Jason Wiener on Scaling Resilience with the Main Street Phoenix Project
In March 2020, Colorado-based coop attorney Jason Wiener found himself thinking about the onset of the pandemic and its likely catastrophic impact, especially on immigrant workers.
An attorney with specialties in both sustainable economies and cooperatives, Wiener played a key role in restructuring Namaste Solar as a worker-owned cooperative. He could see what was coming for the restaurant and retail sectors in this country. Nothing less than a wave of “disaster capitalism” was forming in the shape of hedge funds and private equity firms, all eager to buy at the bottom of a crisis, then consolidate and homogenize whole industry sectors, displacing many thousands of workers.
“To me,” Wiener explains, “it looked like an oncoming assault on our ‘main street’ businesses — the restaurants, personal care businesses, child care centers, retail places where we gather and celebrate. And where we typically employ millions of people, many in a precarious existence.”
He began to think about a coordinated response, one which could scale, streamline and simplify quickly, as well as something that had real economic staying power. He decided to try something radical: use the private equity investment model (usually meaning, “buy it, restructure it, and flip it”) but turn the pyramid upside-down. You provide an exit plan for the sellers, just as private equity does, but then the switcheroo: you swap in the workers as the new equity owners in place of outside investors.
Thus was born the Main Street Phoenix Project (MSPP), a growing national network and holding company offering a turnkey approach to buying and converting main street businesses in order to rescue — and then newly empower — their workforces, using a model of 100% employee ownership.
A Conversation with Camille Kerr of ChiFresh Kitchen
Back in November 2018, co-op veteran Camille Kerr began planning a new project, a business which would center marginalized groups — including formerly incarcerated people — as decision-makers.
She had only moved to Chicago a few months earlier, partly because she was aware that the growing co-op scene there was led by Black and Latinx women.
What was your initial idea for the business?
At first I was considering staffing, because it is such an accessible industry for folks coming out of prison. I was thinking of buying or converting a business — but the issue of sending formerly incarcerated folks to other people’s workplaces where they would still be subject to other people’s oppression, and so on — it is hard to build community that way, the members wouldn’t even see each other.
So I decided to bring in some community organizers — Joan Fadayiro, who helped organize Cooperation 4 Liberation, her friend Angie, also a radical organizer. In early 2019 Joan then brought in an advisory board that was majority formerly incarcerated folks. It included Collette Payne, a well-known advocate for formerly incarcerated women, and Janice Peters from Action Now.
We met weekly for months, doing lots of homework. We finally came up with a list of options: a laundry, a food service business, or a logistics company. We had some conflict over this decision but we finally agreed: OK, no laundry, maybe we’ll do logistics. Then a team member argued we should specifically do cold storage! But logistics just didn’t sit well with me. It sounded like the opposite of liberating, horrible.
So you went with a food service business — ChiFresh Kitchen.
Yes, partly because I knew the owners of a Boston-based Black-owned company called City Fresh Foods which was moving to worker-owned. They offered to help us with working out our model. And they were already making money in the space — 130 employees, $10 million in revenue, doing close to 20,000 meals a day, in another metro area, and non-competitive.
Lessons from Sara Horowitz’s New Book on Mutualism
What do we call the movement (if that’s what it is) in which most of our readers here are engaged? It’s neither capitalism nor socialism, suggests labor activist and author Sara Horowitz.
It’s something much older than either: mutualism. Which means, in her important new book, “interconnected economic cooperation.” Especially the kind that helps to create a social safety net for a community.
She offers some fascinating history of this idea, drawing on her own grandparents’ involvement in the early International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), one of the most successful unions of the 20th century.
It was also, importantly, a test bed for the kinds of policies later adopted by the New Deal. The latter bottom-up approach to making public policy is critical to Horowitz’s argument here and it has led her to enthusiastic support of co-ops, mutual aid societies, unions, religious organizations, and non-profits which, taken together, she calls “the mutualist sector.”
In 1995 Horowitz was the founder of the non-profit Freelancers Union which created the first portable benefits network for independent workers until the Affordable Care Act created regulatory obstacles that took away the group’s insurance operations. But the cause of freelancers, a.k.a. the gig economy’s precariat, is still much on her mind in her new book.
Video: What Does Exit to Community Mean? (Two Cases in Process)
If you missed it, on May 12 the University of Colorado’s MEDLab sponsored a terrific webinar asking the question, How can startups transition from community engagement to community ownership? (The operative concept here is exit to community or E2C. An excellent resource page can be found here.)
Facilitated by MEDLab’s Danny Spitzberg, the webinar featured:
- Kyle Schmolze of Hacker Noon, a tech publishing platform based in rural Colorado, which moved from Medium to its own software thanks to a $1-million equity crowdfunding campaign, and
- Linh Smooke of Groupmuse, a platform for organizing classical-music performances that is in the process of converting to a worker cooperative — and exploring how to include its musician community, too.
Our New Lexicon of Finance-Speak
OK, we need to talk about finance-speak — and the way it enables the kind of “social change” which . . . doesn’t actually change anything.
We realized this language problem after reading Anand Giridharadas’ 2018 book Winners Take All, a brilliant takedown of the self-appointed “change-makers” who are “trying to solve the problem with the tools that caused it.” The author is brilliant on such dubious “win-win” ideas as:
- Suffering can be innovated away
- Market disruptions are an unalloyed good
- Generosity is a substitute for justice
- Business language should replace the older language of justice, rights, power
For this new department, I’d like to offer readers a series of finance-speak terms, all of which are in serious need of redefinition. So here’s the first term, a very famous one:
Finance-Speak Term #1: Innovation
Here’s the problem: innovation, while obviously not in itself bad, has become a pernicious cult.
And that cult is the subject of the excellent new book, The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most, by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell.
The work that matters most in their view is what comes under the heading of the economy of maintenance and care — i.e, the unglamorous but absolutely needed work of repair, social care, maintaining, even code cleaning.
In quite a few cases, we could redefine innovation as “a feverish pursuit of novelty (usually technological) in hopes of a big financial payoff while too much ‘essential work’ goes neglected.”
Big subject. We’ll come back to it!
June 18: Start.coop Hosts Its People’s Pitch Graduation Event — $10,000 for the Winner
Accelerator Start.coop is hosting Next Generation Entrepreneurship, a virtual celebration of new forms of entrepreneurship and the growth of cooperatives as an alternative to winner-takes-all capitalism. The events run from 11:00 AM to 5:30 PM on June 18.
Key attraction is The People’s Pitch, the Start.coop graduation event. The seven 2021 graduates will pitch their co-ops for a chance to share in a $10,000 prize.
Also: panel discussions and interactive workshops on various topics, including investing in co-ops, the gig economy, the childcare crisis, sustainability and green business, co-ops in the Black community, and more!
Recommended: “Community Economic Development Innovations for a Post-Pandemic Economy” (webinar series)
Have you been catching this series from the University of California (Davis), organized by Keith Taylor, Cooperative Extension Specialist, and a stellar list of presenters?
Two remaining sessions: Modo Cooperative: A Platform for Car-Sharing, June 3, and Models of Affordable Workforce Housing, June 17, from 11:30 AM to 12:30 PM PT.
Save the Date! June 15: Reclaiming Healthcare (panel discussion)
Join us on June 15 at noon ET when Ownership Matters and Zebras Unite are co-sponsoring a panel on Healthcare and Coops. While the pandemic may be waning, the topic of healthcare and what role co-op strategies can play in shifting power is a hot one. We have a great lineup of speakers:
- Jen Horonjeff, Savvy.coop
- Deborah Craig, Northwest Cooperative Development Center
- Adam Rose, Obran.coop
To register for this 90-minute webinar, please visit the Zebras Unite Crowdcast page here.
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