Want Gender Egalitarian Workplaces? Worker Co-ops can Help
By Joan Meyers | May 10, 2023
The COVID pandemic laid bare the complexity of gender inequality in the labor market and hit low-wage Black and Brown women workers hardest. Women were more likely to be employed as “essential” workers, faced greater exposure to COVID, and now have higher long COVID rates, compromising future workforce participation and earnings. The relocation of child care and education to individual homes heightened the gap between mothers’ and fathers’ domestic responsibilities and reversed established workplace gains. But this has not been true of all workplaces. Worker co-ops—cooperatively owned and democratically controlled by those who produce their goods, services, and/or information—largely avoided both financial and physical harm to its women workers across race/ethnicity. Why might this be? What can worker co-ops teach other workplaces about gender egalitarianism? My recently published book, Working Democracies: Managing Inequality in Worker Cooperatives, explores what worker co-ops can offer, but also cautions that egalitarian outcomes are far from inevitable even under conditions of worker control.
Worker co-ops: Democracy at work
Despite some progress during the 1960s-80s, women are less likely to earn wages for their labor than men, have lower wages when they are paid, and have fewer occupational opportunities and less organizational power in workplaces. Gendered workplace inequality crosses national boundaries and ethnoracial and class categories, but manifests unevenly in relation to the intersections of class, ethnicity/race, parenthood, sexuality, dis/ability, and nationality.
Researchers have explored both institutional and interpersonal biases as causal in workplace inequality. However, almost all studies assume capitalist investor-owner managerial control over those areas where inequality manifests: hiring, pay, the division of labor, and scheduling.
What happens when the workplace rewrites the traditional distribution of managerial and governance power? How does worker control change the dynamics of intersectional gender inequality?
For over 150 years, U.S. workers have formed co-ops to make decisions for their own benefit, increasing workplace democracy (including direct “participatory” democracy). In co-ops workers have equal voice in organizational goals, the distribution of organizational resources, and sometimes day-to-day operations. Some worker co-ops have rejected bureaucracy as dehumanizing: the impersonality of policy manuals and rulebooks; the competition generated by careers, and the stifling of creativity by managers; and the raced and gendered hierarchies that normalize social inequalities. These co-ops typically replace managers with direct democratic control, the division of labor with job sharing and rotation, differentiated pay with equal pay, and formal rules and policies with informal face-to-face communication.
Antibureaucratic organizations have a mixed record of addressing inequalities at work, however. Some 1970s antibureaucratic co-ops bred organizational “structurelessness,” undermining equity-focused accountability and encouraging demographic homogeneity. Even decision-making on the basis of “worker” rights to the value of one’s labor can produce inequality. For instance, cooperatives that prioritized earnings from profits over ethnoracially inclusive hiring or family-friendly scheduling flexibility reinscribed whiteness and masculinity at the core of what it means to be a co-op worker. A worker’s priorities or vision for a better workplace are shaped by their ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality.
Today, however, the nearly 1000 U.S. worker co-ops are more ethnoracially diverse and have greater gender parity than other kinds of workplaces. These enterprises are also increasingly likely to bureaucratically divide labor into discrete offices and jobs based in technical expertise, differentiate earnings, and formalize rules and policies in written documents.
Participatory bureaucracy and pluralist worker identity in co-ops
Why might bureaucracy make contemporary worker co-ops more egalitarian than either corporate America or previous worker co-ops?
I identified a democratized bureaucratic form I term participatory bureaucracy. Participatory bureaucracy consists of direct democratic control of hiring, wages, scheduling, and the like; policies and rules voted on by the membership as a whole; and representative democratic control of long-term financial decisions and inter-workgroup oversight. By distributing but formalizing authority in employment manuals, bylaws, orientation handouts, and communication logs, worker co-ops have become accountable and viable enterprises with more egalitarian relations, earnings, and wealth generation. Disrupting authority hierarchies also reduces associations between worker value and whiteness and masculinity. For instance, traditionally subordinated and feminized tasks like janitorial work or meal coordination became visible and financially valued as essential organizational work. Formalizing the democratization of management appears to weaken inequality-reproducing workplace norms and practices.
Why do some co-ops adopt participatory bureaucracy? Participatory bureaucracy is most embraced where the co-op’s worker identity—the organizational understanding of what it means to be a worker—explicitly recognizes workers’ multiple and intersecting interests. At one co-op, for example, workers were legitimately recognized as both members of families and vendors of organic produce through the practice of paying the same hourly wage to collectively schedule hours and work the shop floor. This co-op also offered an hourly cash childcare supplement to allow workers to pay undocumented family and community members for childcare. This co-op legitimated unpaid care work and membership in families and communities as an essential part of being a worker. Distributed management allowed workers to bring various dimensions of themselves to the decision-making process. Formalization of the process in clear and easily accessed documents limited charismatic individuals from accruing disproportionate benefit. This pluralist intersectional worker identity was a source of pride even for workers who were not responsible for family care.
In contrast, co-ops that emphasized a purely class-based worker identity accepted managers as representatives of a shared working-class identity, and accepted co-op inaction on issues such as family-friendly scheduling or internal ethnoracial segregation.
Co-ops’ internal structures and visions of worker identity (as intersectional or not) reinforced each other and influenced the kinds and degrees of inequality that were tolerated.
Promoting Employee Ownership
Some worker co-ops have developed practices with broad application for more equitable inclusion and distributions of jobs, earnings, and authority. These strategies could be adopted by nonprofit and B-corporation social enterprises. Nonprofits and B-corps have historically struggled to balance internal racial and gender equality and their organizational missions. Even traditional corporations, finding themselves pressed by multiple constituents for greater social accountability, may recognize the potential in practices borrowed from worker co-ops. For co-ops have already normalized self-managing teams and operationalized long-dormant worker demands for egalitarian work practices, a seat at the corporate board, and broader workplace democracy. And if they do not, unions may incorporate such demands in contract negotiations. Indeed, the historically union-centered labor movement has recently rediscovered worker co-ops in its resurgent growth.
One of the biggest challenges faced by worker co-ops are federal, municipal, and bank policies that make it difficult to form or sustain co-ops. The recently passed Worker Ownership, Readiness and Knowledge (WORK) Act of 2023 may provide the impetus for change.
The WORK Act directs $50 million toward the Department of Labor to promote employee ownership. Future policy changes at the federal and state level should provide tax incentives to promote investment and membership in co-ops and add worker co-ops to public procurement preference lists. On the municipal level, policymakers can expand existing initiatives to promote worker co-ops:
· Create loan funds and/or loan guarantee pools for worker co-ops start-ups and conversions of small businesses
· Utilize workforce development programs to encourage the participation of low-income and communities of color
· Provide training programs in worker self-management
Such changes would help level the field for worker-owned enterprises. But for worker co-ops—or any other justice-oriented organization—to fully realize their egalitarian potential, members must be willing to examine and reconstruct their organizational structures and cultures.
Joan Meyers is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at California Polytechnic State University.
Photo credit: Istock.com/Jon Steinman