Good morning, internets!
This is the second of a series of articles on what it's like to work for/in/with a cooperative; the first one is here. Eventually I'll update the first one to link to the whole series, whereever it goes.
I work for a worker's cooperative, Igalia. This article series is about moving beyond theory to practice: to report on our experience with collective self-determination, for the curious and for the interested. It's a kind of exercise in marketing the revolution :) I hope I can be free from accusations of commercial interest, however; for better or for worse, our customers couldn't care less how we are organized internally.
the ties that bind
The essence of a worker's cooperative is to enable people to make decisions about their work to the degree to which they are affected by those decisions. For decisions affecting the whole group, you need collective deliberation. You could think of it as workplace democracy, if you understand democracy to go beyond simple voting and referenda.
Collective decision-making works, but you need some preconditions -- see for example conditions for consensus, from this excellent article on consensus. More so than any other enterprise, a cooperative needs to have a set of goals or principles that binds all of its members together. In Igalia, we have a rather wordy document internally, but it's basically a commitment to finding a way to let hackers work on interesting things, centered around free software, in a self-organized way. Everything else is just strategy.
There are two more-or-less parallel structures in Igalia: one for decision-making and one for work. There is also a legal structure that is largely vestigial; more on that at the end.
The most important structure in Igalia is the "assembly". It's composed of all workers that have been in Igalia for a certain amount of time (currently 1 year, though there are discussions to shorten that period).
The assembly is the ultimate decision-making body, with power over all things: bank accounts, salary levels, budgets, strategies, team assignments, etc. All company information is open to all assembly members, which currently comprises all of the people in Igalia.
The assembly meets in person every two months at the head office in A Coruña, with the option for people to dial in. Since many of us work in remote locations and just communicate over mail and jabber, it's good to see people in person to renew the kind of personal connections that help make agreement easier. Incidentally, this requirement for group face-to-face meetings influenced the architecture of our head office; there is a dividable room there that can be expanded into a kind of "round table" with microphones at all the posts. You can see a picture of it on the about page.
The in-person assemblies are usually a bit abstracted over day-to-day operations and focus more on proposals that people have brought up or on strategy. Sometimes they are easy and quick and sometimes they go late into the night. The ones associated with longer-term planning like the yearly budgeting assemblies are the longest.
How well does this work, you ask? I would summarize by saying that it works OK. There are so many advantages to collective decision-making that I now take for granted that it is difficult to imagine other ways. However, making decisions is hard on a personal level: it's a challenge to hold all of the ideas in your head at one time, and to feel the right level of responsibility for the success of the business. I'll write another article on this point, I think, because it is also part of the cooperative working experience.
"The assembly" is both the bimonthly meeting and also the body of people. We're all on a mailing list and a jabber channel, which is where a lot of the other day-to-day business decisions get made, like "do we accept this contract", "should we hire people soon", "should we hire X person in particular", etc. However with some 40 people it's tricky to establish an active consensus on a mailing list, so it's usually the people that lead with proposals and actively round up people to help them implement that get things done.
So that's the power structure in Igalia. However on a day-to-day level, unless a thread is really active on the assembly mailing list, folks just do their jobs. Sounds silly but it has to happen. We're organized into teams, like in a normal company, but without managers -- we also do consensus on a smaller, more informal level within the teams.
Since we're a consulting shop, most people write code all day, but there are also people that primarily focus on other things: sales, team coordination (who's available for what work when?), administrative work, finance and cash-flow monitoring, etc. This broader team allocation is also a result of consensus. (You can see the theme here.) Ideally we rotate around the "coordinator"-type jobs so everyone stays fresh, hacking-wise, and we don't entrench these informal power structures. We've done some of that but could do more.
I've heard people say that "if you don't have a boss, the customer is your boss", but that's simply not true for us in any of the ways that matter. Our working conditions, pay, holidays, hours -- all of this is up to us. Yes, we have to do good work, but that's already an expectation we have of ourselves as hackers. It's a much healthier perspective to consider your customer to be your partner: both providing value for the other. If this isn't the case, we should find other partners, and happily in our particular industry this is a possibility. (More on cooperatives, capitalism, and crisis in a future post.)
As I said in the beginning, the important thing is that a group share principles, and agree periodically on the strategy to implement them. In that light, the particular legal structure of Igalia is an afterthought, though an important one.
Although Spanish law explicitly provides for cooperatives as a kind of legal entity, Igalia is organized as a limited-liability corporation. The reasons are not entirely clear to me, and periodically come up for debate. One of the issues, though, is that in a cooperative, 85% of your partners have to be Spanish residents, and we did not want that restriction.
Spanish workers are employees of Igalia, and folks outside of Spain are freelancers. However once you've been in the assembly for an amount of time, currently 2 years (way too long IMO), you have the option to become a legal partner in the business, purchasing an equal share of the business at a fixed price. I say "option" but it's also an expectation; the idea is that being a partner is a logical and natural outcome of working at/with/on/in Igalia. We have partners in a number of countries now.
You see my confusion with prepositions, and it's because you have to fit all of these ideas in your head at the same time: working for Igalia as an employee, on it as a project, with it as a partner, at it as a social experiment, etc.
Partners are the legal owners of Igalia, and there are about 30 of them now. They meet every few months, mostly to assess the progression of "prepartners" (those in the assembly but not yet partners, like myself). Ideally they don't discuss other things, and I think that works out in practice. There is a small power differential there between the partners and the assembly. However all the really important things get done in the assembly.
Finally, since Igalia is an S.L. (like an LLC), there is a legal administrator as well -- someone who's theoretically responsible for the whole thing and has to sign certain legal papers. In fact we have three of them, and the positions rotate around every three years. If we were a legal cooperative we could remove this need, which would be convenient. But that's how it is right now.
I want a society without hierarchical power: no state, no military, no boss. But that would be anarchy, right? Well yes, of course that's what it would be! "Anarchy" doesn't equate to a lack of structure, though. It's true that Igalia is embedded in capitalism, but I think it and other cooperatives are a kind of practical anarchy, or at least a step along the path.
I'll close this epistle with a quote, in Chomsky's halting but endearing style. The whole interview is well worth a read.
Anarchism is quite different from that. It calls for an elimination to tyranny, all kinds of tyranny. Including the kind of tyranny that's internal to private power concentrations. So why should we prefer it? Well I think because freedom is better than subordination. It's better to be free than to be a slave. Its' better to be able to make your own decisions than to have someone else make decisions and force you to observe them. I mean, I don't think you really need an argument for that. It seems like ... transparent.
The thing you need an argument for, and should give an argument for, is, How can we best proceed in that direction? And there are lots of ways within the current society. One way, incidentally, is through use of the state, to the extent that it is democratically controlled. I mean in the long run, anarchists would like to see the state eliminated. But it exists, alongside of private power, and the state is, at least to a certain extent, under public influence and control -- could be much more so. And it provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power. Rules for safety and health in the workplace for example. Or insuring that people have decent health care, let's say. Many other things like that. They're not going to come about through private power. Quite the contrary. But they can come about through the use of the state system under limited democratic control ... to carry forward reformist measures. I think those are fine things to do. they should be looking forward to something much more, much beyond, -- namely actual, much larger-scale democratization. And that's possible to not only think about, but to work on. So one of the leading anarchist thinkers, Bakunin in the 19th cent, pointed out that it's quite possible to build the institutions of a future society within the present one. And he was thinking about far more autocratic societies than ours. And that's being done. So for example, worker- and community- controlled enterprises are germs of a future society within the present one. And those not only can be developed, but are being developed.
The Kind of Anarchism I Believe In, Noam Chomsky, 28 May 2013