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'We are equals': Worker cooperatives recover from COVID-19 setbacks

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JONATHAN HALE | STAFF

With hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic, Berkeley cooperatives have fought against financial strains and closure to maintain their worker values.

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AUGUST 10, 2022

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Bette’s Oceanview Diner had reached a stopping point.

Similar to many restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, the diner was hit hard with economic challenges as well as the owner’s desire to retire after a long career. Manfred and Bette Kroening opened their diner in 1942, and since then it has served as a driver of economy on Fourth Street in Berkeley.

“The area grew up around the diner,” said William Bishop, the general manager and one of the co-owners of the restaurant. “Everybody has a story about coming here over the years which is why when it closed down we decided to re-open it as a worker-owned establishment.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the diner had entertained the idea of becoming a cooperative. They had hired a company called Project Equity to help them see if the transition could be a viable option. However, the owner decided to halt the process due to the uncertainty of the economy during the time and difficulties finding those who were interested in the idea.

But in the face of imminent closure, the diner made the decision to become a worker cooperative, being renamed as the Oceanview Diner in March 2022. Upon reopening, Bishop noticed significant changes in the workplace environment.

As general manager, he was able to provide better health benefits and increased staff salary for the seven longtime workers who agreed to stay. Bishop said the biggest change after the transition was the general increase in happiness among staff, as well as a more efficient flow and organization of the restaurant — which in turn reduced stress among staff.

“It’s not the owner that makes the restaurant successful. It’s the cooks and the servers,” Bishop said. “It’s the people that wash the dishes and get sweaty eight hours a day who make it happen.”

Many businesses in Berkeley have long histories, but unlike the Oceanview Diner, some have been cooperatives from the start.

The Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative began on campus at the ASUC during the early 1970s and expanded to its home on Shattuck Avenue in 1977. Rose Mota-Nadeau, a member and worker at the cooperative, said from her perspective, cooperatives are inherently democratic.

“There is no hierarchy, and everyone has equal say in decisions,” Mota-Nadeau said in an email.

Like the diner, the Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as the business dealt with the public.

Despite the challenges, Mota-Nadeau explained that members ultimately desired to be part of the cooperative because they enjoy and take pride in their work.

“We respect each other for our differences, whatever they are, and attempt to embrace individualism,” Mota-Nadeau said in an email. “We are equals with equal “power” and do not work for “The Man”, perse.”

Many cooperatives in the greater Berkeley area are part of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, or NoBAWC.

J. Noven, a staff member and executive director at the Berkeley Student Food Collective, said a large part of how cooperatives are able to work is due to shared incentives and better treatment of workers.

“In most people’s jobs, they don’t have the opportunity to share governance or power in their workplace with their co-workers,” Noven said. “That’s a loss for building a society that is able to better care for everyone in it.”

Noven, also a staff member of NoBAWC, detailed how there is a history of people trying to bring the values of democracy from the political sphere into the workplace, and that cooperatives became one method of doing so.

As for the Berkeley Student Food Collective, it began as a student campaign against the ASUC Student Union’s decision to put a Panda Express on campus.

“They understood that without robust control of the government of the campus food system, students would also be subjected to the most heinous, exploitative, corporate actors in the food system,” Noven said.

Students realized that if they were able to collectively decide what food they could provide and how, the organization would better reflect students’ values.

For the Design Action Collective, another member of NoBAWC, cooperatives have a strong connection with political values. The collective began as Inkworks Press during the 1970s, according to Sabiha Basrai, a member of the collective. In the early 2000s, the collective identified a developing need to serve clients of social justice through visual communication.

“They really exemplified what it looks like to model your political work or social justice values in the way that you work with one another,” Basrai said. “I see it as something that is possible for me because of the work that was done by generations past, especially Black workers and people modeling alternatives (on) how to survive under capitalism.”

Along with modeling personal political values, Basrai saw cooperatives as an opportunity for worker empowerment.

NoBAWC’s networks include members that see cooperatives not just as a workplace, but as an important aspect of their lives.

Erik Hopp, a member of the Heartwood Cooperative woodworking shop, said during his life he had surrounded himself with several cooperatives. He previously lived in a housing cooperative, as well as founded a web development and design cooperative that phased out 10 years ago and married a long-standing member of the Design Action Collective.

“To me, I think the idea of bringing participation and a somewhat flat hierarchy to the realm of your work life is an important part of advocating for equality and justice in the world,” Hopp said.

Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that the Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative moved to its Shattuck location recently. In fact, the cooperative moved in 1977.
Contact Maya Jimenez at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @mlj____.
LAST UPDATED

AUGUST 16, 2022


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