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Posts Tagged ‘cooperatives

watercooler democracy: how rumors can democratize information at work – guest post by Katie Sobering

I’m posting this guest post about rumors and workplace democracy on behalf of UNT organizational ethnographer Katie Sobering.  Sobering recently virtually visited my “Organizations, Markets, and the State” grad course to answer questions about her ethnographic research on Hotel BAUEN, a worker recuperated cooperative located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In response to student questions about her published research, Sobering explained how she decided to focus on Hotel BAUEN over other collectivist-democratic forms.  By studying Hotel BAUEN’s trainings, meetings, everyday activities, and involvement in social movement activities, Sobering shows how we can use this case to understand how organizations pursue equality through practices such as job rotation and decision-making by consensus.  Sobering also depicted the challenges confronting the cooperative: securing ownership of the hotel, expensive, specialized maintenance of the facilities, and recruitment and retention of members. During the Q&A, Sobering traced her intellectual lineage and inspirations back to Joyce Rothschild’s seminal work on collectivist-democratic organizations and Rachel Sherman’s research on service work in hotels.  She currently is revising a book manuscript on her research.

Here’s Sobering’s take on rumors’ roles in workplace transparency, based on her research published in Work and Occupations:

“We’ve all heard rumors. Odds are, most of us have spread rumors every now and again. From the family dinner table to anonymous corners of the internet, people share unverified pieces of information to make sense of their social worlds. Rumors are especially common in the workplace, spurring the now well-known idea of the “watercooler effect.”

Managers, consultants, and academics alike have paid close attention to the role and repercussions of such informal communication at work. Much of this assumes that firms keep secrets. Thus, in lieu of access to information, workers pass rumors among themselves.

In the 21st century, transparency has become a buzzword, as work organizations like tech firms and startups flatten hierarchies, embrace informality, and remove barriers that traditionally limited access to information. Some organizations are experimenting with “radical transparency” while others warn that too much transparency can be counterproductive. Worker cooperatives and other participatory organizations often practice democratic transparency, recognizing that information-sharing is key to democratizing power. All this begs the question: in contexts of increased transparency, what is the role of rumors?

In my recent article published in Work and Occupations, I draw on long term ethnographic research in a worker-run hotel in Argentina to go behind the scenes in an organization in which workers enjoy a far more egalitarian environment than most U.S. employees experience on the job: extensive access to information, voice in the organization, and power over their jobs. I find that transparency does not quell the rumor mill. But rumors do have an important impact on the culture and practice of information-sharing.

Democratic transparency in Hotel Bauen

I conducted my research in Hotel Bauen, a twenty-story conference hotel located in the bustling center of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Built in the 1970s, the private owners declared bankruptcy in 2001 and shut down the property, leaving longtime employees out of work. In 2003, thirty former employees joined the growing movement of worker-recuperated businesses by occupying the abandoned hotel and forming a worker cooperative. Since 2004, Hotel Bauen has been open around-the-clock, hosting events, lodging overnight guests, and offering a meeting place and street-side café for passersby. Despite workers’ ongoing efforts to legalize their use of the hotel, the BAUEN Cooperative has grown from thirty founding members to 130 members in 2015. Today, it is one of the most iconic worker-recuperated business in Argentina.

Hotel Bauen is run by a worker cooperative: an organization in which all members are equal owners and govern through direct and representative forms of democracy. Since its inception, the cooperative has adopted formal policies and practices designed to make information widely available to the group. They have sought to create what Archeon Fung calls “democratic transparency,” an informational environment that allows people to collectively control the organizations that affect their lives.

First, in the BAUEN Cooperative, information is formally accessible to all members. Organizational records are kept in open book system that is available not only for managers or decision-makers, but also for members.

Second, the cooperative makes information proportional by sharing details about that which directly impacts the business and its members. While cooperatives in Argentina must hold as least one assembly each year by law, the BAUEN Cooperative organizes quarterly meetings to provide regular financial snapshots and open forums for discussion.

Finally, information is actionable through formal mechanisms that allow members to question and even overturn managerial decisions. With signatures of ten percent of the membership, members can convene an assembly of all workers to address and evaluate any decision or scenario in the cooperative.

Despite the transparency that the workers enjoyed in Hotel Bauen, rumors were part and parcel of daily working life. These whispers were often interpersonal in nature, passing hearsay about coworkers’ personal lives. But other rumors ventured into the inner workings of the organization itself.

I found that these rumors democratized information in two interrelated ways. First, rumors encouraged workers to participate in decisions, moving decision-making out of formal spaces and into the hallways where members of the cooperative could informally deliberate on the issue at hand. Second, rumors allowed members to oversee the managerial authority and empowered them to exercise their ability to hold the organization accountable.

[Check out more about worker influence after the jump]

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cfp: “Seeking a More Just and Egalitarian Economy: Realizing the Future via Co-operatives, Communes, and Other Collectives” at SASE in Lyon, France – abstracts due Feb. 17, 2017 (updated)

Joyce Rothschild and I are co-organizing a mini-conference at the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) in Lyon, France.  Please consider submitting an abstract, due to the SASE submission site by Feb. 17, 2017 (updated deadline!).  Accepted presenters will need to provide a full paper by June 1, 2017 for discussion.  Please circulate to this cfp to interested persons!

Seeking a More Just and Egalitarian Economy: Realizing the Future via Co-operatives, Communes, and Other Collectives

Forty years ago, as the most recent wave of economic collectives and cooperatives emerged, they advocated a model of egalitarian organization so contrary to bureaucracy that they were widely called “alternative institutions” (Rothschild 1979). Today, the practices of cooperative organizations appear in many movement organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and even “sharing” firms. Cooperative practices are more relevant than ever, especially as recent political changes in the US and Europe threaten to crush rather than cultivate economic opportunities.

Cooperative groups engage in more “just” economic relations, defined as relations that are more equal, communalistic, or mutually supportive.  The oldest collectives – utopian communes, worker co-operatives, free schools, and feminist groups – sought authentic relations otherwise suppressed in a hierarchical, capitalist system.  Similar practices shape newer forms: co-housing, communities and companies promoting the “sharing economy,” giving circles, self-help groups, and artistic and social movement groups including Burning Man and OCCUPY. While some cooperatives enact transformative values such as ethically responsible consumerism and collective ownership, other groups’ practices reproduce an increasingly stratified society marked by precarity. Submitted papers might analyze the reasons for such differences, or they might examine conditions that encourage the development of more egalitarian forms of organization.

Submitted papers could also cover, but are not limited, to exploring:

  • What is the nature of “relational work” (cf. Zelizer 2012) conducted in these groups, and how it differs – or is similar to – from relational work undertaken in conventional capitalist systems?
  • How do collectivities that engage in alternative economic relations confront challenges that threaten – or buttress – their existence? These challenges include recruiting and retaining members, making decisions, and managing relations with the state and other organizations. Moreover, how do these groups construct distinct identities and practices, beyond defining what they are not?
  • How are various firms attempting to incorporate alternative values without fully applying them? For instance, how are companies that claim to advance the sharing economy – Uber, airbnb, and the like – borrowing the ideology and practices of alternative economic relations for profit rather than authentic empowerment? What are the implications of this co-optation for people, organizations, and society at large?
  • How do new organizations, especially high tech firms, address or elide inequality issues? How do organizing practices and values affect recognition and action on such issues?
  • What can we learn from 19th century historical examples of communes and cooperatives that can shed insight on their keys to successful operation today? Similarly, how might new cooperatives emerge as egalitarian and collective responses to on-going immigration issues or economic crisis generated by policies favoring the already wealthy?
  • Are collectives, cooperatives and/or firms that require creativity, such as artists’ cooperatives or high tech firms, most effective when they are organized along more egalitarian principles? How do aspects of these new modes of economic organization make them more supportive of individual and group creativity?

 

Bibliography

Graeber, David.   2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography.   Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Rothschild, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models.” American Sociological Review 44(4): 509-527.

Rothschild, Joyce and J. Allen Whitt. 1986. The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zelizer, Vivianna A. 2012. “How I Became a Relational Economic Sociologist and What Does That Mean?” Politics & Society 40(2): 145-174.

Questions about the above cfp may be directed to Joyce and myself.

Here is info about the mini-conference format:

Each mini-conference will consist of 3 to 6 panels, which will be featured as a separate stream in the program. Each panel will have a discussant, meaning that selected participants must submit a completed paper in advance, by 1 June 2017. Submissions for panels will be open to all scholars on the basis of an extended abstract. If a paper proposal cannot be accommodated within a mini-conference, organizers will forward it to the most appropriate research network as a regular submission.

More info about mini-conferences here.

The 2017 SASE conference in Lyon, France, hosted by the University of Lyon I from 29 June to 1 July 2017, will welcome contributions that explore new forms of economy, their particularities, their impact, their potential development, and their regulation.

More info about the SASE conference theme, a critical perspective on the sharing economy, is available at “What’s Next? Disruptive/Collaborative Economy or Business as Usual?

Joyce and I look forward to reading your submissions!

Written by katherinechen

December 13, 2016 at 9:16 pm

call for papers on worker cooperatives in Organization journal

For those of you doing research on worker cooperatives, I ran across a relevant call for papers in Organization. One of the special issue co-editors is George Cheney, who published Values at Work (Cornell University Press) about how the Mondragon cooperatives in Basque, Spain have dealt with global competition.

The submission deadlines is Feb. 23, 2013. (Other calls for papers in Organization are here.)

“Call for Papers – Special Issue of Organization
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Written by katherinechen

October 26, 2012 at 4:46 pm