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Technically speaking, a cooperative is any business organization which is owned and controlled by its members. The members are those who participate in the business as consumers, workers, or producers. Membership usually requires the payment of a membership fee. The profits are distributed to the members on the basis of patronage (buying at, working at, or selling through the business). Control of the business is excercised by the members through democratic election of the Board of Directors on a one-person/one vote basis.
A co-op is a nice alternative to a conventional business. A conventional business is owned by outside shareholders. The shareholders may have more control over the business based on the amount of money they’ve invested and they may not have anything to do with using the goods and services of the business.
A worker-owned co-op is a business where the workers of the cooperative have joined together to produce goods and/or services for sale. The workers being the only members of the cooperative, elect the Board of Directors and share whatever profits are earned by the business.
Currently, we have 24 worker-owners.
Our employees that are not worker-owners are called associates. Currently, we have too many to count. Just kidding! But the number does fluctuate. Normally, about 2/3 of our staff are associates.
There are many differences between worker-owners and associates, from responsibilities to benefits.
Associates are employees with a responsibility toward their job(s). They are scheduled according to the needs of our business, but they may ask for time off when they need it (and they’ll likely get it based on hours worked). They are responsible for being on time and ready to work their shifts, as well as attending mandatory meetings. Although they always have a voice that will be heard, they do not have a vote in any formal decision-making.
Worker-owners are responsible for everything that an associate is, plus they have chosen to buy a share of the business. With that share comes one vote in the decision-making process that helps shape our business. Worker-owners are expected to be excellent problem solvers, ready to jump in and help out whenever there are issues or needs, and to be extremely knowledgeable about many aspects of our business. They need to be informed about what’s going on in order to make educated decisions. Once one becomes a worker-owner, they get a raise that helps offset the cost of buying in, paid time off (based on hours worked), and profit payouts (based on hours worked). Worker-owners are given preference for scheduling (based on hours worked).
Once an associate has worked at Casa for at least 1,000 hours, has learned at least four shift positions, has participated in committee work, and has had two good evaluations, they can declare their intent to become a worker-owner. If interested, they generally talk with current owners to get a feel for whether others think they are ready to go up for membership or if they should work on any areas before posting a letter stating their intent to apply for trial membership. The board of directors will then interview them and make a recommendation to membership. Then membership will interview them and vote on whether or not they believe this person is ready to become a trial member.
Once one is a trial member, there are lots of interesting things to do. And they are assigned a member buddy to help them through the process. We have many committees, so this person will attend at least one meeting of each committee to decide where their interest lies. They get to attend financial, governance, cooperative, and systems and operations workshops. This trial membership can last anywhere from 3-9 months.
Once one has gone through trial membership and has decided they really do want to be an owner, they post another letter expressing their intent to be a member. The board of directors will interview them again and make a recommendation to membership. Then membership will interview them and vote on whether or not they believe this person is ready to become a worker-owner.
Our current member fee is $1800. This money comes out of each semi-monthly paycheck at $37.50 for two years, or until paid off. Of course, there’s always the option to ask our Finance Coordinator to take more money out of your paycheck to pay off the member fee more quickly. Once the member fee is paid in, members earn 5% interest on that fee until they resign from membership.
From Casa’s inception in 1985 until 2001, Casa operated using the consensus decision making process, which requires all owners to agree to make a change. Around 2001, membership reached a high of 45 owners and cooperative education began to fall away. Some of the owners at the time are reported as having difficult personalities, and power plays during member meetings were common.
A few worker owners got fed up with the situation, and decided to deal with it by changing Casa’s decision making parameters from consensus to a super-majority voting system that required 76% approval during the first meeting. If the vote could not be won during that first meeting, it could go to a second meeting where only 51% approval would be needed. In this way, membership thought it would be easier to agree, in that they could ignore the concerns of up to 49% of membership.
Casa operated under that super-majority system until 2009, when newer owners who were dedicated to reinvigorating the original ideals of cooperation and equality created a proposal to change our decision making parameters back to the consensus model. We believe that this model promotes cooperation and equality by requiring all perspectives and opinions to have equal weight, unlike voting by majority, which promotes competition and alienates those whose ideas are less popular.