Cooperatives and Building Productive Democracy

Ideas and Issues Organizing

Madison  I took one wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of the track waiting for a train, which only heightened my anticipation at what the Just Coffee Cooperative of coffee roasters might be like.  From across the tracks the street seemed to be smaller multi-unit apartments nicely appointed running down a row.  Finally getting around the train found me driving to the back of a small parking lot to a small warehouse with a solid metal door and a rollout delivery bay, but when I opened the door the whole roasting facility seemed larger and bustling.  This was Just Coffee!

Just Coffee is a fascinating operation.  Less than ten co-op members with another dozen or so employees roast, pack, and deliver about 250,000 pounds of coffee locally and via UPS around the country.  They left TransFair USA some years ago, and there website is full of the reasons.  They have direct partnerships with growing cooperatives in some areas and a cooperative liaison whose job is to visit their sources and make judgments at the point of sale and support on a wide range of questions they take very seriously.  Just Coffee left the fair-trade certification system connected to TransFair and FLO when they realized the process for certifying them as a fair-trade roaster was a quick 5 minute telephone call asking them what percentage of their roasting was fair-trade.  Gulp and they were gone. 

It wasn’t the money.  To be certified they were paying a penny or two per pound roasted to TransfairUSA/FLO, but they felt it wasn’t serious.  They are trying to carry a label now from with certification from small producers in Central America directly.  They were candid with me that Equal Exchange (which I need to find out more about?) was critical to them starting because they had made building cooperatives a big project in Madison along with several other cities, so they were able to build on that critical work.  Unfortunately, Equal Exchange got a reputation of roasting the kind of beans that gave too many consumers the impression that they might be helping producers more by drinking fair-trade but the coffee wasn’t good.  Yikes!

Later in the evening I talked about Battle for the Ninth Ward at the Rainbow Book Store Cooperative.  Three hundred members paying $30 a year fuel this operation which started selling textbooks to University of Wisconsin students and now has a great collection of progressive books, including a stack of Citizen Wealth sitting on the counter.  A great experience!

These cooperatives aren’t huge, but they are effective, friendly, and value added in the community.  Visiting with them made lengthy discussions with Joel Rogers, professor at the University, guru of COWS, the high road economic development research and advocacy center, and long time friend, collaborator and fellow traveler about what he termed “productive democracy” make even better sense.  In imagining the world we are building and practical, scalable alternatives to the constant neoliberal refrain and contemporary ideology, there’s no going backwards, and elements of productive democracy might be a path forwards as a way to combine the strengths that democracy heralds for good governance as well as increasing its applications of equality of opportunity, social contribution, deep civic engagement, and other intrinsic values not only the public sphere but also in the economic environment where value can be more equitably distributed, dispersed, and shared.

Interestingly I heard this same discussion about a renewed role cooperatives might play as one small part of this puzzle when I visited with ACORN Czech last year in Prague where such formations and transitions were part of the common discussion.   In too much of the country’s cooperatives are something that is out there in the rural areas and not real presences in our urban realities and futures.  They have electric cooperatives, ginning and grain cooperatives, banking cooperatives for farmers while we have precious few examples in most of our daily experiences other than perhaps a credit union or a struggling and often higher priced food outlet.

Productive democracy in Rogers formula is a much, much different thing and at a scale that can make dreams soar and plans come together.   Worth more thought and some real work seeing where it might grow in our concrete and towering urban future.