Cooperation, competition and survival

After hearing a recent talk about sustainable forestry and the struggles of small logging companies, I asked the speaker if the loggers he worked with had formed co-ops.

To clarify, I cited the example of dairy cooperatives, which enable dairy farmers to share the cost of feeds, equipment, product distribution and insurance.

I was surprised when the speaker told me the loggers he knew were too independent and competitive to work with each other.

“If they can figure out a way to do something that’ll give them a competitive edge over the next guy,” he said, “they wouldn’t want to share that with anyone else.”

“Fair enough,” I thought. “People are free to scratch out an honest living any way they like.”

But I couldn’t help thinking about the price many small loggers pay for their “independence” – their burgeoning health-insurance costs and operating expenses, their indebtedness for equipment purchases, their domination by the bigger players in their industry. To the extent that they isolate themselves and see other loggers as a threat, rather than a potential source of economic, educational and social enrichment, small loggers make themselves vulnerable to bankruptcy and long-term unemployment.

Other factors affect loggers – and they are the same factors that affect all of us: resource depletion and the ongoing economic downturn. About 50 percent of Americans are unemployed, underemployed or underpaid, and the value of most people’s houses has decreased while their living costs have increased.

Perhaps it’s time to try something “new” – living and working more cooperatively.

Rather than waiting at home or in unemployment lines until the government or the private sector “creates jobs,” why not create our own jobs by banding together, finding a need and filling it? Rather than becoming the victims of inflation, why not form consumers co-ops with enough clout to make goods and services affordable?

I put “new” in quotes above because co-ops of different types have been around for a long time. Most of us are familiar with member-owned consumer co-ops ranging from local (usually organic) grocery stores and credit unions to national retail chains such as Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI.

Somewhat less familiar – but just as well-rooted in the American business tradition – are the numerous co-ops in which some or all of the business assets are owned by the workers. Ranging in size from storefront businesses to Fortune 500 companies and providing services as diverse as health care, child care and computer repairs, co-ops are already significant players in our economy. One study shows that nearly 30,000 U.S. consumer and workers cooperatives own $3 trillion in assets and generate $25 billion in wages for more than 2 million employees (see the National Cooperative Business Association’s website at www.ncba.coop).

Many co-ops are not-for-profit, meaning they return virtually all of their revenues above operating expenses to their membership. And because they are owned by the workers, not investors who expect to reap a profit from the operation, co-ops can compete with foreign labor, providing better job security and attracting low-cost capital.

But economics are only part of the story. Worker empowerment (without endless union/management strife), the pride of ownership and camaraderie with one’s fellow workers are palpable and, for many, priceless benefits.

From an environmentalist’s perspective, an added attraction is that many of the current startup opportunities for co-op business are in “green” fields such as weatherizing old buildings, recycling materials, manufacturing and building with recycled materials, urban organic farming and food retailing, and providing needed, low-tech services such as bicycle couriering.

Much of this work can be done by relatively low-skilled workers who are currently suffering the most from the economic downturn but who nonetheless can show incredible initiative in forming their own co-ops. Cleveland’s successful Evergreen Solar, Laundry and City Growers (farming) Co-ops, home-grown in one of the country’s worst urban blight areas, is an inspiring example of grass-roots community determination overcoming chronic problems by cooperative effort (www.evergreencoop.com).

To promote positive change, try joining or even forming a co-op at your ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz lives in Corvallis, Ore. Reach him at www.your-ecological-house.com.