Democracy in the Workplace: Lessons for Cuban Cooperatives

Daisy Valera

A meeting at the Cheeseboard.

HAVANA TIMES — Democracy in the Workplace is the title of a profoundly interesting documentary. Shot by Robert Purdy and Margot Smith in 1999, it follows the day-to-day operations of three California businesses managed by their employees:

The 27-minute film won the National Educational Media’s Bronze Apple award for excellence.

In these businesses, employees arrive at management decisions on the basis of consensus and/or votes. They can rotate in their positions whenever they want, such that no one is condemned to do a single repetitive task for hours on end or long periods of time. They also hold meetings to decide price polices, what to invest in and how to distribute profits.

Those who regard equality as a source of discouragement and apathy will be surprised to learn that all employees at these businesses receive the same salary, no matter how long they have been working there.


All employees have the same benefits package, which includes medical and dental insure, four-week vacations and legal services (all paid for by the cooperative).

Those who look exclusively to economic growth to gauge a business’ performance should look at these cooperatives, which have been functioning in this fashion since the beginning of the seventies and haven’t only managed to stay afloat but also to generate more jobs and to diversify.

One of the noteworthy characteristics of these projects is the fact they help other, similar businesses get started. Some are inspired by the cooperatives of Mondragon, Spain, others by revolutionary trade union and community movements and others even by vegetarian and vegan traditions.

Far from idealizing cooperatives, the documentary offers a realistic portrait of these businesses, showing us the bad times they go through, as well as the responsibilities and pressures that the privilege of working under such conditions entails.

With practical examples, it demonstrates how well private property can be managed by workers, in contrast to the “property of the workers” administered by State officials.

It also shows us how the right to elect a president every so often pales in comparison to the possibility of working at a truly democratic workplace every day.

Many Left currents in the past century called for the complete abolition of alienated labor and boredom. Initiatives like the ones explored by the documentary may well be a step in that direction.

There is still a long way to go in Cuba before initiatives of this nature can come into being. Small family businesses may constitute a first step in that direction.

I recommend this documentary to all those looking for alternatives to wage slavery.

Daisy Valera

Daisy Valera:Soil scientist and blogger. I write from Mexico City, where Havana sometimes becomes so small that it disappears. However in others, the Cuban capital is a city so past and present that it steals your breath.

One thought on “Democracy in the Workplace: Lessons for Cuban Cooperatives

  • Thank you, Daisy, for an excellent presentation.

    The San Francisco Bay Area is the center of gravity for working associate-owned enterprise in the United States. The several enterprises profiled in Democracy in the Workplace are representative of what is going on in the US, but also in Canada and many other capitalist countries.

    This small film shows what was the core economic principle for socialism in the 1800s, before Engels and Marx–with financial support from the bourgeoisie–burrowed into the movement and inserted their ideological poison pill. This duo struggled mightily for over three decades, and finally changed the core economic principle from direct, cooperative ownership of enterprise, to 100% ownership of all things productive by any future socialist state.

    The state-monopoly ownership socialism of Engels and Marx is what has destroyed the reputation of socialism, historically and worldwide. Today, even though there are multiple examples of successful working associate ownership of enterprise–Mondragon being the most spectacular, but only one of many–the sectarians cling to their silly notion that the socialist state ought to have title to the land and every sort of enterprise.

    On the other hand, some ultra-Left Marxists–primarily the Trotskyists–solve their ideological problems by blaming the state-monopoly principle on Joseph Stalin. You see, Engels and Marx are gods, and gods are infallible. E&M therefore cannot have generated the stupid state-monopoly formula for socialism. It must have been generated by the murderer Stalin!

    Unfortunately for them, the writings and lives of those two bourgeois phonies, Engels and Marx, are plain for all to see.

    The film Democracy in the Workplace demonstrates what ought to have been the formula for successful socialism all along. Those who do the work of society–both proletarians and small bourgeois–should own their means of production directly, not through the agency of the state.

    This would mean that private property legal rights are an integral part of authentic socialism. It is not the existence of these rights which is the problem; it is the fact that, under these rights, those who do the work must also, by some fashion, also be the direct owners.

    The state should own some things 100%, and should co-own most significant enterprise partially and silently–to obviate most taxes and all tax bureaucracies–but, the workers and small business people should be the primary legal owners. This is the only guarantee of both workplace democracy and social and economic dynamism.

    If the Left could analyze the film which Daisy has so well profiled, and see the simple truth as to what constitutes authentic, workable socialism, the people in every country could easily be won to the transformation, and monopoly capitalism could be placed in the dumpster–where it ought to be.

    I fear however that the the Left will continue with its sectarian nonsense, and allow civilization end up in the dumpster.

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