The Green-Collar Communities Clinic (GC3) primarily focuses on providing transactional legal and business planning assistance to advance a worker-owned, cooperative economy. As an introduction to our summer internship with GC3, we went on a tour of our local cooperative and resilient economy ventures to better understand the success of cooperatives and the burgeoning sharing economy.
According to the Network of Bay Area Cooperatives (or, NoBAWC, pronounced “no boss”), a trade association for worker cooperatives, there are roughly 30 cooperative businesses in the Bay Area. These coops don’t necessarily account for the dozens of developing coops that will eventually change the landscape of the local economy. We hope that replicable models born here in the East Bay will be easily transferable to other parts of the country, and even abroad, in order to ground community economic development in egalitarian principles.
Our tour witnessed the daily operations of Oakleyville/PLACE (Oakland), Phat Beets Produce (Oakland), Arizmendi Bakery (Oakland), Ink Works (Berkeley), Design Action Collective (Oakland), and Mandela Foods Cooperative (Oakland).
Oakleyville is a multi-stakeholder cooperative led by a group of intrepid community organizers with a grand vision. This self-sustaining community space resides in the intersection between Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville. They coexist with PLACE for Sustainable Living, and provide maker-space for entrepreneurs, artisans, and even coops like Spokeland. As a multi-stakeholder coop, Oakleyville will be worker-managed and community-owned. Community members will participate through attending classes and sharing their skills.
Phat Beets is a food justice collective that has been active in the North Oakland community since 2007. As we pulled up to the Dover Street park, transformed by Phat Beets into an edible park, we could barely see Max, one of the founders, weaving in and out of thickets of vegetation. The playground and the grass field seemed oddly juxtaposed next to the substantial garden growing around the perimeter. Turns out, this isn’t just perception, it’s policy. As we munched on arugula flowers and radishes, Max explained the hurdles that Phat Beets had to overcome to create an edible park in Oakland. There are city ordinances in place that keep people from growing edible plants and trees in Oakland for fear of rot, pests, and liability. Max showed us a blooming apple tree that was grafted to an ornamental one, and spoke with pride about the Edible Parks Task Force which is working on changing these seemingly absurd rules which ban such grafting practices. We left with the sense that initiatives trying to engage community members in sensible, healthy choices, are often blocked by ordinances that purport to protect the community’s health and safety.
On our visit to the Arizmendi Bakery at its Lakeshore Avenue Oakland location, we had to scout a table as it was a typical busy afternoon. Arizmendi is entirely worker-owned. It’s named after a priest who started the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. Since 1956, Mondragon has grown to a massive organization of coops, employing 80,000 worker-owners. Arizmendi itself began as a spin-off coop from the successful Cheeseboard, and now boasts 5 locations around the Bay Area. Each Arizmendi is conceived from the same foundational coop model and uses Cheeseboard recipes, but each one is owned and operated independently. Our host explained to us the inner-workings of this location, including its probationary process for inducting new worker-owners and how they’ve been navigating the bakery’s business trends.
Our next stop was the Mandela Food Cooperative in West Oakland. As a resident of this community, I have personally struggled with the lack of good grocery options in the area. The founders of this coop, long-term West Oakland residents, had a vision of a healthier West Oakland. They pooled their resources and followed Arizmendi’s model to bring this much-needed resource to the Lower Bottoms. The team is made up of mostly worker-owners, and two part-time employees. As we chilled by the specialty probiotics and produce, people milled in and out excited by all the uncommon grocery goods. I see a bright future for this coop, as healthier lifestyles become common-place in our communities, and coops like this start cropping up to support them.
Ink Works Press of Berkeley has been operating as a worker cooperative for 40 years. They are also a unionized workplace and an Alameda County Certified Green Business. Unlike a typical worker cooperative, Ink Works is organized as a non-profit. This means that upon dissolution, the assets of the business will be given back to the community rather than the workers. In 2002, Inkworks helped to spin off another worker coop, Design Action Collective, which has a focus on digital design. Unfortunately for Inkworks however, the printing business has taken a hit as many clients have moved to online newsletters and websites.
In March 2014, Inkworks signed a deal with the Cheeseboard Collective to sell their space and then lease their space back from Cheeseboard for two years. In line with one of the 7 cooperative principles, cooperation among cooperatives, Ink Works has received support from the Cheeseboard Collective, another deeply-rooted coop in Berkeley. Even in an era where the print industry is fading, Ink Works will remain a valuable example of a community-minded cooperative for years to come.
Natalie Koski-Karell is a GC3 Summer Legal Intern and J.D. Candidate at UC Hastings School of Law.