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Cal Solar becomes first worker cooperative in Nevada County

Cal Solar becomes first worker cooperative in Nevada County

Appearing in The Union Newspaper | November 21, 2019
By
Sam Corey| Staff Writer

 

Back in 2010, the California Solar Electric Company considered transitioning to a worker cooperative.

Nine years later it became a reality.

On Sept. 1 Cal Solar, a business that sells and installs solar panels for residences, businesses and government buildings, officially became a worker cooperative — the only one in Nevada County, according to its worker-owners and Project Equity, a nonprofit that helped the company transition to its new state.

“It shows where we really put our value — and it’s in the worker,” said Cal Solar marketing manager Akim Aginsky.

Former Cal Solar owner turned general manager Lars Ortegren said allowing his staff of 30 to own shares of the company and providing them more democratic control made sense for Cal Solar’s longterm health.

The goal, said Ortegren, was to keep ownership of the company local, transfer wealth to the company’s employees, increase worker investment and improve collective decision making.

“I want to make sure that our legacy is secure as a company,” said Ortegren.

HOW IT WORKS

School boards are the best model to represent how worker cooperative logistics work, said Aginsky.

Once an employee gets hired by Cal Solar, there’s a six-month waiting period before that individual can be nominated for worker-ownership, said Aginsky. Then there’s another six-month period where the employee receives financial literacy training before a vote is taken (75% in favor is required) to allow the employee to become a worker-owner. Ownership is weighted by percent — about 3.3% for most worker-owners, said Aginsky.

Cal Solar’s board, which meets twice a month, is elected by worker-owners and includes two installers, two designers and one technical specialist, said Aginsky.

HOW IT HAPPENED

Transitioning from a more corporate structure to one that is worker-owned takes time. For most companies that’s about 14 months, said co-founder of Project Equity Hilary Abell. The San Francisco-based nonprofit began helping Cal Solar become a worker cooperative in 2015.

Abell said the nonprofit had to walk the company through the cooperative design process, helping the parties establish a sale price, ensuring the former owner and the new cooperative could meet their financial goals through the transition and conducting capacity building and training.

The largest role of worker-owners, said Abell, is electing a good board, adding that larger questions about whether to move the company, change the business or dissolve it entirely goes to a full member (or worker-owner) vote.

“The most fundamental decisions would be made by the membership,” said Abell.

Cal Solar, explained Abell, still maintains much of its original dynamics. It has a management collective that leads with day-to-day operations and an added democratic governance structure.

“In most cooperatives, management is more like the executive branch,” said Abell, while governance — or legislating — is the board’s role.

OVERVIEW

According to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, in 2016 there were an estimated 357 new worker cooperatives across the U.S. They netted a total of about $428 million, according to the Democracy Collaborative nonprofit.

The federation itself has about 4,000 members. In 2017 there were about 10,000 employee-owned businesses, according to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office.

In cities across the United States, worker cooperatives are becoming more mainstream. According to Crain’s Detroit Business publication, policies incentivizing the use of worker-ownership have been adopted in cities like Austin, Texas; Cleveland, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; and New York City.

GOOD FOR NEVADA COUNTY?

Ortegren said he regularly talks with local business owners about transitioning to a worker cooperative — and that about five of them are considering it.

The biggest concern they have: “‘It sounds like it’s a bunch of meetings,’” people tell Ortegren.

But the general manager said there are a number of different ways to design a worker-owned business, some of which only allow for meetings on a twice monthly or monthly basis.

Cal Solar Senior Project Manager Angelica Niblock believes worker cooperatives build resiliency, ensuring that wealth stays local and living-wage quality jobs remain available.

Plus, she said, giving workers ownership can be important in a community with so many owners on the precipice of retirement.

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.