Worker-owned tech cooperatives find a niche near Silicon Valley

The Bay Area has become home to a small but burgeoning community of democratically run tech cooperatives

In “The other Silicon Valley,” Al Jazeera takes a look at how California’s tech boom affects the working class. This is part seven of a seven-part series.

From left, Niko Bakulich, Taran Ramage, Thomas Puhek and Brian Denslow, the four full-time members of TechCollective, in front of their San Francisco office.
Courtesy TechCollective

SAN FRANCISCO — After nearly 12 years of bouncing around various Bay Area startups, Taran Ramage was feeling burned out. A corporate IT technician who had been working in San Francisco since 1996, he found himself growing weary of what he called the “cynical and selfish gambling of this hot startup market.”

“Although the pay, benefits and work environment in the tech sector are generally excellent, I was starting to feel a lack of meaning, a lack of contributing anything useful to the world,” he said.

Ramage said that from 1996 to 2008, he worked with three startups experiencing rapid growth. By the time the third one had established itself, he was ready for something different. And that’s when he discovered TechCollective.

Founded in 2007, TechCollective is a worker-owned cooperative providing technical support and consulting. Workers own equal shares in the business and have equal votes in management decisions. Like all new hires at TechCollective, Ramage was not given a vote when he was hired in 2008. But after a six-month trial period, the other workers unanimously voted him into full membership.

The startup is part of the Bay Area’s small yet burgeoning tech cooperative community — a sort of miniature Silicon Valley run along collectivist principles. Think of it as an alternative sharing economy: Whereas there is little in practice to distinguish sharing economy businesses like Airbnb and Uber from other top-down firms, businesses like TechCollective are founded on the principle of equal work for an equal share.

“There’s the sharing economy, which is a buzzword, but then there’s a solidarity economy, which is the real thing,” said Sabiha Basrai, a member of the worker-owned Design Action Collective in Oakland. “It’s worker co-ops, people excelling and doing business that also supports other people. Investing in each others’ success versus competing with each other."

Worker cooperatives exist across industries. And the Bay Area, with its long history of left-wing social experimentation, has a particularly rich cooperative culture. The Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NOBAWC), founded in 1994, has 29 member businesses, according to its website, including Design Action and TechCollective as well as grocery stores, bookshops and even a health clinic. (The nationwide Tech Co-Op Network has 27 members, including three in San Francisco and three in Oakland. Outside the Bay Area, the largest concentration of its members is in New York City, where it lists five cooperatives.)

Tech co-ops are a comparatively recent phenomenon. Adam Bernstein of the cooperative Electric Embers says he noticed the first ones popping up after the collapse of the first dot-com bubble.

“I don’t know in the end how relevant it is, but it does seem like there was a timing there, for sure,” said Bernstein. “There was a huge dot-com boom, hundreds of thousands of people started flocking to the area, and then it crashed. And soon after that, we kind of started springing up like mushrooms."

Suzi Grishpul, who works at the Oakland cooperative Radical Designs, said she thinks the worker-owned model is becoming more attractive to young people as changes in the economy foreclose a more traditional route to financial security.

“Needing to get a job that then allows you to pay off your mounting student debt and buy a house and do all these quote-unquote normal lifestyle pursuits are just too rigid for the realities of our economy, especially in the Bay Area,” said Grishpul. “So I’m seeing a lot more people finding creative alternatives to the quote-unquote normal structures of housing and family and career. When there’s a lot of creative, intelligent people clustered together, you get some interesting projects coming out of that.”

Safe haven

Tech cooperatives may be particularly attractive to women and people of color, who often struggle to carve out a safe space in the white male-dominated world of Silicon Valley. Compare a tech giant such as Twitter to a collective such as Design Action: Whereas women make up 10 percent of Twitter’s global workforce and black or Latino employees occupy 4 percent of the company’s U.S. staff positions, just two of Design Action’s 11 full-time members are white men.

Not all cooperatives have those kinds of demographics, but Andrea Salazar, who works with Basrai at Design Action, said there is something about the collaborative and anti-hierarchical philosophy of the cooperative model that makes it a more supportive environment for women of color.

“People in general tend to be more fair,” said Salazar. "It just feels more like a collaboration than people trying to compete with one another, which is what you see in the traditional systems: Because there is a hierarchy, sometimes people try to impress the boss by stepping on other people."

Workers in cooperatives tend to be a self-selecting group: Cooperatives can’t offer the windfall of a traditional startup that goes big, so they’re more likely to attract people who believe in the ethos of collective ownership. And because cooperative members need to trust each to help steer the business, the hiring process is usually intensive. As a result, many smaller cooperatives are able to govern by unanimous consent: Their members already share so much common ground that there are rarely major disagreements.

“I trust that everybody comes to a collective meeting with this idea of balancing one’s own personal goals and wishes with what’s best for the shop, so whatever they say is within that context,” said Basrai.

The larger differences of opinion are among cooperatives rather than within them. Whereas Design Action and some other cooperatives employ the consensus model and almost exclusively service clients from the activist community, other firms, such as TechCollective, reach most decisions by majority vote and will happily accept money from a wide range of clients.

“Some co-ops are more focused on being co-ops, and that manifests in ways like they limit their clientele to businesses that support their social justice values,” said TechCollective’s Ramage. “Other co-ops behave more just like competitive corporate businesses and take all comers. We fall into the latter category, partly because it’s really the only practical business model for us to be sustainable and profitable. Also, my view is, in terms of serving the philosophical mission, why preach to the choir?"

Basrai told Al Jazeera there was “a little bit of tension” between the more activist cooperatives and their compatriots. She said she was “disappointed” by some other cooperatives, which she believes don’t put enough emphasis on trying to increase representation for women and people of color in the tech industry.

“But I think that is a healthy tension,” said Basrai. “Because we are still invested in each others’ success, we are also able to learn from each other. I’ve been able to learn and be part of meeting spaces with TechCollective and learn about the challenges they face, and Design Action is better for being on their radar in that way."

Most worker cooperatives in the Bay Area’s tech sector don’t see like-minded organizations as their only audience when it comes to spreading the good news. Even though TechCollective operates as more of a traditional business than some fellow cooperatives, it still sees servicing the local community and imparting the gospel of cooperative labor as part of its core mission.

“I think as the current tech frenzy starts to froth up and possibly collapse, a lot of these people are going to be looking for a different way to do tech, just like I was six or seven years ago,” said Ramage. “And I’m hoping that we and other tech co-ops will be visible to show them that there is another path."

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