Worker-Owned Tech Collectives

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Description

By Brian Van Slyke:


"Tech worker co-ops come in all shapes and sizes and operate across a wide variety of industries. From web development to graphic design, web hosting, engineering, manufacturing, and more--technology workers anywhere can band together to accomplish what they couldn’t do alone.

What makes cooperatives an exciting alternative is their structure: they are democratic businesses owned and operated equally by a specific membership. Some co-ops have memberships composed of only workers, some of consumers, some of producers. Each owner only has one share and one vote in the organization. During the good times, these co-op members share the benefits equally; and in the hard times, they share the burdens equitably. This makes them more sustainable in low-income communities as well as economic downturns. There are cooperative art galleries, cafes, print shops, farms, grocery stores, and much more.

To be clear, this is not like being offered a stock option in the company you work for. As an example, if a tech business earns five million dollars in profits, all of that money is typically controlled by one person, a small private group, or unevenly distributed amongst shareholders. In a worker co-op, however, each worker owns an equal share of the company’s finances. One worker, one share, one vote." (http://www.fastcolabs.com/3021964/the-argument-for-worker-owned-tech-collectives)

Examples

Sassafras Tech Collective

By Brian Van Slyke:

"Sassafras Tech Collective is a young worker co-op, launched only six months ago, that focuses on web and app design and development for social justice orgs, non-profits, academics, artists, and others. The two founding members, Jill Dimond and Tom Smyth, began Sassafras after completing their PhDs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Both of their studies focused around issues of social change and technology. Dimond and Smyth, wanting to continue this work outside of academia, decided to launch a business that would make a difference in the world.

“In having a democratic workplace where everyone is a worker and an owner, we thought that we could help bring about social change by starting with ourselves,” Dimond says. “As a woman in technology, I have long been concerned about diversity issues in computing. By creating a more egalitarian workplace, we hope to also create a safe space for those who are underrepresented in tech such as women and people of color.”

This is an important point. The democratic nature of worker-owned businesses means they must be responsive to the needs of their membership, thus making them better suited to address issues of diversity. Historically, the tech world has not been a friendly space for women, and Dimond has firsthand experience with that issue.

“I still deal with stereotypes and issues as a woman when I go to various tech events and talk to prospective clients,” she says. “In a former job, I experienced sexual harassment from a client but I was not in a situation where I could do much about it. Being a worker-owner gives me agency about what kind of clients we take on and ensures that my voice will be heard.”

While both Dimond and Smyth have worked for major corporations--Dimond for Google and Smyth for Microsoft Research--they’re happy to be in a small co-op.

“We have more agency to determine what types of projects and work we want to do,” says Dimond." (http://www.fastcolabs.com/3021964/the-argument-for-worker-owned-tech-collectives)

Gaia Host Collective

By Brian Van Slyke:

"Gaia Host Collective, another worker-owned entity, offers internet hosting services with an environmentally and socially sustainable business model. Gaia began when two neighbors purchased a fledgling web hosting service, starting them off with two servers and fifty monthly customers. Today, Gaia has grown all of those numbers: the servers, the worker-owners, and the clients. It hasn’t all been rosy, however. The first several years were a constant struggle, with members working long hours and barely scraping by financially.

And even though their employees (the worker-owners) aren’t making a killing just yet, the benefits they see from sharing the responsibilities of ownership go much deeper.

“We have a stable and growing financial outlook that we manage collectively as worker-owners,” says Charles Strader, one of the founding members. “Being a cooperative has benefited our workers with working flexible schedules, the ability to have passion and time for things outside of work, the ability to be supportive of social justice and environmental organizations and business allies as part of our regular for-profit work, to be able to have some freedom of geography in where we choose to live, to be able to work from home or from a coworking space,” says Strader. “There's also a lot of intangible benefits to the camaraderie of being a co-owner in a worker cooperative that aren't easily expressed as benefits.” (http://www.fastcolabs.com/3021964/the-argument-for-worker-owned-tech-collectives)

Isthmus

... as to why this is a collective and not just a co-op.

By Brian Van Slyke:

"Isthmus, which began in 1980, is an engineering and manufacturing cooperative based in Madison, Wisconsin. Before starting the co-op, the four founding members left another company that treated them poorly and broke numerous promises. After trying to figure out how to make it on their own, the disgruntled, out-of-work employees settled on cooperation. To them, a co-op was the best structure that would ensure the business operated fairly, preventing repeats of the outrages that caused them to leave their former jobs.

Over the years, Isthmus has had great success with the model, and the democratic structure has given worker-owners the room to grow in ways that likely wouldn’t be the reality in typical workplaces.

“Most people are used to just being employees at other companies,” says Ole Olson, an engineer and worker-owner at Isthmus. “When given the responsibility and power to make their own decisions, it is amazing how some people change.”

“We work with several fortune 500 companies,” Olson adds. “When they first learn of us they don’t understand (or aren’t willing to accept) how our structure works. Once we have them as a customer—they are hooked.” (http://www.fastcolabs.com/3021964/the-argument-for-worker-owned-tech-collectives)

More Information

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