Sunday, July 03, 2005

A World Without Bosses?

Northern California collectives take their cues from an innovative Basque cooperative in Northern Spain. Can they really make a difference?

To anyone who has slogged through a wage-slave job or had a domineering boss, a collectively run cooperative sounds like a workers' paradise. It has no hierarchy and no supervisors because everyone is an owner.

Everyone makes the same amount of money and everyone is responsible for making the business work. Everyone does all the jobs. No one gets summarily fired. Decisions are made by consensus. At the end of the year, some money goes to charity and some is invested back into the business. The rest of the profits, instead of enriching one or two individuals, are returned to all the worker-owners -- a rising tide lifting many boats.

Willie Perez is unusually cheerful. A line of hungry customers is snaking out The Pizza Collective storefront on Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue, the ovens are gusting heat and flushed workers in aprons and tennis shoes are darting about in what appears to be barely organized bedlam.

The 28-year-old father of two has good reason to be happy. He's making close to $30 an hour, gets medical benefits for his family, enjoys four to five weeks paid time off each year and believes passionately in his work. Not the work of making pizza, particularly, but the work of running, along with 38 other people, a thriving worker-owned cooperative built on the principles of democracy and economic fairness.

This creates a radically different attitude toward work, one emphasizing personal responsibility and flexibility. "If we don't have a boss and I tell you to turn out the lights when you leave, you're going to do it because it means more money for all of us," Perez says. "But if someone is breathing down your neck, you might not."

Perez says he used to work at a big-box retailer. "Corporate America, okay? They don't treat you like human beings. They treat you like robots. Your opinion is not appreciated."

There's something else about cooperatives. In an economy with a lot of coops, the number of well-paid, self-directed workers would mean a larger, wealthier middle class, and therefore a healthier community. The goal is a society in which all people, not only the fittest, enjoy economic security....


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