How to Start a Worker-Owned Co-op with Yochai Gal

We’re all about the co-operative spirit here at Somerville Skillshare HQ. The way we see it, one of the coolest parts about being alive at the start of the 21st century is seeing so many people striving for more creative, innovative, equitable—and ultimately much more satisfying—ways of making a living. Lucky for us (and you!), on March 2nd Yochai Gal, co-founder of TechCollective, will teach you everything you need to know to establish a democratic business.

What exactly is a worker cooperative, and what benefits does it offer the worker-owner?

A worker co-op is a business that is wholly owned and operated by its employees. That means decisions, like hiring, firing, wages, new markets, etc. are all made by either the workers themselves, or elected decision makers (themselves beholden to their co-workers). They can come in many forms—some places have a strict hierarchy, others do not. Some all pay the same to all workers, others (like mine) do not. Some make decisions by consensus (so, unanimous only), others by majority vote, and even more are hybrids.

What does this all do for the worker? Well for starters, we usually get paid more on the bottom rung of the ladder, and a little less on the top. The ratio between the highest paid and lowest paid workers is on average 6:1 in a worker co-op; the US corporate average is 300:1. Workers tend to work harder and better than their non-co-op counterparts, because they see the business as theirs, the same way you’d treat a car you own differently than one you’re renting. A co-op will rarely pick up and leave the state for cheaper labor—all the workers would have to vote on it! A co-op will likely NOT poison the environment around it (like Chevron did to Richmond, CA—where 99.9% of its workforce lives).

If you’d like to know more, I highly recommend the film Shift Change (I may even play a portion in the class). I have it if you ever want to borrow it.

Tell us about your background—what in the course of your education inspired you to develop this particular area of expertise?

My family are kibbutzniks from Israel; democracy was always a big part of my life. I believe that worker co-ops are the answer to many of societies’ economic woes; just as democracy allows for the weak but many to have power over the strong and few, worker co-ops decentralize the power of capital by redistributing it among workers. But not from some top-heavy state; rather it comes from below, where workers are allowed to choose how they wish to spend their profits. No one can be underpaid OR overpaid unless the workers allow it!

When I came of age, I decided to work at a co-op but couldn’t find one in my area of expertise (computers). So I worked “in the field” for a while, developing experience and planning. Eventually, I was able to convince a number of my co-workers at a computer store to break off and form a co-op (the original TechCollective in San Francisco). We kicked butt!

After a few years I decided to follow my heart out to wintry Boston; eventually the co-op bug bit me again and I started looking for people interested in starting another TC branch, out here. Last May we opened in Somerville, and have been going (relatively) strong ever since.

What conditions must be met in order for a “bossless” company to thrive?

It is not easy to work at a co-op. You need good communication skills, patience, and the belief that you can learn from others, and they from you. Critical thinking about your place in the community around you and the world is essential; unfortunately none of these things are actually taught! A lot has to be unlearned; and occasionally one has to accept that this type of job isn’t right for them! We are not a one-size-fits-all solution; there are co-ops with bosses and workers who choose not to be worker-owners (e.g., Alvarado Baking Company) and prefer to treat it as just any other job. This is OK by me, as long as they have a choice. Co-ops also face critical financial challenges; we aren’t recognized in most states, and find it very difficult to get funding (no venture capitalist wants to give us money without having a vote themselves). It is getting easier, however—I’ll talk about this in the class.

What can Skillshare participants expect to take away from your class?

What I hope is that participants take away two things:

  • A true understanding of what a worker co-op is.
  • The notion that it is POSSIBLE to start one yourself.

Can you tell us about some worker cooperatives in the Somerville area?

Besides Boston TechCollective (we’re in Teale Square), there is only Metro Pedal Power (11 Olive Square).

You can find Yochai on the web, on Facebook, and at the TechCollective storefront at 231 Holland Street, Somerville.

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