NoBAWC was founded in 1994 by nine Bay Area democratic workplaces, which met to address their isolation and build a regional worker cooperative movement. There had been a networking organization among collective and cooperative groups in the Bay Area called the InterCollective between 1975 and 1985, but very little interaction among them for the next decade.
For the first eight years NoBAWC was an informal association, highly participatory, member-driven, run entirely by volunteers, with no budget. NoBAWC’s decision-making structure was by simple consensus. Membership consisted of all democratic workplaces which agreed with the principles of NoBAWC and considered themselves members; there were no membership dues.
Gradually NoBAWC clarified our mission as furnishing support for our member workplaces; providing consultation and referrals for people interested in starting democratic workplaces; promoting them in the community as sources of meaningful employment, providers of quality goods and services, and as viable alternatives to the dominant forms of ownership and management of workplaces.
Between late 2001 and mid-2004, NoBAWC transitioned toward a more formal structure. The informal structure had made it impossible to respond to many requests for assistance from individuals and workplaces, unable to execute many desired projects, and incapable of meeting many of our stated goals and mission. NoBAWC elected a Steering Committee, began fundraising, and hired a part-time staff person.
In 2005 we replaced the Steering Committee with an elected of Board of Directors, empowered to oversee staff and continue the organizational progress. We clarified our committee system and adopted committee guidelines, empowering individuals from NoBAWC member workplaces to work on specific projects while providing a framework for committee accountability to the general membership. We started membership dues. Groups not able to pay dues could usually work out barter or other arrangements. Dues provided a small, but reliable, revenue stream which financially stabilized NoBAWC so we could budget operating expenses and continue to develop.
While for several years the focus had been on internal structure, we now moved toward a more outward focus, promoting workplace democracy in society. In 2005, we held a major week-long worker cooperative conference and film festival, attended by over 300 people. The following year, member participation grew through committees: Outreach, Website Development, Dues, Marketing, and Newsletter. In 2006 we held “roundtable” forums on topics such as Worker Cooperative Development in the Bay Area; and Sustainability & Worker Cooperatives. NoBAWC joined the recently-formed U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and participated in the 2nd USFWC Conference in New York. It was during this period that we started to make contact with other regional worker cooperative organizations that were forming. In 2007 we attained legal status as a non tax-exempt unincorporated association, organized another successful conference, continued roundtable discussions, and sent representatives to the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy and the Western Worker Cooperative Conference.
We continued to serve as a community resource for those interested in workplace democracy by offering assistance, referrals and information at no charge. We regularly talked with start-ups, worker cooperative developers, and to people interested in converting workplaces into worker cooperatives. We consulted with workplace democracy researchers and activists, including individuals organizing a worker cooperative credit union, others developing legislation to codify worker coops into California law, and an organization writing a feasibility study on developing a worker cooperative equity fund. We published a coop map/poster, to serve for marketing and to promote worker coops in our community. We organized public forums, spoke in classrooms about worker cooperatives, and tabled at community events. We shared our staff-related documents with other regional worker cooperative organizations, and sent representatives to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives conference.
The late 2008 collapse of the national economy into the Great Recession resulted in a surge of interest in worker cooperatives as an alternative means of economic development. High unemployment and the later Occupy movement relaunched an intense national debate over economic inequality and the future of capitalism. Occupy’s use of participatory democratic structures and its search for a just way to organize the economy dovetailed with worker cooperatives.
Today NoBAWC is comprised of over 36 democratic workplaces including small and medium-sized workplaces employing from a few to over 250 workers, representing diverse industries and economic sectors, with a combined annual sales of over $80 million, and around 1,000 workers. Today NoBAWC is no longer working almost alone, trying to do and be everything for the Bay Area worker cooperative movement. The Bay Area is now home to a variety of organizations organizing the worker cooperative/solidarity movement, and because we share common goals, we are working alongside many of them.
NoBAWC has always been a flexible organization, and we are still struggling with how to respond to our members’ needs and build a transformative worker cooperative movement in our region, while connecting more fully with the national and global movement. In this era of deep social crises, we can play a key role in the larger movement for social and economic justice, by nurturing a visionary yet practical network of workplace democracy.