"Three worker-owned businesses show what it's like to work collectively, manage a business and deal with problems in a truly democratic way.The Cheeseboard Bakery and Cheese Shop with 18 workers, Rainbow Grocery with 150 workers, and Inkworks Press with18 members, all located in the San Francisco Bay Area, are successful worker-owned businesses, and members of NoBAWC."
All of these businesses have grown since the film was made in the 1990s.Rainbow has over 250 worker-owners.The Cheese Board has over 50, and has helped spin off Arizmendi Lakeshore, shown in the video, and four other bakeries, with another 100 worker-owners.Inkworks has grown and spun off its graphic design department as Design Action Collective.
So how does the egalitarian model function so well? "All of the work is shared," says Coppersmith. "We create an environment that makes everyone feel valuable and train everyone in all aspects of the bakery, so there is no need for management."
Arizmendi's first sister location, the Cheeseboard, opened in the mid-1990s on Lakeshore Boulevard in Oakland. The concept of a bakery that was entirely worker-owned was dreamed up by Berkeley professor Jaques Kaswan and his partner Tim Huet. The idea was a winner: today there are five bakeries in the Arizmendi family across the Bay Area. When a new Arizmendi is started, newly hired worker-owners intern and train at other locations, learning all they need to know to operate their own bakery before opening for delicious, fluffy, crusty business.
The model has worked so well that Arizmendi was one of only nine food businesses in San Francisco to be awarded a perfect worker treatment score by its employees in community group Young Workers United's yearly restaurant guide. It received high marks in wages, job mobility, health and safety, and job security — not surprising since worker-owners have the final say on workplace issues at Arizmendi.
But let's not forget — how could we, really? — that Arizmendi doesn't just produce happy and fulfilled worker-owners. The bakeries are best known for their more public offerings: delicious brioches, organic breads, and vegetarian pizzas with seasonal toppings that change daily. Cooperation never tasted so good.
Arizmendi employee-owners, fresh from the ovens: (from left) Yeni Solis, Leidy Fernandez, Juan Clavel, Yelena Khlystova, Isaac Hee, Erica Harris, Celia Sagastume, Troy Vadakan, Sandy Guevara, Liz Fitzgerald, Nicki Green, Madeleine Van Engel, and Jenny Espinoza. Photo by Pat Mazzera.
As the current US labor system trembles with insecurity, leaking the salaries, benefits and rights of workers across the country, people are increasingly wondering what alternatives there are.
In the Bay Area, one doesn’t have to venture far before coming across a local favorite, the Arizmendi Bakeries. Backed by a development and support cooperative, the Arizmendi Association has 6 cooperative bakeries that specialize in morning pastries, artisan breads and gourmet pizza. Together, these bakeries comprise one of the most successful worker owned associations in the region.
Although cooperatives can take many different shapes, they share a fundamental characteristic: the workers are the ultimate decision-making body. Each worker is a shareholder in the business with one vote in every decision that guides the organization. At Arizmendi, every employee is part owner in the bakery with an equal share in the company.
Tiffany Martinez was a labor rights activist and union organizer before becoming a worker owner of the Emeryville Bakery four years ago. Despite her years of involvement fighting for worker empowerment, Tiffany was never taught about cooperatives.
“I felt cheated, in the same way that I wished my high school counselors told me about trade school… I didn't even know about unions until I got to college, which I think is this huge failure in our education system. Young people don't have exposure to all the different options after high school."
A co-worker at the union Tiffany worked for told her about Arizmendi. Feeling over worked and underpaid, Tiffany decided to pursue a job opening at the bakery. Following the interview process at Arizmendi – a sit down with the cooperative’s hiring committee and then a tryout in the bakery– she was hired.
“Having dedicated so much of my time as an adult to workers rights I felt really conflicted about having to do anything else or something that contradicted what I had been working for. But the cooperative is about worker’s rights too, so I threw myself into it.”
This new model seeks to work around some barriers to the growth of the cooperative movement. One of these barriers is the tendency for cooperative development work to be done in contexts that have high rates of failure. When the Association is ready to develop a new bakery cooperative, we find a new site, draw new capitalization loans, recruit new worker-owners, and face the risks that any new enterprise faces. However, these risks are reduced by what is not new: the enterprise adapts the same business plan that existing member bakeries have used, it offers a tested product line using the same recipes, it has a similar name and co-advertises to nearby markets, it uses proven governance structures, and it shares the cost of support services with other members. It even houses some of the same sourdough starter culture. Building on these similarities, the new worker cooperative bakery will cost less, start faster, and be more resilient than an unprecedented business. This initial advantage is reinforced by a network of similar businesses offering mutual aid, and by enduring technical assistance.
Another growth barrier of the worker co-op movement this model addresses is the limited and irregular availability of funding for co-op development organizations. Development funding for the Association comes from member workplaces who contribute a percentage of their net income as membership fees. If the workplace is not profitable yet, they pay nothing for membership but still receive full technical assistance services. As workplaces mature, the income to the Association increases, and with it the funds available for development increase. The income projection for the Association curves upward: the more profitable businesses we develop, the more contributed fees are available for development. The Association has developed three businesses in a decade without any external philanthropic contributions, and is poised, now in 2009, to develop another.
As a member of this association, I'm happy to describe some of our model here, with the hope that others in the worker cooperative movement may find elements to borrow.