A song by Ian Mykel called, Canción Para Casa Nueva (or song for Casa Nueva) was released Nov. 30, 2022. Casa Nueva was a cooperative restaurant where I worked through college. The business is still there, although in a different form now. The food is loosely based on Mexican-style; tortillas and tacos, homemade salsas, and cheese. Lots of cheese. 

I’m an idealist, feeling a great affinity for Labor oriented singer-songwriters in particular. When I made it through the hiring process and became a worker-owner, felt a sense of pride. I felt like I had a duty to do my part to help the cooperative thrive. The ideals of equality and a shared sentiment of everyone helping each other is inspiring to me.

According to the bylaws it was a full cooperative, meaning to get a pay check you had to have joined, or be joining as a full member. 100% Worker-Owned. The bylaws also stated decisions were to be made completely by consensus, meaning everyone had to completely agree on all decisions. Consensus is great at 10-20 members, and such a process unifies the group. It becomes a little more tricky to do when there are 30-45 members. 

The bylaws stated another important element. The cooperative aspect of the business would have to be considered at the same level as the business side, that the cooperative aspects of the business must be given the same credence as the business aspects, not one over the other. To me the idea is very much like putting love on the same level as money.

Love & Money

On one side is love. The cooperative. A collective of people working together to share wins and losses in a mutualized fashion. In a cooperative, communicating is most important as this is what builds a collective of people; open communication, identifying Power Plays, building consensus through conversations and social connections as a way to strengthen each other.

On the other side is money. That is the intention to run the business for the purpose of making profits. I’m pretty sure that clause was added to the bylaws because the founders understood and were afraid that the desire to make money would eventually crush the requirement for a social cooperative. The desire to make money will never be satisfied in the hearts of fools.

What’s a Cooperative Like?

First I’ll say it was a fantastic and rewarding experience, until the end. I held deep passion for the mission of Casa Nueva. I dedicated many many hours (on top of school requirements), serving in every role, including serving as a member the board of directors in multiple positions. This passion is what inspired the song Canción Para Casa Nueva.

There are two ways to look at being a member of a cooperative. One common mistake people make is thinking, ‘because there is no boss so no one can tell me what to do.’ This is an error. People making this mistake often resign early. Instead, a cooperative is more akin to having many bosses, and everyone’s input and ideas should be taken seriously. We had training and did work on open communication, and understood and learned how to identify Power Plays in ourselves and in others.

As a collective we were like family. We supported each other, cried and laughed together. We often spent time together outside of work in our own groups, or at large gatherings. Idiomatic behaviors and mistakes were tolerated and used to unite us in our similarities. We accepted our differences, recognizing that life is a struggle and we are better at it together. I told my co-workers, “Blood is thicker than water, but cheese is thicker than blood”, by which I meant, the bonds I felt for my fellow workers was stronger than what I felt for some members of my own family. We were that close. That’s what I mean by love. IT felt like being part of a community.

What Happened?

Desire for profits grew among managers. Growth projections took over our meetings. We began to expand into other spaces, taking over shops next to us. First we expanded dining. Then we added a bar. We started selling merchandise and tried to move product of local suppliers. Instead of creating and supporting multiple cooperatives (truly the ideal), a sense of greed took over. Unfortunately, with these expansions came a growth in membership to fill need positions.

Our numbers swelled until it became impractical to have meetings with full consensus. You can’t give 60 people each a full minute to share their opinions on every single topic. Full meetings became 12 hour affairs. The cooperative principle of consensus began to inhibit the ability to act as a cooperative. It also began to inhibit what some wanted, which was to make profit. Some people began looking at ‘problematic’ members for removal, finding where some tripped up. The sense of supporting each other as a family had vanished.

Fractures in the Social

Getting fired at the cooperative was very difficult, as it required full consensus. It took strong evidence, and required the entire group to essentially exile a member who refused to resign. It is far easier to help people grow and learn than to kick them out, both emotionally and financially. Still, the profit driven element at the cooperative began to turn people against each other. People got fired. I’m know some wanted to fire me as well, as I was trying to stop their takeover. I was pointing at the bylaws, pointing out the crazy drive for profit and growth, how it was hurting us. So yeah, I became the target of some of my “New Home” family members.

I watched as the group, lead by these greedy people in power, began to turn on members. It was a frightening observation of how a close group could turn on one of their own. Something wrong had taken over the cooperative. I could see what was happening, but my young attempts at warning others held little sway. I was tormented until I came to realize I alone was obstructing the group.

The End of an Era

In the spirit of consensus and unanimity I realized I was stopping the cooperative principle by trying to save the cooperative. It was me, alone, preventing consensus. I was forced into a strange and unfair position. In order to protect the concept and importance of the cooperative ideal I had to let this cooperative die. So I resigned. Then I wrote, Canción Para Casa Nueva.

It didn’t take long for the cooperative to end. Now they claim 51% of workers have to be members. My understanding is that the actual numbers of membership are nowhere near that percentage. For some that still counts as a cooperative. To me it smacks of a few members making profit off non-owner workers. Green washed Capitalism. Just some remnants of a beautiful cooperative, killed by greedy and short sighted people.

Lessons Learned

What could have been done different? I have identified three things that could have been different. First, the cooperative aspect should have been given a higher priority in the bylaws. Having the social aspect be treated as an equal to greed led to the demise of the social. That’s how money works in our world. Greed will never cease to destroy the social contructs. You have to curb it at every opportunity.

Second, expansions should have been undertaken by creating new cooperatives, spin offs. Cooperatives work best when working with, building and supporting more cooperative businesses. The goal is that the more there are the better life is for everyone. The whole principle is to create communities that thrive together in a sustainable nature. The idea of growth and expansion runs counter to community. It is not sustainable. Growth destroys communities. The desire by a few to have money at the expense of others by definition destroys the ability to have a community, something required by all. This is outcome is true at both the micro level and at the macro level.

Third , despite an awareness of the need for rotation of positions, a lack of rotation in job positions at the managerial level created a power dynamic that was extremely harmful. Managers created personalized systems where they became the only knowledge base. It became difficult to transfer responsibilities to other members. Also, people in power, specifically with financial control, spent much of their time off site, isolated from the social elements of the cooperative. While they were securing their positions with an unbalanced weight to their opinions, isolated managers lost track of the rewards of being part of the group. They may have stopped feeling the sense of family and connections, driving them further away from love, and faster toward greed.

Personal Lessons?

I learned that it’s OK to step backwards. It is OK to take time to regroup. I learned that people who are greedy should be the one’s who are fired. Too many budget meetings were spent talking about profits. There would have been great value to having years focused on strengthening the cooperative, instead of on growth predictions. I still have faith in what a cooperative can mean for people. I think cooperatives will have an important role in the future of humanity, that is, if it’s not too late to save the planet from climate change.

Let Me Guess, You Wrote A Song

Yes. When I finally left I wrote a song that I now call, ‘Canción Para Casa Nueva’.  I redid the song years later, and just now I have redone the vocals for a needed improvement in sound quality. I kept the previously recorded instruments; drum, bass, guitar.

The song doesn’t address the problems of putting love and money on the same level. Instead it’s about the group turning on someone and removing them. Banishment. Exile from the social is a very painful thing for anyone to go through.