Feb. 15, 2016 9:45 am

Why staying competitive is the biggest challenge for worker co-ops

Being a cooperative isn't the hard part -- competing is the real challenge, said a local filmmaker who recently completed a short film about four local co-ops.

W/N W/N is a worker cooperative.

(Courtesy photo)

The biggest challenge for worker cooperatives like W/N W/N isn’t navigating operations as a co-op — it’s being able to stay alive while competing with other players in a co-op’s specific industry.

That’s according to the observations of some Haverford College filmmakers. In their short film CapitalishNick Gandolfo-LuciaSarah MosesAnna Bullard and David Roza examine the day-to-day operations of four local co-ops attempting to reap the rewards of capitalism while challenging the injustices capitalism can incur.

“When we talked to a lot of the people in cooperatives, even though they identified with the cooperative movement, they also identified a lot with the industries they were in,” Gandolfo-Lucia said. “They were also trying to combat industry practices they felt made it harder for the workplace to be a good place for everyone who worked there.”

Gandolfo-Lucia said that during the pre-interview process, when the team was asking about some of the biggest challenges facing cooperatives, the response was never, “It’s really hard to be a cooperative.” Instead, he said, it was always, “It’s really hard to stay competitive in our industry.”

Take coffeeshop-bar-kitchen W/N W/N for instance. Gandolfo-Lucia said restaurants and kitchens tend to be particularly volatile work enviorments with strict hierarchies that promote verbal abuse as a form of encouraging productivity. W/N W/N’s worker cooperative structure makes that kind of a hierarchy benign.

“In some sense [for W/N W/N], that reduces productivity but it also means people who work there aren’t being yelled at all the time by people in charge,” he said. But what does that hierarchical overhaul mean for a restaurant trying to stay afloat in an industry that sees 80 percent of its players close their doors within five years of opening?

“The film ended up being about how cooperatives can exist in these industries while fighting the things that fundamentally make these industries maybe not the best places to work,” Gandolfo-Lucia said. “They’re involved in trying to make their industries less exploitative.”

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Gandolfo-Lucia said he came away from the project feeling like the cooperative movement was gaining traction — though he admitted changing things on a large scale will always feel Sisyphean by nature.

“There’s a sense that the movement is building towards something — building towards trying to actively change the dominant structure of the economy right now,” he said. “The way they’re doing that is by trying to improve their industries.”


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