Cooperatives Look to More Than Just Profits

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While being your own boss has long been a part of the American Dream, not many picture working in a profit-sharing cooperative as a way to fulfill that goal.

But this is exactly the case at several businesses in and around Berkeley.

Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative, a worker cooperative on Shattuck Avenue that specializes in bicycle retail and repair, is one such business. First started and operated by UC Berkeley students as a nonprofit organization, Missing Link was initially located in Lower Sproul Plaza, says member Chuck Betz.

"Before we incorporated it in 1973 as a corporation, it was made by some members that were from the (ASUC) that were somewhat radical and looking for new business options," Betz says. "Instead of being a business run for profit, they wanted it to be something that could improve the community."

Like other cooperatives, Missing Link is an employee-owned business that operates without traditional managerial positions. Every employee, called a "member," owns an equal share of the business and makes equal wages along with equally shared profits. Task-specific positions are assigned through election, member Robert Nelson says.

"Since we're a combined business, operating a bike repair and retail shop, there are many jobs that are delegated," Nelson says. "We have bike and clothing buyers, for instance, who are in charge of ordering goods for the store. But these positions are more if you want to specialize in a certain field - you still make the same amount of money for doing more work."

Currently, the 23 members meet every four to six weeks to discuss any pending issues. While the business is run according to a manual, it is constantly evolving as they encounter different challenges, Nelson says.

"We have gotten more formal and organized with firmer expectations over time - it's been a trial-and-error process, and over 25 years the stuff that hasn't worked has been weeded out," he says.

Membership has increased over the years - when Betz joined in 1980 there were only eight or nine employees. Despite having worked at the store for over 20 years, no seniority is assigned to Betz. Part of the novelty is that new members earn pay equal to older members, Nelson says.

"We offer a level playing field so that no one carries more responsibility or weight than anyone else," Nelson says. "Everyone gets the same benefits."

Not everyone is suited for work in a cooperative, though. Although they offer great advantages to employees, such as self-scheduled hours, more freedom in the workplace and ownership in the business, experience in retail and good people skills are a must, Betz says.

"As it is in any retail business, things can get stressful," Betz says. "It's hard to see things from another person's perspective. Getting along with co-workers, tolerating differences and disputes without resorting to an authority figure is the biggest challenge."

The same is true at the Juice Bar Collective, a worker-owned collective on Vine Street. Though this cooperative offers different services, as a restaurant specializing in health food, it operates under ideas similar to those of Missing Link.

It began as part of the Cheese Board Collective, which was founded by Sahag Avedisian when he returned from observing a kibbutz, a collective settlement, in Israel. The Juice Bar became its own collective about 25 years ago, says member Marvin Vinik.

"Sahag had the idea to start a business that was a collective like what he had seen in Israel," Vinik says. "Originally, the whole concept was to become a boss with shared responsibility and no exploited workers - different from what can be seen in our capitalist society. Instead of the profit going into the owner's pocket, in the collective it's distributed evenly among the workers."

While this collective has only eight members, with a ninth on trial, it is a successful business that is, according to Vinik, "an institution in Berkeley."

Prospective members go through a three-month probation period, after which members vote on whether or not to hire them, Vinik says.

"Once they join, there is a nominal buy-in fee of $400," he says. "Everyone owns the place, but if they decide to leave, they get back their money with interest."

Members of the Juice Bar meet once a month, making business decisions together without specific delegations or elections. While people gravitate toward tasks they prefer to do, ideally everyone does everything, Vinik says.

"With everyone doing everything and no boss to set the standard, you have to adjust to individual work habits and styles," he says.

In the past 25 years, the collective has grown, yet it has always remained true to its original ideals.

"While we've expanded in menu and things we do - we're more than a juice bar, offering an extensive menu of pizza, lasagna, quiches, organic fruits and vegetables - times have changed in our direction," Vinik says. "We've always been health food and organic food, and now that's become more popular. We're a throwback to the old Berkeley, and people like that."

Also part of the old Berkeley tradition is the Arts and Crafts Co-op, Inc. on Shattuck Avenue, another worker cooperative made up of artists from across California.

Started in the mid-1960s by a small group of artists in order to work and sell their art together, today this organization has about 120 members, each selected by a jury process every January and June. Once members are selected, they are responsible for paying annual dues and fulfilling a 20-hour volunteer commitment at the gallery where every artist's work is showcased, says store manager Fay Wyles.

"Though the gallery has a regular staff separate from the cooperative, we might ask them to do any odd jobs needed when we're short staffed, such as helping out with sales, showing work in the gallery, gardening or even dusting," Wyles says.

In this cooperative, members are paid monthly based on how their works sell. Artists submit work to be shown at their own discretion - they receive 55 percent of the price, while the other 45 percent is retained by the gallery, Wyles says.

The advantage of the co-op, Wyles says, is that artists are given a voice in how their works are presented and sold, becoming "members" of the gallery. They can tell the co-op about their works and how they would like them to be shown.

Giving members more freedom of choice and more conducive work environments, these cooperatives attempt to increase employee satisfaction rather than profit margins, Betz says.

"If you don't like something, you can change it," Betz says. "You can give yourself a raise if you think you need it. You won't find someone higher up lining their pocket."


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