From the Contra Costa Times
Beatriz Ortiz and Julio Chavez worked intently Thursday in a commercial kitchen in Richmond, preparing for the next day's farmers market near City Hall. They cooked up soups, empanadas, prepared sandwiches and tossed up their now-popular "massaged kale salad." Their new co-op, Liberty Ship Café, launched Jan. 13 and is open for business every Friday at the farmers market, giving visitors choices beyond a local fried chicken outlet and a hot dog stand. It also has a delivery business.
It's the first co-op to open in the city under the guidance of a UC Davis nonprofit that has established two "co-op business incubators," one in Richmond and the other in Lompoc, near Santa Barbara. If Richmond officials have their way, the cafe will be the first of many worker cooperatives -- in which each member has a voice and all share in the profits -- that help stimulate the local economy in the years ahead. The city has even hired a co-op coordinator to help lead the effort.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin was dazzled with the concept during a 2010 visit to the world's most famous worker cooperative in Spain. "There are three benefits to co-ops," Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said. "Job creation, democracy in the workplace and local wealth building." The initial response to Liberty Ship Café has been positive, said Lexi Hudson, a co-op specialist with the Davis-based California Center for Cooperative Development. She works side-by-side with Ortiz and Chavez, and they spent a year "incubating" the concept. One key goal is keeping prices affordable, Hudson said. "We emphasize that we're here for the community, and we want to offer healthy food."
Ortiz and Chavez are happy to be running their own business and have plans for expansion, including opening a permanent food stand or a sit-down restaurant. "It's a step forward for me toward the fulfillment of my dream," said Ortiz, speaking through a translator. "That I don't have to depend upon others for my job, that I'm the one in control of my work."
Richmond is not alone in its enthusiasm for co-ops. The United Nations declared 2012 the "International Year of Cooperatives," and the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in support of it. Nearly 30,000 co-op businesses operate in the United States, according to a 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. With co-ops, members choose who will hold positions of authority, and they determine maximum salaries. For example, sometimes everyone earns the same amount, or the highest-paid earns no more than three times the lowest-paid. Co-ops protect workers from layoffs as well, as any work reductions are jointly decided. Often, members vote to take a salary cut, work fewer hours or take unpaid leave. A 2009 survey from an international nonprofit supporting co-ops, called CICOPA, found that "job losses were almost nonexistent" in co-ops during the economic crisis. One exception was co-ops serving the housing market, as some closed.
With a stubborn 17 percent unemployment rate, Richmond urgently needs jobs to change the trajectory of the city from distressed to flourishing. In August, the city hired Terry Baird, a co-op evangelist who in 1997 co-founded the worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery in Oakland. It's since grown into the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, which includes six independently run Bay Area bakeries. Baird and one other co-op expert said Richmond is the first U.S. city they've heard of to hire a staffer dedicated to jump-starting co-ops. And in the fall of 2010, McLaughlin and a delegation of 25 traveled to Mondragon, Spain, to witness firsthand the impact of co-ops. The trip, organized by Praxis Peace Institute of Sonoma, was privately financed. The Mondragon Corp. is a network of some 250 cooperatives that employ more than 83,000 in the Basque region. McLaughlin came home determined to foster worker-owned businesses in Richmond.
Baird is helping several groups start co-ops in Richmond, including a worker-owned bike shop, a restaurant, an urban farming enterprise and a bakery. With the support of nonprofits such as the Davis group, Baird and others spend months helping aspiring co-op owners develop business plans before opening their doors. Richmond co-op leaders' initial hopes are modest, as experts say the cultural and other forces that account for Mondragon's enormous success aren't easily replicated elsewhere.
"It's probably going to be a slow growth," said Kim Coontz, executive director of the group running Richmond's co-op incubator. "We want to stabilize this first co-op. Then we hope Liberty Ship will serve as an example." Running co-ops takes dedication, hard work and good communication to foster cooperation among members, Baird added. "It does require more than just a passing interest in the business," he said. "We found there are some people who don't want to do that. They like wages and going home."
And because decisions in co-ops require consensus, meetings can drag on, he said. But in the end, it's more efficient, Baird said. "Once everyone's made a decision together, you don't need management. You just need someone to remind you of your new policy. It takes a reminder rather than a boss."
To learn more about co-ops, visit: California Center for Cooperative Development, www.cccd.coop.
To learn about Richmond's newest co-op, visit: Liberty Ship Café, www.libertyshipcafe.coop