The San Francisco Bay Area loves cooperatives, aka coops, which were invented in 1844 when the Rochdale Pioneers in Lancashire, England banded together to help themselves and their community. It was an auspicious beginning. 1844 was a year before Frederick Engels of Marx and Engels fame described, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, the wretched living conditions for the poor. In one neighborhood, Engels saw “foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement.” In another, the houses were “all black, smoky, crumbling, ancient, with broken panes and window frames.”
On the subject of food, Engels wrote, ”The potatoes which the workers buy are usually poor, the vegetables wilted, the cheese old and of poor quality, the bacon rancid, the meat lean, tough, taken from old, often diseased, cattle, or such as have died a natural death, and not fresh even then, often half decayed.” On the subject of “the battle” for life itself he wrote “this competition of the workers among themselves is the…the sharpest weapon against the proletariat in the hands of the bourgeoisie.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, coops are still a hedge against the brutalities of the bourgeoisie. Not surprisingly, given the competitive real estate market and the fierce battle for capital, it has become even more difficult than ever before to open and run a coop, though worker owned and operated groceries like Rainbow have been operating in the black ever since 1975. Rainbow might well be the best grocery in the world as many shoppers insist. Indeed, it has nearly everything anyone could possibly want when it comes to food.
For Engels and Marx, the coops of the nineteenth-century were helpful, but didn’t go far enough. “If cooperative production is not to remain a sham,” Marx wrote, “what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism.”
The Rochdale Pioneers in England weren’t Marxists or communists, but they encouraged cooperation and they offered members protection against the assaults of English bourgeois society. Practical and efficient, they introduced hygiene and cleanliness, obtained quality provisions, saved money for members and created a sense of community.
I’m a fan of the Arizmendis’ Bakeries in the San Francisco Bay Area, which were inspired in part, not by the Rochdale Pioneers but by the Cooperative Corporation founded in 1956 by a Basque priest named Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta who wanted his parishioners to enjoy something a tad like Heaven in the here and now. More than half a century later, the corporation he created is bigger than ever before; too big critics say. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Arizmendis places more emphasis on worker democracy than the Basque model of cooperatives.
Coops and cooperation hit me early in my life. I attended a cooperative nursery which my mother helped to create, and in grammar school I was proud of the fact that I received high marks under the category “works and plays well with others.” In the 1970s, I belonged to a “food conspiracy” and bought beans, rice, pasta and more in bulk along with fellow members.
These days, at least once a week, I buy bread, pizza and scones from the Arizmendis’ shop on Ninth Avenue in San Francisco. The fact that it’s close is an attraction, as is the quality of the croissants and more. Plus I like the idea of spending my money at a business that operates cooperatively.
A longtime fan of Arizmendis tells me that it “has one foot in the present and another in the future.” In that sense, it lives by the slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies: “Building a new world in the shell of the old.”
There are 175 or so workers in the five Bay Area Arizmendis’ shops—plus the “Cheese Board,” which belongs to the association. At the Ninth Avenue shop, all of the bakers receive the same living wage, whether they have recently joined the coop or are founding members. This enables them to navigate the high cost of living in San Francisco and its environs.
My introduction to Arizmendis began at the front counter. On a brisk morning, I gave my order to one of the workers, handed over my credit card and received baked goods in a jiffy. At home, I watched an online video made by the workers themselves that took me behind the scenes and introduced me to the crew that included Mahasin Munir, John Kusakabe, Yeshi Yangoi, Lorenzo Dodaro, and Adriana Fajardo.
The video brought me to Sue Lopez, who is often at the cash register and who has worked in all five Arizmendis’ shops, plus The Cheese Board in Berkeley, which was founded in 1967 and is now a local legend.
“If it wasn’t for the initial help from the Cheese Board the other bakeries wouldn’t be here now,” Lopez tells me. “They trained workers and lent money.”
Born in New York, Lopez grew up in South Florida’s Latino community. She joined Arizmendis, she told me, to learn how to make bread and run a business. Now, she shows newcomers how the ovens work and where to find basic ingredients like salt, flour and butter.
Lopez’s co-worker, Lizzy Harvey, was for a long time a devoted customer at the Ninth Avenue shop. She liked the breads, pastries and the vibe so much that she applied for a job and made it through the trial period, though for a while she wasn’t sure she would pass muster.
“I knew it would be physically challenging,” Harvey tells me one afternoon in my kitchen, where we sipped tea. She adds, “I wasn’t sure I could learn what I had to learn and also be fast and accurate.”
Workers wash dishes, clean toilets and open and close the shop. It’s not all glamorous. Born in SF and educated at Whitman College, Harvey has lived in England and Argentina.
“Some of my coworkers think I’m pretentious about food,” she tells me. Maybe she is. As though to prove that point, she says she has never found a good bagel in San Francisco. She’s not alone. The best bagels in the Bay Area are apparently baked in the East Bay. According to the bagel mavens, Emily Winston’s Boichik Bagels in Berkeley are among the best in the US.
Before joining the Arizmendis team, Harvey worked at a chi-chi San Francisco bakery where the boss made all the decisions, and the workers had little if any say in how the (exquisite, costly) products were made and marketed.
“I saw ownership and possessiveness,” Harvey says. “I prefer to work with a group and be on an even footing with others, even if and when I disagree with the majority.” She adds, “when you work at Arizmendis you need to think about the needs and preferences of others, and at the same time not give up your own needs and preferences. You have to find the balance point.”
For two-and-a-half years, she has been a mainstay at the Ninth Avenue Arizmendis. Rarely does anyone leave one of the bakeries. Once you have a taste of a coop you’re hooked.
Harvey bicycles to work from her apartment in the Sunset and usually arrives at the shop before four a.m. The customer line doesn’t begin to form until about seven when the place opens. On Wednesday mornings, Harvey makes onion, potato and cheese bread. She also makes scones and has learned the right mix of ingredients by touching and tasting so that they’re fluffy.
“There is peer pressure at Arizmendis,” Harvey tells me. “There are also evaluations and an evaluation committee. Everyone is told what they are doing well and how they can improve.” Structure helps immensely, but the whole project is also fluid and requires spontaneity and improvisation. When someone spills milk or adds too much salt, there’s no boss to scold or reprimand.
The pressure to be fast and accurate mounts dramatically during holiday season when the bakers make special products that include pumpkin cheesecake and shortbread. On Pi Day, which is celebrated on March 14, the kitchen cranks out key lime pies and chocolate cream pies. There’s also a special pie on Julia Child’s birthday, August 15, and baked goods for Eid-al-Adha, an Islamic holiday observed in Spring and Summer.
Lopez says that working at Arizmendis has taught her to be more cooperative with her husband, Luis, who works at Other Avenues (OA), the grocery on Judah, which is owned and operated by workers, and where there’s a hierarchical pay scale. “Luis and I compare notes,” Lopez says. “We’ve become better life partners.”
Shanta Kimbark Sacharoff grew up in a small village in India, arrived in San Francisco in the 1970s, in many ways the Golden Age of coops, and served as a pioneer at OA. “Most of my adult life, I have worked as a cooperator,” she tells me while we drink chai tea in my living room. She adds “First with a food conspiracy, then at my youngest son’s child care coop and then for more than three decades at OA.” The author of the paperback book, Other Avenues Are Possible, Shanta believes in voluntary rather than forced cooperation and insists that coops ought to resist “clubbishness” and rather connect to and share concerns for the community.
Carl Davidson, a follower of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist—and an ex-SDS member whom I have known since the 1960s—visited the Mondragon Corporation in Basque country and almost overnight, became a convert to Father Arizmendiarrieta’s theory and practice of what could be called the gospel according to Jesus. What’s needed for a collective to thrive, Davidson tells me, is ”workers who really want to do it; workers who truly respect one another; and a good business model.”
Davidson distinguishes between genuine and ersatz coops: those that are owned and operated by workers; and the Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), which he sees as a way to appease disgruntled workers and get them to buy into a struggling business.
He has made it his business to keep track of coops in the U.S.: from Madison, Wisconsin (“Union Cab”), to Norwich, Vermont (King Arthur Baking Company which operates a school, a café and a retail store) and to Baltimore, Maryland (“Red Emma,” a bookstore and restaurant where he has been a guest speaker).
“Coops won’t get us to socialism,” Davidson tells me. “But in Mondragon, men and women learn to be the makers of the town, the factory and the region. That’s the real value of a coop: empowering workers.”
While writing this story I learned that not everyone loves the Mondragon Corporation, though many do, including the science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, who extols it in his novel, The Ministry for the Future. Also, sociology professor, Barbara J. Peters, says that the town of Mondragon has no poor people, no rich folks and that citizens “look out for one another.” Peters adds, “It’s a caring form of capitalism.” For critics, that’s the main point of contention: it’s still capitalism. In the book, The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics and Working Class Lives in a Basque Town, Sharryn Kasmir argues that the corporation has been idealized and that alas it is anti-union and anti-working class. Eva Alonso and Ignacio Santa Cruz Ayo rushed to defend Mondragon at Global Dialogue and insisted that the corporation ”has been able to create jobs and to maintain them even during economic recession; whenever possible, the jobs created are permanent ones.“
Still others have pointed out that Mondragon has been expanding globally to parts of the world, including India, Thailand, Russia, Brazil and Mexico, where the rules of the game make it difficult to protect workers’ rights and the environment. Probably no one has expressed the last word on Mondragon, which is still growing and adapting to global seismic shifts. Still, it might be helpful to keep in mind Noam Chomsky’s comment made during a 2012 interview with Laura Flanders in which he noted that while Mondragon “is worker-owned, it’s not worker managed,” and that it’s in a “market system” in which “workers are exploited,” and that it ”does things that are harmful to society as a whole.” Chomsky added “if you’re in a system where you must make a profit in order to survive, you’re compelled to ignore negative externalities, effects on others.” The debate about Mondragon reminded me of the old argument I first heard fifty–years ago about how challenging it is to create a socialist country in a world that’s predominantly capitalist.
One might coin a slogan: “Workers of the world, cooperate with your fellow workers. You have nothing to lose but the competitive rat race that capitalism has enshrined.”