Early workers' coops

History of

Work Cooperation in America


Co-ops, Unions, Collectivity and Communalism from Early America to the Present

By John Curl

Notes on the most recent period, 1960-2000

The "inter-communalist" Black Panther Party, begun in 1966 in Oakland, organized a host of "survival programs pending political revolution." In the late '60s and early '70s these included distribution of free shoes (from their own factory), clothing, food, health care, plumbing repair, pest control, and transportation for the aged. Communal houses provided survival for party workers

The first "hippie" comune was started in Trinidad, Colorado in 1965. "Drop City: To sponsor and create the avant garde of civilization, utilizing all the remnants, at least of art, science, technology, etc." The Drop City Newsletter, 1966

"We create the seeds of the new society in the struggle for the destruction of the empire. For our generation that has meant the birth of communalism and collective work in the most individualist, competitive society in the world. Revolution is the midwife bringing the new society into being from the old." Weather Underground, 1974

a common ideological base of working to build a new social system based on cooperation and sharing "within the shell of the old.' 

The roots of the counterculture go back to the late 1950s, when young people in cities around the country began moving into inexpensive neighborhoods, creating at first simply loose networks of scattered friends and acquaintances helping each other survive as best they could, joined together by their alienation from the dominant society. Most were also underground cultural centers. Among the earliest were in New York and San Francisco; by 1960 their centers began to move from the "bohemian" and "beat" Greenwich Village and North Beach, over to the lower East Side and the Haight-Ashbury, which became the early nuclei of the "hippie" movement and the counterculture – this is one of the stages of formation of a revolutionary party in America

The basic idea was to withdraw energy from the system of competition and exploitation, and use it to create a new system based on cooperation, which could expand to embrace all of society when the old system collapsed – this is what the wife of Igor Danilov thinks she is doing

A collective is a work group in which all members have equal power and decision is by consensus (that is, with unanimous consent). A collective can be formed for almost any purpose, short or long term.

A collective is unbureaucratic, anti-hierarchical, based on the most direct participatory democracy and genuine equality.

Almost all the early countercultural forms such as freestores, communes, "underground" newspapers "free" schools and universities, collective gardens, cooperative houses and food conspiracies, chose the collective form instinctively. 

Freestores were run entirely on collective energy. The idea was simple: people could bring and take what they wanted and needed. The result in many places however turned out to be that most were soon being destroyed by people who would come at favorable hours and clean out anything saleable. Most freestore collectives burned out this way, and the system usually gave way to free boxes scattered around the community, a more efficient method.

Besides newspapers, radio collectives were formed in some areas. The organizing force was almost always people with connections to sources of money; but the projects themselves were staffed by people coming from all social classes.

since it was only people with access to money who could gather the resources to get the projects started, they usually wound up in control, at least in the beginning. Many founders never relinquished control, and those projects never became truly cooperative.

The movement was deeply motivated by the insight that "the personal is political": in order to change society we must change the ways we relate to each other in our daily lives, many of which changes need not be delayed until after a political revolution; on the contrary, "the revolution" has to be waged in daily life today.

Collective living did not seriously undermine monogamous sexual coupling, which continued despite premature forecasts of its demise, although sometimes in a looser form. Similarly, monogamous coupling continued in the rural communes and communities too. Sexual practices in communal living were scarcely indistinguishable from practices in the larger society. The vast majority of communalists eventually became involved in a couple relationship and a biological family household.

The woodshop I work in was originally organized as a centralized collective, part of Bay Warehouse Collective. The collective as a whole took in all work and was responsible for it, and we paid ourselves salaries. Later, because it better suited our changed situation, we decided to switch over to a cooperative system whereby we are each responsible for a fair share of shop maintenance and expenses, while the economics of any particular job is handled individually by the actual worker or workers. 

Bay Warehouse Collective, where I worked, was founded in Berkeley, California in 1972. As centralized collective we ran an auto repair shop, a print shop, and a woodshop out of a large warehouse. All shop income went to the central collective, which paid workers a salary based partly on need. At its height Bay had about 35-40 members, and also operated a pottery shop, a food conspiracy, a theater, an electronics shop, a collective garden, and let space to a legal collective. Bay Warehouse Collective was formed out of the wreckage of an "alternative" trade high school (Bay High) formed in 1970. The school was nominally structured as a democratic collective, but a sharp struggle soon developed between shop workers and academic workers (who were also the legal administrators) over real control and over the academic workers' refusal to do manual maintenance work. Some of the teachers didn't want to sweep the floor. The shop workers staged an insurrection, took over, kicked out the administrators, disbanded the school and, shortly after I joined, we organized Bay Warehouse Collective

Like most countercultural organizations, there was no one ideology, at least in words: the organization itself contained most of the ideas. For some it was enough to work in a non-bossist non-sexist shop, although salaries were pathetically low; others saw us becoming more communal and buying large houses to live in, eventually branching out into the country; still others dreamed of us growing large and strong enough to become--in federation with other collectives and cooperatives--a challenge to the capitalist order, with the final goal to be able to do our work for where it was most needed by society, not for those who could afford it. – this is similar to vision of «Что делать?» Чернышевский.

the warehouse we inherited from the school was too costly for our needs and abilities; we simply did not find ways to make our energy outflow flow back to us transformed into enough dollars to provide for our needs and pay our exorbitant rent, so we folded after a year and a half. Yet we did not really fail. We disbanded the larger Collective into three autonomous worker collectives, each of which found a smaller space. The print shop retained its centralized collective structure. The auto shop became a joint-partnership. The woodshop became a collective-cooperative. Inkworks, CarWorld and Heartwood all continue today – re-integration into the larger capitalist society

We made decisions collectively: nothing was considered decided until everyone was satisfied enough to go along with it. This system took into account depths of feeling as well as numbers, unlike the majority-rule system. It worked pretty well, even when the group grew larger (our height was about fifty);there were frustrating times, usually when two individuals had an ego problem, but over all, most things (a couple notable exceptions jump immediately to mind) got straightened out. We treated all except very personal possessions as common property, and had a common clothing room where any traveler in need could be supplied.

The concept of "openness" started out as a strength in the movement but eventually turned into a weakness. Open communes proved to be generally unlivable in the long run because they were too unstable. Since people did not choose each other, they were often not committed to each other. Not every two people can share the same bathroom and kitchen in peace. The communes attracted not only people willing to work for their survival, but also people looking for free trips.

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