Finn Ferguson never really wanted to be a business owner.
“I was not a big fan of being the person in charge,” she told the Outpost in a phone conversation on Monday. But sometimes preparation meets opportunity in unexpected ways.
Ferguson and her friend Gwen Price recently took over Eureka Florist, a 90-year-old flower shop in Henderson Center. And while they’re facing some challenges familiar to all new business owners (plus a host of others caused by COVID-19), Ferguson and Price don’t plan to operate their shop like a traditional business — with a boss who hires employees to work for an hourly wage. Instead, they’ll run it as a worker-owned cooperative, meaning everyone involved will be a co-owner with an equal stake in the venture’s success or failure and an equal voice in its management.
Ferguson learned about this alternative business model via Cooperation Humboldt, a nonprofit that aims to make the local economy more equitable and sustainable through an array of community-focused endeavors, from “Little Free Pantries” that stock food for hungry residents to a skill-share network, workshops and study groups critiquing capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy.
Last year, Ferguson and Price appeared together in Ferndale Repertory Theater’s production of Mamma Mia! Shortly after the run ended, Price started working at the flower shop. “I was working at a hair salon around the corner, and I would come visit in the afternoons,” Ferguson said.
When they learned that the shop’s 80-year-old owner planned to retire and sell the business, they started really looking at the space — 4,500 square feet, cute flower shop below and ample storage space upstairs — and imagining the possibilities. Business ownership started to seem appealing.
“Once we decided to move forward, I said I would be more comfortable if we were a worker-owned cooperative,” Ferguson said. “[Price] researched what that was and realized it was the perfect model for us.”
Other local business people have recently come to the same conclusion, thanks in part to the work of Cooperation Humboldt. Since its inception the organization has supported efforts to build worker-owned cooperatives, and recently, with help from the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and a $25,000 COVID response grant from the Humboldt Area Foundation, Cooperation Humboldt launched a formal training program called the Worker-Owned Academy.
“When the pandemic hit, it really became clear that this area is experiencing — and will continue to experience — a pretty significant economic downturn,” said Tobin McKee, a core team member of Cooperation Humboldt. How does that relate to co-ops? “As a business model, this has demonstrated to be very resilient during downturns because risk is spread among everybody and the commitment of employees to work is higher,” McKee said. “Worker turnaround is lower and reward is higher. That buy-in and team connectedness and sense of ownership/leadership creates a more resilient business.”
These attributes have been borne out by research. A study from Rutgers University, for example, found that employee ownership boosts company productivity by four percent, shareholder returns by 2 percent and profits by 14 percent.
Earlier this month, 22 people took the inaugural course in the Worker-Owned Academy. The curriculum included a series of free introductory webinars followed by four 90-minute meetings led by McKee. Ferguson and Price were among the participants along with members of three farmers’ co-ops, a bakery, an artist’s co-op and a community health worker co-op.
“The academy is designed to familiarize people who are inspired to start worker-owned cooperatives with the process and to really give people a reality check about the amount of work and the kind of work it takes to start a business and [operate] a cooperative,” McKee said.
How do those experiences compare to launching a traditional business? “It is more work in the beginning,” he said. “You have to relearn ways of managing and learn how to work together. … The employer-employee relationship is so ingrained, it can be a challenge for employees to start thinking like owners, and for people who are used to being in power to distribute it.”
Cooperation Humboldt has also partnered with the North Coast Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which offers free consulting on practical matters such as writing a business plan, bookkeeping and obtaining a business license and insurance.
Leila Roberts, director of the North Coast SBDC, said she sees enormous potential for worker-ownership in Humboldt County. “We are thrilled to now be able to help support the start-up of new worker-owned businesses this year,” she said in a statement provided by Cooperation Humboldt. “Now more than ever is the time to support businesses where worker-owners share the risks, decisions and profits.”
Many people’s concept of co-ops begins and ends with grocery stores like the North Coast Co-op. But there are others here in Humboldt. Eureka-based janitorial company Restif Cleaning Service, for example, has been organized as a worker-owned cooperative since 1990, when founder Chris Copple sold the business to his employees.
“Working in an employee-owned cooperative provides me and our employee/owners with the opportunity to work together, democratically, to run our business,” Restif General Manager Natalie Renfer said in a statement emailed to the Outpost. “Not only do we have democratic governance but members have enhanced job security and get to share in the profits of the business based on their labor.”
Renfer said that a janitor in a comparable position in a typical company would make about $14 to $17 per hour. “At Restif, our janitorial techs are making between $18 and $24 per hour,” she said.
For Ferguson and Price, the cooperative model has been working great. “Every decision we made felt right at the moment of consensus,” Ferguson said. “Anything we waffled on, we had that moment where we would bounce ideas around until, whoa, there’s the solution right there.”
The pair brought on a third person as a holiday helper during the Valentine’s Day rush, and now, almost six months into running the business, they’re looking to expand. “She’ll be joining us in October as an owner,” Ferguson said of their Valentine’s helper. “She’s starting to participate in the decision-making process and our collaborative meetings about marketing and pricing.”
True to the ethos of Cooperation Humboldt, Ferguson and Price’s vision for Eureka Florist doesn’t stop at being a flower shop. They’ve been “doubling down on community connections,” Ferguson said — conversing with the upstart worker-owned farm cooperative in the area and sourcing as many flowers as possible from local farmers. (They already get 95 percent of them from California.)
“We’ve really enjoyed building our community connections,” Ferguson said. “We’re all about connecting to our local community, so that means community partnerships, community vendors” — they try to do as much of their shopping as possible within Henderson Center — “and when our doors were open we had a big custom table made so people could have classes and host meetings.” They’ve made their upstairs available as costume storage for local theater companies, and it’s currently serving as the “drag closet” for Club Triangle. (The local “queer dance party” has switched over to live-streamed Instagram events during the pandemic.)
When Humboldt County’s shelter-in-place order took effect, Ferguson and Price offered their building up as a distribution center for Cooperation Humboldt’s COVID-19 response efforts. They stored Cypress Grove cheese in their walk-in cooler and helped distribute it to the community.
“Anytime something comes up that’s aligned with what we can do for the community, we love to be able to say, ‘Hey, we have the space,’” Ferguson said.
For her and Price, the cooperative model not only feels like the most effective and stress-free way to run their own business; it also reflects their values and their vision for what advocates call a “solidarity economy.” The COVID-19 outbreak has forced a lot of people to rethink their work practices, and Ferguson sees this moment as a catalyst for change.
“I think there’s a lot of fear that people have right now,” she said. “Everyone has a desire to return back to normal. I don’t expect that to happen. Being able to show people other paths forward I think is a lot more exciting … because if you can look at something this other way and realize it will work better, it’s going to make the future brighter. That’s what I have taken away from both my experiences with Cooperation Humboldt and running a business this way. It feels completely different. It doesn’t have any of the fear or anxiety that previous ways of life have had. … Getting rid of that hierarchy has just really relieved a lot of stress for us.”
Cooperation Humboldt’s first Worker-Owned Academy course wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and the next one is scheduled to start on Sept. 17. McKee said a local bakery is now in Worker-Owned Humboldt’s incubator program, preparing to make the transition to a cooperative. His organization has also been in talks with the people behind the recently shuttered SCRAP Humboldt about potentially relaunching their creative reuse center as a co-op post-pandemic.
For Ferguson and Price, being a business owner is not about being in charge or even making money — at least not as a primary goal. “For us, it turns out, business is about relationships,” Ferguson said. “Every time we’ve chosen to go local it has meant a new connection and that has always led to something better for our business.”
These personal relationships have value beyond their own flower shop, she added. “Working to create a strong local economy of connections benefits everyone in the community.”
“From each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs.”
As children most of us tend to either accept the authority of our primary care providers or reject it – rarely do children have the opportunity to exercise autonomy or true collaboration with adults. It’s the same in school: the teacher is the authority and we are required to do as we are told, even when we are collaborating with our peers. As adults we become the parents and the teachers, exercising our authority over children, continuing the cycle of power-over indoctrination. When we enter the workforce, we either become employees or employers – we either hold ultimate financial and governance authority, or we obey that authority.
Most of us have little experience with non-hierarchical, collaborative power-with cooperation with a group of our peers. When we decide to start a worker owned cooperative, we like the idea, we study the idea, but we have very little experience putting it into practice. Our deeply ingrained power-over habits tend to take over in times of stress. Since owning and running a business is often stressful, that means our deeply ingrained power-over habits often take charge. We revert to what we know best.
Power-over behaviors often manifest as:
- Raising our voices, speaking rapidly, speaking a lot
- Pushing our ideas forward without hearing others
- Displaying negative emotions to make others uncomfortable so they will capitulate
- Passive and passive aggressive language
- Turning away from essential communication
- Getting frustrated with what we perceive as the inadequacies of others
- Complaining to others about what we perceive as the inadequacies of others
- Forming cliques and group divisions
- Taking over someone’s task just to get the job done
- Dropping the ball or quitting because it isn’t worth our time and effort any more
In order to counteract our tendency to revert to these and other power-over behaviors, it is essential that co-op owners learn and use a democratic process for task management, communication, decision-making, and accountability. This should not be an informal process – it should be intentional and deliberate. When selecting our frameworks for cooperation, we do not expect to succeed immediately. Working with a method of cooperation is the consistent and ongoing exercise of “failing forward.”
Failing forward is about leveraging and learning from mistakes. It is about making a realistic assessment of risks and learning to live with the downside and experiment with new approaches. Failing forward is an investment in human success. It is not only necessary, it is essential. Because we will fail. The question is what we do after a failure. When communication breaks down, when power struggles emerge, instead of reverting to our deeply ingrained power-over instincts, we look to our framework and our mentors for guidance.
Initial inspiration for a new idea or project often comes from one person. Someone thinks, “I want to start a worker owned cooperative,” and then they set out to do just that. They research their idea, they sign up for classes, they begin to gather a group of similarly interested people. In many cases, the person who does this initial work is a person who is used to taking a leadership position. Perhaps they are an older sibling; perhaps they cared for their parents or lived on their own. Perhaps they were consistently put in a leadership position because of the structures of white supremacy; perhaps they have money. Perhaps they are just that kind of person. There are many reasons why some of us end up in leadership positions. No matter what the reason, almost all of us were raised in a culture that puts that kind of person in power-over relationships. Cooperative groups do this unless we learn new systems and processes. Some of us will accidentally slip into positions of leadership and some into positions of subordination.
For those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions within our groups, it is our responsibility to use that power to redirect the group’s attention back to the fundamental cooperative structure, and to constantly look for opportunities to divest ourselves of our power-over position and shift to power-with. Some of us will be more comfortable and capable of understanding the cooperative structure and holding ourselves accountable within that structure. It is our responsibility to act as mentors, and to find teachable moments to offer pathways for redirection. It is challenging to accomplish this without falling into a power-over position, telling others what they should and shouldn’t do.
One of the simplest and most effective tools we can use is a question rather than a statement or a command. “Would anyone like to take on the task of improving our meeting facilitation so that I’m not always the one taking the lead?”
For those of us who find ourselves subordinate to others in the group – either by choice, by accident, or because others in the group have fallen into power-over behaviors – it is our responsibility to share our experiences directly with the group. Ideally, we communicate our experiences as they are happening. The practice of Non-violent Communication (NVC) is an excellent tool to learn to do this. Groups that choose to study and practice NVC together are more likely to recognize what is happening and be prepared to actively listen when someone in the group shares how they are feeling and why. “When you just raised your voice, I felt uncomfortable. I stopped listening and became defensive. Will you please use a different tone of voice so that I can better hear what you are saying?” To accomplish this kind of effective communication, we must study, practice, and fail forward, again and again.
Another reason that we find ourselves in subordinate positions has to do with accountability. If a person isn’t accomplishing their tasks in a timely or effective manner, the group will naturally contract around those who are, shifting the balance of power in order to keep things moving along. Because of our deeply ingrained capitalist mindset, we may respond to that lack of follow-through by unconsciously assuming a sense of superiority. For those of us who find ourselves taking on more responsibility when others are falling short, we can practice asking, “Why is this person not showing up? How can I help?” rather than saying, “This person isn’t showing up, so now I have to do their job, and I resent that.”
Assume good intent. Recognize that energy fluctuates, circumstances fluctuate, and everyone is always learning. Cooperation and equity do not mean stability and equality, they mean flexibility and mutualism. It is healthy for us to take the burden from our comrades when they are tired.
When we are the ones dropping the ball, we can ask ourselves, “What kind of support do I need right now?” The idea that a person must maintain maximum productivity at all times without faltering or fluctuating is an extractive capitalist mindset that has no place in a regenerative feminist economy. Of course, if a person shows no signs of taking care of themselves or others, then eventually they will so blatantly violate the agreements of the co-op that a well designed governance and accountability structure will provide the pathway for their movement out of the group. But not before the group nourishes, heals, and supports that person as best we can.
Those of us who tend to find ourselves in leadership positions have the responsibility to empower, mentor, and support those of us who find ourselves more frequently subordinating to others. But our mentorship is not accomplished by delegating responsibilities, telling others how they can improve, or directly or indirectly punishing or rewarding others with blame, praise, and social capital. That’s how parents, teachers, and employers do it in patriarchal systems. Instead, we nurture everyone in the group. We are a garden. Before we bear fruit, we must sprout and grow. Then, we will cycle down. We need different things at different times. The process of mentoring a person who has not had many opportunities for leadership is a slow dance of offering resources and opportunities, and stepping back to let nature do what nature does best.
Those of us who tend to find ourselves in subordinate positions have the responsibility to resist the structures of patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism that have taken our bodies and our minds as resources to be extracted. When we see those forces at play within ourselves and our cooperative members, our work is to look deeper into the heart and soul of everyone involved, and to heal the wounds inflicted upon our people, by our people, for generation upon generation. When we do so we will heal ourselves and each other, and develop the strength to step up and take co-ownership. When for our whole lives our value is measured by what we produce, while at the same time the value of what we produce is taken from us, our healing is to discover the inherent value of all people and resources, and then to treat all people as precious, starting with ourselves.
When we see ourselves as co-owners and we have the space, support, and capacity to act as co-owners, we don’t just think about our own needs and our own responsibilities. We see the interconnectedness of all living things, and begin to see our proper place within that interconnectedness.
Because we are so used to compartmentalized work environments with tasks assigned to us by others, it takes some time to adopt an ownership perspective. In practice, being a worker-owner means being able to accomplish direct, important tasks on the ground-level (worker) and to walk up the mountain and look over the whole ecosystem to see our broader relationships (owner). If we find ourselves stuck in one perspective or another – either bogged down in the details, micromanaging others, or up with our heads in the clouds of fantasy and idealism – then it’s time to take a walk, either up the mountain, or down into the valley. No worker-owner is going to be in both places at once, but over time we can develop trust that no matter where our comrades are, they are taking care of us all, and needing the care of us all.