This week I got to talk to Javier (one of the founders of La Veloz – a totally amazing co-operative) to find out the secret to their long term survival (for Kindling and MVP). La Veloz started 18 years ago as an eco-courier. They are a well respected grass roots co-op, and through the years have developed systems to deal with the issues that co-operatives everywhere face (different working styles, hours, levels of commitment all through a horizontal structure and decision making).
La Veloz started in 1993 with 4 people as a bike courier service in Zaragoza. Their aim was to provide stable employment with good working conditions, working in a co-operative way for ecological and social good. They now employ 30 people (26 of whom are members) through the eco-courier service, Recicleta - a bicycle shop and repair service, and through offering advice and management services to other co-operatives (e.g. legal, accountancy, working relations etc.).
The values of the co-operative were set right at the start of La Veloz by the initial founders and they have never changed. People are asked to sign up to those if they want to work there. The values are:
- Work isn't only for economic gain but for personal, social and economic benefit
- Participative and not representative democracy
- Protest is prohibited - Proposals are encouraged (Javier says this is key - it isn't about saying you can't challenge anything, it is about saying you can't just moan - you have to help find the solution).
- Co-operation and solidarity inside and outside the organisation
- Self management and self dependency.
- The human factor. The principle axis of development (creativity, self commitment, solidarity, self esteem)
A three pronged approach:
Three factors are given equal importance in the work of La Veloz:
- Economic competence/viability
- Horizontal self management (how they work)
- External social and environmental impact
Each of these has to be given equal weighting if they are thinking of taking on more work or becoming involved in something (e.g. they can't take something on that will make loads of money but not be socially useful at all, or something on that will have a huge social or environmental impact but will loose money).
They started off by saying that everyone had to be dedicated to the co-op 100%. That meant all putting in the same daily work hours plus all members participating equally in everything seen as additional time spent on going to all the meetings/assemblies (and all bringing 3 proposals to each assembly), being members of networks, going to forums, taking part in training etc.
This didn't work in a number of ways. Firstly in that all members didn't give the same commitment to the co-op, and then as a result of that the tension that it caused between the members, frustrations for people who felt other members weren't working as hard as them and for those who felt they didn't want to or shouldn't be working that hard.
So over the years through trying different ways of working and tweaking the system over time, they have developed a system where co-op members can state the level of commitment they are going to give to the co-op, rather than the co-op dictating the level of commitment of its members.
This is a much better system as it eases the tensions and frustrations but also helps the co-op to plan what it can do and commit to for the year (based on how much commitment they have from the members and therefore what resources they have available). It also helps to make things more equal, though not completely (no co-op has managed that yet!).
In the current system each member works a number of 'productivo' hours - which refers to the income generating work (e.g. the courier service) all of which are paid, and a number of 'reproductivo' hours - which refers to the additional work they do (meetings, events, training etc.) 50% of which are paid.
The system is based on levels of commitment ranging from 0 which is the lowest level (so you basically do no additional work above your work hours – apart from attending 2 or 3 meetings a year), to 1 which means you take on a lot of additional work and responsibility and are in one of the co-ordinator roles.
The levels are 0, 0.25, 0.50, 0.75, 1. Level 0 – 0.5 are non members, though the members can say they need a break and put themselves at 0 for upto 2 years. To put yourself at level 1 you have to first have the agreement of your working group and then of the assembly.
The idea is that you gradually increase your commitment. So at 0.25 you take on some extra jobs, but it's not too big a responsibility (pulling together the internal e-bulletin is less of an issue if it's late than issuing all the invoices for example), giving you a chance to see what it's like and get more involved, and the members a chance to see how you are with additional work and responsibilities.
Initially the pay went up as your commitment level went up, not by much, but in an attempt to acknowledge the additional work and responsibilities people giving more commitment took on. However as it is quite a small amount of money compared to the huge amount of additional work people do so that doesn't really work (I think they still do it if they can – if the money is there).
Re the additional hours. If they have enough money they will pay people 50% of all the additional hours that they work, but if there isn't the money to do that they pay up to a certain amount (and people who work more additional hours do so voluntarily).
However Javier feels that the acknowledgement of the membership regarding the high levels of commitment is the important thing.
Once a year you look at whether you have given the level of commitment you said you would and decide what the level of commitment will be for the next year. This happens through a process of self and group evaluation. The evaluation has three strands to it:
- Self evaluation – the more reflective how you feel you are doing part of the evaluation (they also say what they think their level of commitment should be for the next year)
- Measurable hours - based on the daily time sheets that cover both work hours and additional hours
- Non measurable hours – this is an interesting bit which is about looking at how much you take home with you after hours that people don't see. However interestingly it is evaluated by the rest of the group, so there is a go round where everyone says things like I remember on this issue you seemed to carry a lot of the weight and worry about it or think about it a lot.
The group also gets to say whether they agree that the person has given the level of commitment they said they would or not, and to give general feedback (constructive criticism), and the assembly has to agree the level that the person is proposing for next year (if it 0.50 I think, and definitely anything above that). There isn't a punishment if you haven't fulfilled your commitment – it's bad enough to have that said to you in front of everyone!
They also have a kind of personnel subgroup (Javier and another member), whose role it is to keep an eye on what people said their level of commitment would be, and whether they are fulfilling that or not. If they aren't (so if they don't do a job they said they would do) then the subgroup has a word with them – so it isn't something that just comes up at the end of the year.
It is key that any co-op has someone in it who is keeping an eye on how people are and whether anyone is showing any signs of conflict/tension. So if someone says in a meeting I don't think we get paid enough, it is usually a sign of tension somewhere else and it is key that someone picks that up and addresses it with that person after the meeting to find out what's really going on and stop it becoming a bigger tension or conflict. Women are usually better at that for some reason, they seem
to be more perceptive generally (though not always).
It's also important that someone is named as having a conflict resolution role, so that if you are in a conflict with someone and you don't know how to sort it out you have someone you can go to and ask for help. It's key that if someone does bring up a tension or conflict that it is dealt with and not left – that has a disastrous effect.
The 'protest prohibited – proposals encouraged' value avoids a lot of tensions, as people can't come along and just moan about something they have to propose a solution (or try to find one together with the members). This is emphasised as a crucial attitude when people start working at La Veloz.
Membership and induction
You have to work a year before you can decide to become a member, and then it is time to decide whether you want to be a member or not (you can stay as a worker not a member – at 0%).
The induction is mainly through talking to one of the members about how it all works and the history of the co-op. New members are also given all the internal bulletins to read which gives a good history and overview of the kind of organisation La Veloz is (this is an informal bulletin written for members, workers and people they have good relationships with).
Some final founders thoughts
We talked a bit about the potential problems with being a founder and seeing all the changes happening. He said it was hard at first to watch new people come in to good employment and not seem to realise or experience the amount of hard work and free labour that went in to creating it. It took him a while to change the chip, but he has, and now sees it as great that people can be in paid, stable employment and even have time off like everyone else without having to go through what they did in the beginning.
It was really useful to talk to Javier. I think the systems they have developed are really interesting and definitely worth us looking at - I've got loads of bits of paper showing how it works as well as the book that they wrote on their 10th anniversary (which includes more detail about how they work together and resolve conflicts etc). When we get the farm we definitely have to get him over and somehow be useful to them (even if it's just making Javier take a break!).