How the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives is Democratizing the Workplace
By Liz Zarka
The “S” word is gaining momentum in the United States. No, not any of the usual-suspect pejoratives, but “socialism.” Since the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, the Democratic Socialists of America, the nation’s largest socialist organization, at least tripled in membership according to the Los Angeles Times. The much-maligned ideology is alive and well in some of the Bay Area’s most beloved pizza kitchens.
For some, socialism might conjure up images of single-party governments, centralized economic planning, and the concentration of political power, which were the byproducts of socialist experiments in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and beyond in the 20th century. But socialism, like all economic models, is subject to experimentation and improvement, and is taking a much different form in 21st century United States. Modern socialist movements in the West are focused less on macro-level economics and more on creating micro versions of democratized workplaces that meet the needs of the individuals who contribute to them and the communities in which they are based.
The Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives is perhaps the best example of collectivized workplaces existing alongside traditional capitalist-owned enterprises in the Bay Area. The Arizmendi Association, whose name is derived from Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, a young priest who founded the successful and internationally influential Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque Country of Spain, is a network of six democratically owned and operated bakeries throughout the Bay Area and one landscape design company based in the East Bay.
The BCC Voice spoke with Cathy Goldsmith and James Higgins, two affiliates of the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, to learn more about the potential connection between surviving Bay Area collectives and this burgeoning socialist revival.
Although it hardly requires an introduction for locals, the most famous of the association’s members is the venerable Cheese Board Collective, where Goldsmith and Higgins work. Located snugly in North Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto,” the Cheese Board Collective has successfully operated on a collective model since 1971.
“I worked for small businesses before working at Cheese Board,” said Higgins, “and I came away from those jobs thinking, ‘Alright, when I have my own business, I’m not going to be like that one in this way.’ I am part owner of my business now, but I don’t have to take on all of it. I can do my little piece and learn from all of these other people.”
At the Cheese Board, everyone is a worker and everyone is a boss. All members earn the same wage regardless of experience level or time at the company, and profits are split evenly at the end of the year. The term for employees within this fringe model of employment is “worker-owner.” Members of the Cheese Board vote democratically, directly or through the use of committee structure (think United States congressional committees) on decisions affecting the pizzeria and bakery, from day-to-day matters like baking fewer pies in anticipation of bad weather to the long term vision and direction of the company.
“We work on the basis of modified consensus,” explained Cathy Goldsmith, a longtime member who has been at Cheese Board for 23 years. “What we try to do is talk about an issue until the majority of us agree. Usually, the group is uncomfortable with a ‘no’ and we try to work around it and make that ‘no’ a ‘yes.’”
To some, reaching an agreement might sound daunting, but it’s a task that Cheese Board members are willing to undertake to preserve the empowerment that comes along with co-owning their workplace. “Being part of the collective has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” said Goldsmith. “Instead of feeling like people are going to hold their ideas to themselves, here, you can always throw out some of these amazing thoughts. You get all kinds of support in doing what you want to do, like writing a cookbook, or organizing a pop-up or expanding the storefront. If you have a good idea and the group has the energy for it, it happens. I think it’s amazing.” The unique humanism of The Cheese Board Collective’s worker-owner structure inspires a special combination of loyalty and motivation in its members, a quality that has kept Goldsmith from feeling seriously torn between spending time with her family and working.
It is perhaps no wonder then that the Cheese Board receives a huge number of applications. In fact, community interest in the cooperative model is the reason why the Cheese Board is happy to help other groups in the Bay Area form their own collectives.
“We don’t want to get any bigger, but are very committed to the fact that it’s a great way to work,” said Goldsmith, “and why not make that opportunity available to others?” The Cheese Board Collective does not proselytize the collective model, but its members are enthusiastic about lending recipes and know-how to groups looking to adapt the model.
And many do. Goldsmith said that members of the Arizmendi Network regularly collaborate with Project Equity, an Oakland-based non-profit that helps small business owners sell their companies to their employees upon retirement instead of closing or radically changing them by handing the keys over to third parties. According to a U.S. Small Business Administration Study, six out of ten business owners plan to sell their companies within the next decade, and only 20 percent of all listings will ever sell. To preserve their workers’ jobs and the spirit of their businesses, an attractive secession plan might be to sell to employees and shift to democratic ownership.
While collectivization might be a viable solution to several important economic issues facing the Bay Area, the Arizmendi collectives are not impervious to challenges. Goldsmith emphasizes that the toughest obstacle for the Cheese Board today is responding to the insurmountable rent boom of the past two decades. “We have a whole group of young people that is moving farther and farther from Berkeley,” she lamented. And to co-owners, added Higgins, proximity to the shop is invaluable. Younger members are paying more than older members to be within commuting distance of the storefront, a divide, Goldsmith said, that has introduced the “experience of the haves and have-nots even though we’re trying to be equal.”
Members of the Cheese Board are in touch with the economic and political issues facing the Berkeley community, but Goldsmith and Higgins were emphatic that the Arizmendi network has never endorsed a political candidate.
In the face of unbridled income inequality and the resulting housing crisis in the Bay Area, just existing as a collective is both a political statement and a political solution in itself. Capitalism is out of control and politics are shady. For workers, it might be the best solution we’ve got.