Fresh Look at Cooperatives: Arizmendi, CoFed, and Mondragon

Coffee Ideas and Issues

Oakland   Things come in threes?  Fate reaches out for you?  Of all things in the Bay Area in recent days I started to feel like this was happening to me and cooperatives.  I was stumbling over and into them everywhere I went.

Visiting with Peter Olney, the organizing director for ILWU, he told me fascinating stories of his recent visit with the Mondragon folks in the Basque region of Spain on his vacation.  The cooperative employs 93,000 workers and is the 7th largest enterprise in Spain.  He visited a stamping plant for refrigerators and was amazed.  He told me that the experience and hearing stories about the worker owners’ decision to job share and vote wage reductions to protect their employment was forcing him to re-examine some of his own long held views about unions and about the value of cooperatives.

Yesterday I ended up for a meeting in Oakland at Arizmendi near Lake Merritt downtown which is a worker owned bakery cooperative and one of six such operations that are part of the Arizmendi Association in the Bay Area.  This was a thriving bakery operation easily visible from the counter.  The counterman told they currently employed 26 workers.  The bake goods were reasonably priced and pridefully nutritious as a basic principle of the cooperative.  The coffee was not their thing and there were none of your fancy California-style amenities, but this was an excellent place.

I had ended up there at the invitation of Danny Spitzberg, the main trainer at CoFed (the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive.  In English his group helps organize and assist the development of student run coffee and food cooperatives on college and university campuses in North America.   I had originally met Danny at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans when he was visiting and getting a better handle on the coffee business.  Now I had tracked him down because with 50 locations around the country and another 10 opening, all with the backing of the deeper pockets of their institutions, I was interested in them joining with Fair Grinds to create a coffee buy cooperative that could directly source coffee from fairtrade organic producer cooperatives that we were working with in Honduras, Mexico and other Latin American countries.  If we could create a partnership and bring the pieces together we could bring the coffee through the Port of New Orleans, save everyone money, get better coffee, and really start to have some impact on the market.

It’s not Mondragon, but coming from another direction, I’m becoming an advocate, if we can get to scale with cooperatives.