Worker cooperatives recover from setbacks of COVID-19

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

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

“The neighborhood grew around the restaurant,” said William Bishop, general manager and one of the restaurant’s co-owners. “Everyone has a story about coming here over the years, which is why when it closed we decided to reopen it as a worker-owned establishment.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant had 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 stop the process due to the uncertainty of the economy at the time and the difficulties in finding those who were interested in the idea.

But faced with impending closure, the restaurant made the decision to become a worker co-op, renamed Oceanview Diner in March 2022. Upon reopening, Bishop noticed significant changes in the work environment.

As chief executive, he was able to offer better health benefits and a staff salary increase to the seven long-serving workers who agreed to stay. Bishop said the biggest change after the transition was the general increase in happiness among staff, as well as more efficient restaurant flow and organization – which in turn reduced stress among staff.

“It’s not the owner who makes the success of the restaurant. It’s the cooks and servers,” Bishop said. “It’s the people who wash dishes and sweat eight hours a day that make this happen.”

Many Berkeley businesses have long histories, but unlike the Oceanview Diner, some have been cooperatives since the beginning.

The Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative began on the ASUC campus in the early 1970s and has recently expanded to its home on Shattuck Avenue. Co-op member and worker Rose Mota-Nadeau said that, from her perspective, co-ops are inherently democratic.

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

Like the restaurant, 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 the members ultimately wanted to be part of the co-op because they love and take pride in their work.

“We respect each other for our differences, whatever they may be, and try to embrace individualism,” Mota-Nadeau said in an email. “We are equals with equal ‘power’ and do not work for ‘The Man’, per se.”

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

J. Noven, staff member and executive director of the Berkeley Student Food Collective, said a big part of how co-ops can work is because of shared incentives and better treatment of workers.

“In most jobs, people don’t have the ability to share governance or power in their workplace with their colleagues,” Noven said. “It is a loss for the construction of a society capable of taking better care of everyone.”

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 to the workplace, and how cooperatives have become a 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 install a Panda Express on campus.

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

The students realized that if they could collectively decide what food they could provide and how, the organization would better reflect the values ​​of the students.

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

“They really illustrated what it’s like to model your political work or your social justice values ​​in how you work with each other,” Basrai said. “I see it as something that is possible for me because of the work that has been done by past generations, especially black workers and people who are modeling alternatives (on) how to survive under capitalism.”

In addition to modeling personal political values, Basrai viewed cooperatives as an opportunity for worker empowerment.

NoBAWC’s networks include members who view co-operatives not just as a place to work, but as an important aspect of their lives.

Erik Hopp, a member of the Heartwood Cooperative carpentry shop, said during his life that he had surrounded himself with several cooperatives. He previously lived in a housing co-op and founded a web design and development co-op which died out 10 years ago and married a longtime member of the Design Action Collective.

“For me, I think the idea of ​​bringing participation and a somewhat flat hierarchy into the realm of your professional life is an important part of upholding equality and justice in the world,” said Hopp.

Contact Maya Jiménez at [email protected]and follow her on Twitter at @mlj____.

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