mondragon began using nonmember contract workers. The contract workers were only supposed to work six months and then be let go or given an opportunity to buy into the cooperative. In fact, a de facto system has been established where many of the temporary workers work six month, collect unemployment for six months, and then reapply to work another six months. These "wage workers" make significantly less than cooperative members and do not have the same worker rights or decision making powers. Although the number of non-cooperative members who can work in a coop is by law limited, due to the pressure to be more competitive (to create more capital), Mondragon lobbied to have the percent of contract workers raised to 30% of the workforce.True, on the gender division of labor women do slightly better at MCC than in capitalist firms and have a major presence in management. But blue collar work remains largely male.According to several of the women workers, there are two kinds of workers in Mondragon. The coop members who hold the managerial and higher paying jobs and have the right to make decisions and attend the general assembly and the contract low skilled workers (where many of the women work) who have no decision making right.
"If a co-op applies, MCC may allow it up to 40% non-member workers (most of whom are women). Illegal "eventuales" or temporaries—mostly female—are not counted in the 30% quota for "contract" labor, and also make up a substantial percent of workforces. In some co-ops over 40% of work may be done by non-members. The overall percentage is unknown since MCC no longer gives out membership figures. Collective exploitation of wage labor encourages more of it, membership limits, and sell-outs.
MCC is [also] using women as a reserve army of labor. A significant percent of illegal hired labor, one informant told us, is home assembly work, mostly by
female relatives. This second-class labor pool is incompatible with cooperativism." (Kasmir, 1996)
Thus, when the management (mostly men)in one plant tried to change the working conditions of the workers on the assembly line (itself a new imposition responding to the capitalist firms introducing assembly lines), the mostly women workers found themselves asked to increase production from 15-30%. The management swore these were all efficiency cuts and would not cause more work for the line workers.
Women's dissatisfaction with remaining in the low end jobs is evident (i.e.,a famous women's strike in Ulgor in 1974, demanding more equity in job assignments and rights to decision making).
While I can hear readers gnashing their teeth at the thought that we would criticize the Mondragon model (let's face it, it tends to be presented as our Utopia), the good news is that it can still be fixed. Solutions include observing the one worker-one-vote rule; consciously including the creation of capital by other than "cost efficiencies" which are essentially worker exploitation; gender integration of all co-ops and jobs; and developing support services such as education in science and technical areas focused on women workers and, most definitely, child-care in workplaces at no charge.
One final observation:
"True, islands of cooperativism will [still]be gradually re-absorbed into
capitalism. (Köhler) But global competitiveness does not demand wage workers or marginalizing women or preempting opposition. On the contrary, the more elements of liberated (self-managed) cooperative labor, the more productivity and profitability. MCC managers' faith in the economic value of cooperativism may have waned, yet the evidence still suggests that the network could both compete globally and: stop all wage labor; introduce gender democracy; cease joint ventures with external capital; resume start-ups (e.g. by co-operativizing foreign subsidiaries); encourage unions with their external solidarity; and give social councils equal say with management in setting work-floor regimes. Long-term advantage would likely result. And the network would re-emerge as a model.
Even if it faces degeneration or outright economic attacks, cooperativization will have enough time to construct "a better world," but only if it is a part of building an alternative economy. ..Cooperativization shifts the basic priority of society's productive infrastructure from profits to needs. Making profits is a quantitative and infinite goal, meeting needs a qualitative and inherently finite one.... For in creating a co-op, each member gives their labor power to the others with a view to meeting the needs of all members....each member's very economic life is given to the others in the expectation that [meetings the needs of the others will [also meet the needs of] oneself." (Hacker, 1987)
"For worker cooperatives usually become capitalist not because they are co-operative, but because, in isolation, they are not co-operative enough."(Hacker, 1987)
Genna R. Miller (2011). "Gender Equality in U.S. Worker Cooperatives."
Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 7. http://geo.coop/...
Hacker, Sally L. and Clara Elcorobairutia,"Women Workers in the Mondragon System of Industrial Cooperatives" in Gender and Society, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Dec., 1987), pp. 358-379. Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Kasmir, Sharryn. The Myth of the Mondragon Model. State University of New York: Albany, New York. 1996
RURAL WOMEN, FOOD SECURITY AND AGRICULTURAL COOPERATIVES. RURAL DEVELOPMENT AND MANAGEMENT CENTRE. ‘The Saryu’, J-102 Kalkaji, New Delhi 110019. India, February 2003.Director: Dr Daman Prakash
(Also check out other diaries by Geminijen on Cooperatives on my Profile)