Pizza heaven, worker co-op style


by Ed Mayo

Forty years ago, Berkeley’s now-famous pizza parlour, the Cheeseboard, opened its doors. Organised as a worker co-operative, after a buyout from the first owner, the fame is in part due to the Pizza of the Day, a focus on one amazing Pizza rather than than the usual choice of seventeen. As I write, the Pizza of the Day is “roasted cauliflower, caramelized onion, mozzarella and Montalban cheese, toasted Pistachio, garlic olive oil, parsley”.


Constantly updated: click the image to see Cheeseboard’s special pizza of today.

The Pizza of the Day is aways without meat, and using local and organic produce where possible.

In 1997, inspired by their own success, they helped open another bakery based on co-operative principles. They named it after the founder of the Basque Mondragon Co-operative, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta – the Arizmendi Bakery.

What they have developed is a way to spread success – which was the call of the very first post on this blog site, by Dave Hollings: how to spread the use of the wheel, rather than wondering how to reinvent it.

Joe Marraffino, Arizmendi Development and Support Cooperative, describes how they have done this: “When the Association is ready to develop a new bakery cooperative, we find a new site, draw new capitalization loans, recruit new worker-owners, and face the risks that any new enterprise faces.  However, these risks are reduced by what is not new: the enterprise adapts the same business plan that existing member bakeries have used, it offers a tested product line using the same recipes, it has a similar name and co-advertises to nearby markets, it uses proven governance structures, and it shares the cost of support services with other members.”

The result, he argues, is that the new worker cooperative bakery will cost less, start faster, and be more resilient than a new business venture. This initial advantage is reinforced by a network of similar businesses offering mutual aid, and by enduring technical assistance. Once the workplace moves into profit, then they pay for their membership of the secondary co-operative, but if it is not, then they pay nothing and still receive full technical assistance services.

The culture of the enterprise is key, and this is perhaps why the model has spread but still far more organically than an investor-owned franchise that simply rolls out a new format and proposition around the country. As the Cheeseboard Collective declares, alongside a passion for good food (with a ‘sourdough starter culture’): “the belief that every voice is central has sustained us over the years. We have never wavered from the original vision of a democratic workplace.”

I suspect that anyone who has eaten at the Arizmendi Bakeries will remember the pizza that they had. But they have another recipe we could learn from, which is how to spread proven success in a bootstrap way.

It is a different model to the lone start-up approach, a different model to the secondary level that provides the support, and perhaps is a risk to the starter co-op that has to commit to engaging with its fledgling worker co-op sisters, but it solves some of the issues that face co-operative development today.

It doesn’t necessarily cross borders. I was hearing from the founders of the co-operative development network in Canada, Coop Zone, last month about an attempt to use the same system to bring a worker co-op bakery to Canada. The hurdles were far higher, as so much of the core business is attuned to the legal and commercial context of the USA. Replication across borders is always more of a challenge, even if the inspiration to try is often richer, because you can see the possibilities in among the differences.

Here in the UK, the Community Shares Unit, a partnership programme of advice and support, over the last seven years has helped to catalyse a market for co-operative capital in which over 100,000 people have invested over £120m to support over 400 community businesses. Could a new replication unit, a new partnership of some form help to spread success? Which among our outstanding worker co-ops would be one to kick off with?

It could just be pizza heaven, worker co-op style.

Labour leader on platform co-operatives and other digital matters

Without wishing to make co-ops a partisan (let alone sectarian) issue Jeremy Corbin had this to say about platform co-operatives in his Digital manifesto launch today:


as part of Labour’s plans for a universally accessible National Education Service, we will create a free-to-use online hub which we’re calling an “Open Knowledge Library”, a digital repository of lessons, lectures, curricula.

“We will foster the cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services. The National Investment Bank and regional banks will finance social enterprises whose websites and apps are designed to minimise the costs of connecting producers with consumers – in transport, accommodation, cultural, catering and other important sectors of the British economy.

“In the new sharing economy, we will reform copyright laws to ensure that cultural workers are paid properly for their labour. And we will introduce new laws guaranteeing a secure employment contract and trade union membership to everyone who earns most or some of their livelihood from digital platforms.

Making the case and expressing support for co-op ownership always welcome. But he went on to say this

“We are also interested in the idea of developing a voluntary scheme that provides British citizens with a secure and portable identity for their on-line activities. The Digital Citizen Passport will be used when interacting with public services like health, welfare, education and housing.

This sounds eerily familiar, but let’s not get into issues around national ID schemes, however voluntary. Except, perhaps, to suggest that an independent and co-operative one might have more interesting possibilities, and be genereally less dangerous and fraught than a government one.

Live report here (The Guardian); full text of launch speech here (from LabourList).

The beginners’ guide to platform co-ops

Handy intro written by Maira Sutton, Cat Johnson and Neal Gorenflo to Platform Co-ops here: 

there is an alternative — one that places control and ownership of digital services into the hands of its users. It’s called a platform cooperative, or platform co-op.

The guide from Shareable covers

On the specific matter of personal data the authors suggest:

There are two key issues in how corporations handle data obtained from their users. First, algorithms can manipulate users’ data in ways that bias and discriminate against them in harmful ways. Second, there can be serious privacy implications regarding when and how much of this data is handed over to unknown third-parties like advertisers or government agencies without judicial warrants or other types of public oversight.

Platform co-ops, by the very nature of being owned and democratically-controlled by users, would be obligated to follow procedures that do the utmost to protect privacy. Sound privacy practices may include the refusal to sell or provide personal data to third-parties unless required to by a warrant and using encryption tools to ensure that data would not be intercepted or lay vulnerable to malicious hacking.

Calling @DSearls! VRM anyone?

Cool. HT @aprilrinne  and Open Coop 

Co-operating to overcome #peakstuff; the Library of Things

Library of Things: what a terrific idea. From the Grauniad (where else):

Is the Library of Things an answer to our peak stuff problem?

New social enterprise lending everything from spades to wetsuits is one of a new breed of organisations pitched as a democratic alternative to Uber and Airbnb

The Library of Things in London
The launch of the Library of Things in London, which encourages people to borrow not buy. Photograph: Sebastian Wood

Surely a natural for a co-operative approach? We want one here, soon!

“The dawn of the practical”


by Peter Couchman.

The history of co-ops is long and rich, with thousands of publications. However, it is filled with the what not the how of co-ops. It is filled with how many there were and how big they became, but not how they were developed. I hope that the new strategy will focus on the how.

Looking at how co-ops are developed gives fascinating insights. It shatters the English view that Rochdale is the only source of co-operative innovation. It played a vital role, but other equally rich development traditions emerged around the world. Raiffeisen, Schulze, Arizmendiarrieta, Desjardins and Coady to name but a few, all developed different approaches. Our challenge is to constantly ask ourselves the question: how can this wisdom be applied to the challenges and opportunities we face today and tomorrow?

One of those traditions is that which we have inherited at the Plunkett Foundation from our founder, Sir Horace Plunkett. He created over 1,000 co-ops in rural Ireland. More importantly, he had to adapt the approaches used in Britain to the world of conflict that he found himself in. An approach developed in a world of turbulent change is one that is likely to be of use to us today.

There are a number of key elements to the approach he developed.

The best way to achieve social change is through economic change

Co-operatives are an economic solution being applied to making the world a different place. Like Plunkett, we will engage with the political, social and cultural leaders and movements of our day, but be clear what our part of the solution is.

Co-operatives have to be supported to succeed in the technical, economic and social

To achieve the aspirations of the co-operative sector, support needs to be a blend of advice on how to operate in the business sector that each co-op wishes to, how to make the economic model of being a co-operative work and ensuring a co-op stays connected to its community and its social mission.

Co-operatives have to stay connected to the communities from which they have come

Of these three, staying connected is the one that we cannot take for granted. It needs significant support and constant refreshing.

How we attract people to form co-operatives is a vital part of the process

Too often, co-ops talk among themselves rather than reaching out. Our challenge is to inspire several generations at once who have lost all connection with the idea that a co-operative may be the solution to the problem they face.

Co-operative development is a team activity not the work of one heroic individual

None of us have all the answers by ourselves. The most effective forms of co-operative development are team based, drawing on the expertise and skills of a range of individuals and organisations.

Government has a role in the development of co-operatives, but it is a limited one

Sitting back and waiting for Government is not a strategy that works. We need to support what needs to be done ourselves and treat Government support as an added bonus.

The National Co-operative Development Strategy is a unique opportunity to bridge the divide between talking about the Co-operative Movement we would like to have and the lack of resources to help get us there. As such, it is vital that we focus on what it will take to make it happen. Only then will we have what Sir Horace called for over one hundred years ago: “the dawn of the practical.”

Peter Couchman is Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

Mexican indigenous community co-op becomes world’s first mobile phone not-for-profit

Here’s a co-operative heart-warmer in today’s Guardian (where else?)

Now, a legal triumph by indigenous activists has cracked the monopoly enjoyed by Mexico’s powerful telephone magnates – including the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim – and opened the door to new services which will slash the cost of communication.

Co-op housing: it feels good to move in

Lovely simple story, well worth reading, of a school admin worker being first to move into new co-operative housing in Loftus Garden Village, Newport:

Jane Karagianis, an admin worker from Rougemont School purchased a 1 bedroom coach house apartment, and is very enthusiastic about both her home and the community-focused style of living.  Jane said: “I was initially bowled over by the quality of the build and felt the garden village was a very special place, definitely something I wanted to buy into”.

That quality of enthusiasm for every part of  building project from craftsmanship to governance is priceless. And I’d suggest it’s largely missing in conventional shareholder-value-driven property development work. The difference in underlying intention makes all the difference.