The UN declared 2012 The International Year of Cooperatives to encourage the growth of cooperatives worldwide. Perhaps it’s not that surprising that I only learned that fact today, when I was researching the status of worker-owned cooperatives. After all, Nancy Fabre points out
As an organizational form, worker-owned and -managed companies are largely ignored in economics textbooks. Still, research by Richard Freeman, Henry Hansmann,Douglas Kruse, John Pencavel, Louis Putterman and others has informed my thinking on the issue.
Democratic decision-making can be costly and contentious. But we knew that already. Why should workplace democracy be harder — or less efficient — than shareholder democracy (which, in principle, most public corporations are bound by)?
If workers receive a share of profits, they may try to free-ride on the efforts of other members of the collective — especially if effort is difficult to monitor.
Yes, indeed, but similar problems characterize the typical capitalist company, in which most workers gain little from improvements in overall performance.
If workers like one another, they may be unwilling to impose the level of discipline required to achieve efficient outcomes — like firing slackers. More generally, workers may favor the quality of their own work environment as much as increased profitability.
Actually, some cooperatives elect members to serve in managerial roles, and therefore to take on the responsibility for policing the organization, so those objections are possible moot.
Personally, I believe that the core issue at the root of the American aversion to collectives is our self-identification with individuality, and out difficulties with thinking collectively, at least for Americans of European ancestry:
Shauncey Ferro, Science Confirms The Obvious: Americans Are Selfish
If you need an American to do something, don’t mention the common good, team work or caring for others. A new study in Psychological Science this month found that trying to get Americans to think and act interdependently failed–and may have even decreased motivation.
After being prompted to think about either independence or interdependence, a group of Stanford students were given difficult word puzzles to solve, and later, a physical challenge (squeezing a handgrip for as long as possible).
“Chronically independent European Americans” fared much worse when primed to think about interdependence while completing the task. For bicultural Asian-American students exposed to both the independence-loving culture of America and a more communally based East-Asian culture, thinking about either value set was equally motivating.
In another test, students viewed a website about a class promoting environmental sustainability. White American students said they would put less effort into the course when the description emphasized things like working together and taking other people’s views into account, rather than when it prioritized taking charge and being unique.
Of course, these are Stanford students, and it could well be the case that there is more variability in the population when you don’t select for over achieving high school valedictorians.
My bet is that the events of the past decade may be radicalizing Americans, however. Rising awareness of deeply engrained economy inequity, an increasing awareness among the young that there is a severely damaged economic system, and a hollowing out of the middle class might inspire more grass-roots development of worker-owned cooperatives. Also, examples like the cooperative restaurant Colors, in New York City, formed by 9/11 survivors formerly employed by Windows on the World, the World Trade Center restaurant. As their web site says,
COLORS is committed to ethical employee practices, excellent service and delectable food. Our ingredients are purchased, where possible, directly from producers who practice sustainable agriculture and fair trade. We call it Just. Good. Food.
Maybe it’s Just. Good. Business. Too.