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A business that serves workers will become a business owned by workers

The people who peer into computers on the third floor of the Mottman Building in downtown Olympia are about to embark on a new stage in their working lives. Working Systems started out as an idea to offer tech services during the slack season at Cascadia Research, morphed into an S Corporation providing programming services to nonprofits and unions for the next 25 years, and today is in the process of converting to a worker owned cooperative.

Distinct from the start

The business was unique from its beginning in the 80s when computers were new and little understood. The owners were unique as well. Neither Steven Kant nor Jim Cubbage was principally motivated by money. Neither had gone to school for technology. Jim was a biology major doing marine mammal research at Cascadia Research Collective. Steven worked with computers as an intern at NASA, and later became involved with food co-ops, taught at an alternative high school, supported Nicaragua construction brigades, naturally fiddled with computers and came up with software to keep track of funds and other things.

Steven was running the math center and teaching classes at the Evergreen State College when its staff unionized. He became organizing chair at Local 443 of the Washington Federation of State Employees and in that role honed his computer skills in combat with some bulky old computers. He brought those skills to Evergreen’s Labor Center just as local unions were wondering whether this new technology could help them keep track of membership.

“You have to make your own stuff”

The next stop was Cascadia Research Collective where Steven and Jim shared space and began helping groups to acquire and set up computers and networks in the days before the internet. Both kept on with part-time work, which meant they had a freer hand in developing this new area. The fact that they were their own bosses meant it was easy when they decided to leave hardware and focus on creating custom software for their clients. “The dream was to make things we could sell at a really low price to small locals so they could have really good programs,” Steven said in a recent interview.

Success in serving unions and workers

“Working Systems” was born as a way to pursue this dream. Working Systems was structured as a corporation by default—the newly minted owners hadn’t found others interested in taking on the risk and responsibility of such an untried venture. It turned out that many unions needed this kind of support and Working Systems’ client base grew steadily. Starting small with the Washington Public Employees Association, the State Labor Council, Sign Painters, United Way of Centralia and other area nonprofits, they quickly needed more employees. And like the founders, these new people didn’t come from formal IT courses—they too developed programming skills in their own idiosyncratic ways.

But the group still had to make ends meet. They needed to find ways to make versions of their software that could work nationally. Early on, they connected with a California company called Union-Friendly Systems (UFSI), and contracted to modernize a software package called MUMS that UFSI had created for the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Another key achievement came with a contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to supply the union’s 400 locals across the US with a program to manage their member services.

A worker-centered workplace

The business continued to add products—a whole slate of software programs managing services and membership, creation of websites and training and reporting. Sometimes their programming task can be especially satisfying, as when they added a drop-down menu with choices including “non-binary” to replace the old field that assumed everyone was male. Other times, when there’s a critical strike action, they take pleasure in knowing that their software is helping.

Compared to a lot of businesses, Working Systems has an absence of hierarchy. Pay is hourly and the range from top to bottom of the (transparent) pay scale is small. Neither Steven nor Jim is at the top. Benefits are equivalent across the board. As befits an organization that believes in the value of organized labor, everyone is a union member (the CWA). The owners are also members, but not part of the bargaining unit. Because of the distorted way health insurance is offered and premiums are calculated in the US, Working Systems like other small businesses faced increasing difficulty this year in providing reasonable coverage for everyone. As with other issues in this workplace, the decision as to how to proceed came from members of the bargaining unit.

Staying connected to the outcome of your work

Programming is an isolating kind of work that requires a lot of “me and the computer” time to produce outcomes. At the same time, everyone at this shop moves from the screen to the help desk, which means they get to interact with people, solving problems and making lives better. Scott Breidenbach (who’s working on the co-op transition) said a visit to a union office can be an eye-opener when you see a staffer struggling with the software; you get to say, “we can fix that!” and then do it. Two people do phone support full time, but everyone rotates through the desk dedicated for the IBEW locals. The “management” structure that emerged over time was for smaller groups to meet around their specific tasks (web-based programmers don’t overlap much with desk-top programmers), and then a big meeting with reps from the small groups.

The financial is personal

At times in the past, the idea of forming a cooperative, or handing off the business arose. Those discussions didn’t produce anyone anxious to take on the risks and responsibilities covered by Steven and Jim. Even as a going concern, any business might lose money from one year to the next. As Steven pointed out, “We have to have a line of credit—at any given time we have $200,000 out in accounts receivable, and banks aren’t interested in operations like ours.” The crucial exception is a local bank like Heritage, where money becomes available when officers and customers get to know each other. But known or not, the bank wants a personal financial statement and an individual signature on the line. When there was money at the end of the year, it went to improve the business not the owners’ bank account balance.

Programming for the future

Last fall, the discussion of handing off the business turned serious as the founders decided they were ready to retire. With the help of the NW Cooperative Development Center, the employees of Working Systems opted to move ahead with a workers’ cooperative. No one wanted to give up this workplace that offered so many satisfactions, and served so many people. Scott Breidenbach is part of the Board that has been formed. In talking about the coming reorganization, Scott reflected on the fact that the group will be taking advantage of the opportunity to develop changes that can move the business to the next level. A million union members using Working System’s products, in 25 different labor unions covering over 750 locals, could be joined by a million more in the coming years.

Bethany Weidner functions as the utility outfielder at Works in Progress.

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