Can Coops Revolutionize the Tech Industry?

Article originalement publié sur Model View Culture.

Spoiler alert: I love coops.

I do more than just love them, in fact. I believe they can be something of a revolutionary tool for the greater good. Coops have democracy and horizontal decision making processes encased in their DNA. They generally have strong community values and believe in transparency. In a coop, technically, everybody has a voice. And while none of them are perfect, of course, the fact that democracy is so central to the making of a coop generally means that if somebody brings up an important issue – say, oppression – then it cannot be swept under the rug.

When it comes to the world of tech, where inclusivity is still a fight to be fought, I think worker coops can be a powerful weapon.

No wonder I work in one of them.

I started at Koumbit about a year ago, drawn to the values it embodied. But, as a full-time feminist, I was still suspicious of my new work environment: “If this place is so good for women,” I thought, “then why are there only 4 of us on a team of 12 people?”

And this is where, maybe, I should bring a damper to my enthusiasm: if we’re not careful, coops just replicate the same structures of oppression we see across the industry.

Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility

On the surface, coops look awesome. And there’s definitely a reason for that. When I spoke with Marilyne Veilleux who works at the Montreal-based coop Territoires and asked her about the inclusivity benefits of coops, she immediately responded: flexible schedules. Same answer from Ralph Cutler and Ethan Winn at the Ithaca, NY based CoLab. All three of them even had the same people in mind when they said it: parents.

It makes sense that in a world known for its 60+ hours work weeks, the idea of offering people enough flexibility to leave work early to go pick up the kids or to stay home on days when the youngest has a fever sounds like a godsend. And while we generally think of women as primary caregivers, the flexibility of the workplace has a positive impact on everybody, not just women. At CoLab, for instance, the last three people to go on parental leave were men.

Of course, flexible schedules can exist everywhere. Where coops really push the boundaries is just by how much flexibility they offer. When I wanted to move to Alaska for a month to be with my partner, all I had to do was bring it up at a team meeting and explain my situation to my coworkers. There was a vote (at Koumbit everything is consensus-based), people said yes, and that was that – off I went to work from the ice kingdom. Granted, it’s a privilege to be able to fly halfway across the globe for romance. But the same flexibility applies to all of my coworkers, regardless of their situation. Your kid’s school is on strike? Sure, stay home today. You have bad cramps this morning? Cool, work tomorrow instead. Your semester at school is about to end and you want to use your vacation time to study? Of course!

For sure, this level of flexibility is probably unique to Koumbit. But look at any job offer in a coop and the benefits section will inevitably mention it – “We offer a flexible work schedule for our workers” says the Sassafras Tech Collective jobs page, “flexible schedule” boasts the CoLab job offers. Adaptable schedules seem to come hand in hand with coop work environments.

Still, with all this talk of schedules being flexible enough for parents to care for their children, at Koumbit only two of my colleagues have kids. In theory, this is an ideal job for parents though, right? Or is it?

Not quite. Or at least, not unless you can afford it.

Where’s the money?

At Koumbit, everybody gets paid the same amount. Same for folks at Territoires. And this amount is… small. Well below market rates. Which really brings the question of who can afford to work in a coop. Jack Aponte, who works at the Palante Tech Coop, hits the nail right on the head: “Some people need to make money – think of people with kids, people who need to send money home, people who have debts – some folks just cannot afford to work at a small coop.”

Both at Palante and at Koumbit, the question of wages over paycheck is a difficult one. Because in both cases, what drew people to this model is the fact that when you’re your own boss, you can pick who you work for. And who do we want to work for? Organisations who share our values! That generally means non-profits and grassroots groups with little money, for which we try to offer affordable services. Sliding scale is great, but the effect is simple: less money for the workers. It’s a difficult choice, really, and there doesn’t seem to be a solution for it yet. On the one hand, you want to choose clients carefully. On the other hand, restricting paychecks also leaves out all the folks who simply can’t afford the (small) wages or the instability which comes with the job.

Equal pay still has a lot of advantages. For instance, when I asked Marilyne Veilleux about the wages at Territoires, I was really surprised to hear her answer. To me, the wages at Koumbit are bad, full stop. But she had a much more nuanced view of it:

“For some of my (male) colleagues, yes, getting paid the same as everybody means renouncing a better wage elsewhere. But for me, who has little experience and a job which could easily be passed on to somebody else, I get paid much more than I could have expected.“

In fact, equal wages close that gap where women traditionally earn less than men. And the symbolism of that is very strong. But as much as we wish it wasn’t, the “money issue” is too often a theme of discussions in coops. And, unfortunately, it probably is a main blocking factor against more diversity.

Peas in a pod

A group of cows huddled together, visible over a stone wall on an overcast day.

When I got in at Koumbit, my web development experience was close to nil. Obviously, what mattered most to them was whether I’d fit in with the collective. And that’s great! It gave me – a woman with little tech background – the chance to acquire a skill which I might otherwise not have been able to acquire. But the collective also had to pay quite a hefty fee just to have me: they had to train me extensively before I was able to do any billable work.

Palante folks had the same idea: hiring people with little tech experience, allowing the coop to include somebody who fits with their values. Awesome? Yes – but unsustainable. It takes a really solid organisation to afford this kind of unproductivity, and coops with tiny margins simply can’t afford it.

Behind that, there is still a beautiful value: the idea that it doesn’t necessarily take a degree to be able to work in tech. At Koumbit, we don’t care whether a new hire went to a fancy university. Quite the opposite. We put a lot more importance on the person’s opinions – we care about what they believe in. For one, that makes the job of teaching your values to newcomers easier. But it also means that you are limiting yourself to people who have already been exposed to them – imposing a definite barrier for building diverse teams, and creating a possible risk of groupthink.

Invisible work

When you base your coop on shared values, one tool is your best friend: policies. When Palante was created, that’s exactly what people had in mind. “It’s one thing to have similar shared politics, but you can’t rely on them alone. It is crucial to create a structure because all of us have blind spots,” summarises Jack Aponte.

It’s true, right? If we don’t want the same old cliches playing out – women being note-takers at meetings even when the job is supposedly shared, men expecting to get paid for work that they wouldn’t pay non-male colleagues for, job postings with only the masculine form of words (in French, all nouns have genders) – then we need to state explicit rules banning them and not let them slip by.

Effectively, a big challenge in a coop where everything can be discussed openly is to unearth all the invisible stuff. You know, the stuff that is generally done by the underpaid, undervalued employees. Or even, as CoLab folks found out, the big stuff that somehow had been kept secret. Like how much everybody earns.

When I spoke with Ralph Cutler and Ethan Winn, it was obvious that making everybody’s wages public to the membership had been a big move. It exposed, for example, that some women had been willing to get paid less because they cared about the mission of the coop. When the numbers became available, they became a powerful tool in the ongoing conversation about inclusivity.

Equal pay still means, at least hypothetically, that the invisible work gets paid. On the other hand, being surrounded with well-meaning folks also sometimes means that criticizing them is harder. Try and tell a “feminist man” that he’s done something sexist – you might find out that his answer will be: “it can’t be, I’m a feminist!” Some other times, critiques will be met with complete indifference, like when I told my male colleagues that I was tired of seeing the women being the only note takers during meetings.

That’s why policies are crucial to a good coop. When things are laid out, it’s much easier to go back to them and say: “see! we are not doing this the right way!” But it is one thing to write out well meaning policies – when they’re in place, ensuring they are enforced remains a constant fight.

Looking at your own navel

During our chat, Marilyne Veilleux quoted Josée Yvon, a feminist who said: “we know that from now on, we can only be in a continual state of fighting.” For her, that symbolises the constant struggle against oppression in her coop. But, as she pointed out, it also meant that she was able to start that fight. To me, that is exactly why I no longer can see myself working anywhere else – because if coops aren’t perfect, at least they are where I have the possibility to make things better.

At Koumbit, we have a yearly meeting where all of us gather somewhere outside the city for a weekend and where “bigger picture” issues are discussed. CoLab has a quarterly meeting where everybody is invited to participate. In both instances, the idea is similar: give people the chance to bring up big issues and everybody else the chance to discuss them at length. Equality in the workplace means that you won’t lose your job over criticizing your boss. It also means you will have to spend a lot of time talking things out.

Of course coops aren’t perfect: they are, after all, a product of the greater society they were created in, with all the defects it implies. They often replicate stereotypical oppressions – labour division, lack of representation, underpayment. They can be clique-y, feeling welcoming only to people from a certain network. “A flat hierarchy doesn’t undo privilege,” Jack Aponte told me – they are right.

Yet, coops can be revolutionary tools, if only we use them well. Strong anti-oppression policies and a constant challenge to one’s own internalised oppressive behaviours are key. Coops won’t necessarily force other tech companies to change. But they can be a model for more people to follow.