The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, brought together worker cooperators, developers, funders, financiers and public figures to discuss the building of a democratic ownership economy. Mark Day discussed the conference with Eddie:
Mark Day: What did you learn in Chicago?
Eddie Gomez: Well, I found out that there are not many worker co-ops in Southern California, or for that matter in the Southwest. There are a few, though, that are well developed. What we need to do is to get organized and reach out to them. We can learn from them. We can imitate what they are doing, and in this way help out our communities.
Day: Why are these co-ops successful, and what are they doing?
Gomez: Well, for one thing, they have been able to raise funds. People don’t know that you can apply for these economic development grants from your local municipalities. There are many ways to access these funds in order to grow a co-op.
Day: There are lots of co-ops in the San Francisco Bay area, aren’t there?
Gomez: Yes, and they all help each other out. There are bakeries and bicycle shops—all kinds of cooperatives. We need that down here in San Diego County.
Day: What other information did you pick up at the conference?
Gomez: I learned that once a co-op gets off the ground, it creates jobs. This helps develop a community economically. It’s hard for some people to get a job. For some a co-op job is a second chance. We can also help busy people, like single mothers who have to take care of their kids, but who can work part time. A co-op enables them to make their own hours.
Day: Do you see Fresh Tamales as a means for helping people get out of poverty here in North County San Diego?
Gomez: Yes, definitely. It’s a means of teaching self-empowerment. Why sit around at home and complain about not having a job when you can do something about it? Just get up, and if you have an idea, give it a try and move forward. Sitting around isn’t going to accomplish very much.
Day: Did they talk very much at the conference about the cooperative being a democratic workplace, with each worker having one vote?
Gomez: Yes, we did. A democratic workplace is definitely a lot better than a non-democratic one. We make our own hours. We have to talk together and come to an agreement on certain things. Right now it’s a lot of hard work, but the fact is that we are breaking even at the early stage of our co-op. That motivates us to move forward. It opens up possibilities.
Day: Where do you want Fresh Tamales to be in the future—say in a year or two from now?
Gomez: Maybe three years from now we can have our own store front. We can have our tamales available on a daily basis. And maybe we can branch out and do real traditional Mexican food from different parts of Mexico. I am from Oaxaca. We have other members from Guanajuato, Chiapas, and other states. A food truck would also be great. Right now we are serving at breweries, but if we had a food truck we could provide many other dishes and recipes.
Day: So you are basically optimistic?
Gomez: Yes, and it helps to belong to organizations like the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops. There are lots of opportunities to communicate with them through the social media. In fact one of their reps is going to visit us soon. And right now we have a new West Coast representative. That’ a step forward.
Day: You had co-op leaders from Europe at the Chicago conference.
Gomez: Yes, there was a wonderful woman from Italy who spoke at the conference. I didn’t realize that co-ops have been around since the 1930s. It impressed me that all the co-op in Italy donate about 10 per cent of their earnings to a retirement fund. They are really helping their community by contributing this money.
Day: So you have decided that you are going to reach out more to the local communities here in north County.
Gomez: Yes. I want people to see that we are trying to help them out—that we can do fundraisers for them. We just reached out to a local high school for a fundraiser. It was very successful. We hope to do more of that.