Baltimore Hosts 2019 Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy

Baltimore Hosts 2019 Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy

by Thinq Tanq

October 22, 2019 / 6319 AFK

Last weekend, from Friday October 18 to Sunday October 20, 2019, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives held the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy at University of Baltimore School of Law. Attendees of the conference included members of worker cooperatives and startup worker coops from around the US, primarily the northeastern states. The Real News Network's Jaisal Noor covered the conference's tour of cooperative enterprises in Baltimore City, including the Cherry Hill Food Cooperative, a community initiative being organized by the Black Yield Institute, which is holding its 4th Anniversary Fundraiser & Celebration on Friday, November 1.

At the conference, I attended four seminars on worker cooperative finances and black economic solidarity. The following is a summary of what I saw and learned.

Seminars: “Understanding Cooperative Finances” & “Be Nice, Make Budgets: Undermining Capitalism with Good Planning”

These seminars were led by Alex Fischer of Open Bookkeeping in Vermont and by María Teresa López of A Bookkeeping Cooperative in New York City. Earphones for English and Spanish translations were available to everyone. Alex opened both seminars by acknowledging the indigenous Piscataway people who have inhabited the Chesapeake region since long before the colony of Maryland existed. Alex also acknowledged that the conference was taking place on land which was stolen through genocide that was facilitated by the financial trades which we were there to discuss. (For a detailed investigation of how financial services in the Americas enabled, and were enabled by, colonial violence, I recommend Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management by Dr. Caitlin Rosenthal.)

Without discussing specific accounts, we went over the roles of standard financial statements – income statements, balance sheets, cash flow statements and budgets. And in deliberately de-financialized terms, we talked about what these financial statements mean to us using pictures, action figures, poetry and stories. Initially, I was confused by this fuzzification of accounting, which is typically treated as a well-defined, highly standardized process. However, by the time we were halfway through the first seminar, it occurred to me how necessary it is to reframe our approach to financial management. Systems of racism, capitalism, pollution and oppression shaped the field of accounting for centuries. Failing to bring a critical eye and a spirit of cooperation to financial management maintains a high probability of replicating those same systems. Alex and María taught us that talking about finance in terms that are accessible to everyone in a worker cooperative encourages more deeply democratic engagement with the critical function of finance. And by defining the purpose of financial documents in terms of our needs and vision as (lower case) democrats, we prepare ourselves to define the direction of our economic development instead of following the well-worn ruts of capitalist management.

Ujamaa Works member participating in a seminar on worker cooperative finances

Seminar: “We Coming, We Ready: Models of Black Solidarity Economy Development”

This panel discussion featured economist, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard of John Jay College and attorneys, Clark Arrington of The Working World, Renee Hatcher of the Community Enterprise & Solidarity Economy Clinic at UIC John Marshall School of Law, Dorcas Gilmore of Gilmore Khandhar and Elizabeth Carter of The Law Office of Elizabeth L. Carter. Each of the panelists discussed various manifestations of black solidarity economics. Solidarity economy refers to a framework for economic development that prioritizes solidarity and cooperation, equity in all dimensions (race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc.), social and economic democracy, sustainability, pluralism (not a one-size-fits-all approach) and putting people and planet first. The panelists discussed an inspiring litany of black people and black institutions bringing these values to life. Among those mentioned was Tribe, a staffing platform developed by a team of black technologists in Baltimore. Tribe is a subsidiary of The Staffing Cooperative.

(Left to right) Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Clark Arrington, Elizabeth Carter, Dorcas Gilmore, Renee Hatcher discussing black solidarity economics. (Top) Quote by W.E.B. du Bois: "We unwittingly stand at the crossroads - should we go the way of capitalism and try to become individually rich as capitalists, or should we go the way of cooperatives and economic cooperation where we and our whole community could be rich together?"

Panelist, Dorcas Gilmore made a point to mention that, according to a survey by the Baltimore Black Worker Center, three top issues for black workers in Baltimore include “working while black,” having reliable transportation to work and having a criminal record.

Without a doubt, many of the people attending the session felt as empowered as I feel by Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, a book by the panelist, Dr. Gordon Nembhard. Collective Courage discusses, in detail, the history of black solidarity economics which enabled black people to resist and escape enslavement, to persist through the racism of the US Labor Movement and to support themselves during and after the Civil Rights Movement.

Seminar: “Loan Readiness”

This presentation was given by Mark Fick of Shared Capital Cooperative. Among many things, Mark explained different kinds of financing for worker cooperatives. He also discussed lending criteria that traditional lenders and cooperative lenders look for in companies seeking financing. Traditional lenders and cooperative lenders examine a business’ cash flow, debt service coverage ratio, collateral, loan-to-value ratio, capacity of the accounting function in the business, variance monitoring (if any), market conditions, value proposition and character references. Traditional lenders typically look a credit scores to evaluate an applicant as well. Shared Capital Cooperative, like many cooperative lenders, doesn’t use credit scores to evaluate borrowers.

From "Loan Readiness", a presentation by Mark Fick of Shared Capital Cooperative. October 2019.

Cooperative lenders look for many of the same attributes that traditional lenders do, plus a few more things. They will examine an applicant’s traditional lending criteria, plus a worker coop’s ownership structure, governance processes, equity and patronage. They want to make sure that the ownership is actually democratic and if so, to what degree. The ownership structure and procedures in the bylaws help a lender evaluate these things. Equity and patronage bylaws and actual distributions are also good indications of how democratic a business is. Cooperative lenders aren’t just looking for a financial return but a social return. So, in addition to demonstrating financial viability (or financial potential as a startup), worker coops applying for financing should do their best to make sure that their practices, structure and financial statements demonstrate a commitment to cooperative values.

Black Yield Institute's 4th Anniversary Fundraiser & Celebration

On Friday November 1, 2019, Black Yield Institute will be celebrating its 4th birthday! They are hosting a fundraiser that includes dinner, music, an award ceremony, and an elegant art exhibit at their farm, Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden. Learn more about tickets and sponsorships here.