Mickey Metts is a Drupal hacker, activist and industry organizer. She is a member of AGARIC, a worker-owned cooperative of web developers that builds platforms and applications using free software.
Janelle Orsi is a lawyer, advocate, writer and cartoonist focused on cooperatives, the sharing economy and community supported enterprises. She is co-founder and Executive Director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which facilitates the growth of more sustainable and localized economies through education, research and advocacy.
Pam Brown: Thank you for coming on the show today. Mickey, I want to start with you. Can you describe AGARIC? It's a worker-owned cooperative of developers. What is that, and why did you start it?
Micky Metts: AGARIC was started by one of my partners back in 2006 as a way to do cooperative development, to have a way to create surplus, to be able to use that surplus to build tools for people, to cooperate and build the things that they could start companies on without the use of huge investment with some community of support.
You're saying that the software itself that you're using also allows more access to different companies?
We build stuff with free software. We also work with the Free Software Foundation, which is in Boston. To use free software means it's not free as in beer, it's free as in liberty. It protects your privacy, your liberty. You are free to share the code, change the code, modify it, sell it, distribute it, whatever. You have full access to the source code of whatever your business is running on.
Pam Brown: Janelle, you started something called, The Sustainable Economies Law Center. What motivated you to start that. What is it exactly?
Janelle Orsi: Sustainable Economies Laws Center, our mission is to help communities create their own sources of land, food, housing, jobs, energy and other basic necessities, which lately has been including software realizing that so much in our lives now depend on software. My focus as a lawyer for the last 8 years has been helping people share, helping communities come together, harness the resources they have and share them. As I started to do that, I realized that there are so many legal barriers. One of the biggest barriers is just lawyers aren't there to help people do that. A lot of lawyers are focused on helping people earn lots of money through big companies. Getting the legal help you need, that's one barrier.Another barrier is just that there are actually a lot of laws that keep people from coming together and sharing resources because these laws are designed to protect people from each other. Sustainable Economies Law Center, we do policy advocacy to change those laws, we do legal education, we provide direct legal services, we do a lot of legal research. Basically, we create a new legal landscape where people can co-own the resources they need.
Pam Brown: Can you give us just one example. What's an example of the law that prevents people from being able to share?
Janelle Orsi: I always like to use the example of food cooperatives. I know, here in New York, there's a big food cooperative called Park Slope. Elsewhere in the country people have started to form cooperatives, say 400 people come together. They're using someone's garage to bring in a bunch of food and, basically, share it with each other and get food at lower cost.
They could be violating health and safety laws because you can't use a garage for something like that. They could be violating employment laws, if they'll all agree they're each going to volunteer three hours a month, because we have employment laws to prevent people from giving away their labor. If they put in their money to help start it, they could be violating securities laws, which are designed to protect them from losing their money in investment schemes. They could be violating zoning laws. That's four examples for one cooperative.
Pam Brown: What kinds of laws would we really need if we wanted to foster more of a sharing kind of an economy where people are able to come together to share ways to get food in their community, share ways to be healthy in their community, whatever it might be.
Janelle Orsi: I think there's a lot that governments can do to lower barriers, create incentives to these kinds of activities. An example of a worker cooperative, if you go to a small business development center and say, you want to form a worker cooperative. Usually, even if they're government funded, they don't have that kind of knowledge around cooperatives. Even in cooperatives, there are legal concepts that we have around for a very long time. They grew especially during the Depression. There are a lot of coops out there, but there's just not a lot of encouragement to form them. It's very difficult to get financing for them because you're not going to venture capitalists and asking them to get financing. I think that's a huge role that the government can play, creating financing opportunities.
Overall, because cooperatives keep wealth local, for example, a city like New York really benefits from having worker cooperative and from those cooperatives keeping the wealth local. New York, for example, has been doing this, by the way, prioritize cooperative development and put funding toward it to, sort of, grease the wheel of that movement.
Pam Brown: We saw Occupy Wall Street here in New York, was a deep critique of inequality. We see Black Lives Matter happening. I'm just curious, how in these concepts of cooperatives ... Is it thought of or, maybe, it's a debate that's happening. How are people understanding the ways in which cooperatives and keeping wealth local could foster and continue to contribute to some of those problems as well as break them down.
Janelle Orsi: That's a very good question. I'm glad you asked it because for a while, that idea of keeping wealth local didn't speak to me because I thought people need wealth elsewhere as well. Then I realized that it's not so much that the money is leaving our communities and going elsewhere. It's almost always going to people who already have money because the structure of most businesses is such that the people who put in the capital are the ones who get the profits. Cooperatives basically switched that around and distribute the profits back to the people who are participating. Rather than creating a structure where money buys profits and money buys power, cooperatives are structures where people hold the power and people hold the profits.That can actually change the flow of wealth in society because we have such incredible wealth inequality right now, and it's getting worse. It basically tells us we need to change the rules of this whole game and turn things around and bring that wealth backwards, back to us. I think that's what cooperatives do.
Pam Brown: Mickey, in your experience working day to day on the ground in your cooperative, do you feel that, as a worker working within that structure, do you do more work? Do you do less work? How does work change for you being an owner, being a co-owner of a business and also, by the way, being a part of a larger network as well?
Micky Metts: That's the wonderful thing about it. I don't work. I don't do a lick of work. I do what I love to do. I've never separated my life from my work. When I was working for a large corporations and in a cube, yes. I had to separate my life from my work, but I found that you really don't need to do that. It's kind of a dangerous thing to do when you're not invested in what you're doing during your waking hours. I've seen it devastate people emotionally, financially and they're taking themselves out of their family all the time. I'm able to work when I wish to work or work on what I wish to work on. I feel it's a cooperative effort because the other people in AGARIC are always there to help me.
When I worked in a cube, if I came across an issue I would have to, "Oh, I better go to my boss or figure this out or I better go home." Now, if I run up against a challenge, I have a whole network of people to just say, "Help me with this." People will put down what they're doing, help right then. It's more of a family-oriented work structure, I guess. If someone else is not doing well, that's going to affect me. Obviously, I do want to help them.
Pam Brown: Janelle, we have just a few minutes left. I'm curious. This is such an interesting comment that Micky is making. She's saying that she feels so much better about her work. She's doing it a lot of the time. Part of the workers' struggles over the last century and a half were to reduce hours, to compartmentalize work. In thinking about a new economy, a new more sustainable future for all of us, do you think institutions would play a role and legal change would play a role?
Janelle Orsi: Wow, big question. I think, so long as we're operating within this very conventional legal framework, we need to continue to pass laws that give workers more rights and give workers more pay. At the same time that we're doing everything possible to get out of that exploitative structure, conventional businesses just have an incentive to squeeze as much out of workers as they possibly can. When workers have control of their day and they own the means of production, they can make a lot of choices about what their work life is like, what they're doing, what their career path is and what the path of their business is. I think, that alone will bring a lot of change.
Micky Metts: I don't consider it work. I consider it creating value. I'm not creating work, piles of work. I'm creating piles of value
Pam Brown: Micky, Janelle, thank you so much for joining us.
Micky Metts: Thank you.
Janelle Orsi: Thank you.