Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?

Might co-ops help to correct Rupert Murdoch’s delusional prediction and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

Might co-ops end the reign of press barons like Rupert Murdoch and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

It began as a lament about the disposal of a mountain of spring weeds, the conversation that got us thinking about the new Vatican leader’s inaugural promise to ‘embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest,’ and his wish expressed elsewhere to see ‘a church that is poor and for the poor.’ He sounds remarkably like someone on an Occupy soapbox. But unlike members of that well-meaning but chaotic movement, he has a massive organisation behind him to help point followers in the right direction.

We have been astounded by the evidence search engines supply of wide interest in a Christian spiritual figure among so many typically secular intellectual institutions – The New Yorker, for instance — and stretching as far as blogs like one called Non-Prophet Status declaring, ‘Why this atheist is (tentatively) optimistic about Pope Francis’. Soon, he could win a popularity contest with the Dalai Lama, among non-believers.

There was even a surprise for us close to home. Though there have been no Catholics among our blood relations for three generations, one scrupulously apolitical member of our family about the same age as the pontiff, and paying close attention, insisted last week that the papal mission was doomed. ‘Because,’ he explained, ‘most of the world is poor and always will be. As he won’t be able to make any difference to the impoverished far outnumbering everyone else, why choose certain failure?’

While we considered that opinion, a question occurred to us: what single lever could Pope Francis choose to concentrate on, to prove the pessimists wrong? What might be his equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet?

Unexpectedly, an answer suggested itself not long after we heard from a grizzled, kindly Greenlander living on the edge of San Francisco about his reason for being incensed by an argument with his local garbage collector. This rubbish-disposal engineer, on his weekly round, had haughtily spurned, then left behind, several giant plastic bags into which the Greenlander’s neighbours had taken pains to squeeze a towering weed-pile. No bags, he said. Nothing but greenery.

When the Greenlander appealed for mercy — an exception made for neighbours who were still newcomers, the haul-away man said it was time that they learnt the rules.  No, the Greenlander said later, shaking his head, the smelliness of the work did not excuse the man’s unfeeling intransigence. ‘Don’t you know how much money these garbage guys make? A fortune!’

The next person to enter the conversation filled in some fascinating details. He said that the average income of a rubbish collector working for Recology, the dominant garbage company in the region, is $80,000 – or roughly twice the salary of the average American schoolteacher or policeman. Though we have not, so far, been able to check the precise accuracy of that number, we suspect that it is correct, or nearly so, because it was part of a case handled by our informant, a lawyer with a good memory.

We thought this salary fair, and said as much. Imagine the stench for mile after mile, working on a trash-collecting truck in summer heat! But then came a bigger – and even more welcome – shock. Recology is entirely employee-owned. Historically, its workers had ancestry in common with Pope Francis. This cooperative’s website says :

Our company’s roots have always been in recycling and employee ownership.


The original Bay Area garbage men, or “scavengers”, came to San Francisco from Italy in the late 19th century. At that time, scavenging in San Francisco was a disorderly and inefficient business. Hundreds of independent collectors competed for business. The 1906 earthquake and fire temporarily improved business, but did little to bring order to the chaos of garbage collection.

The website boasts that Recology has an outstanding record for innovation, and one item on the list it offers as proof suggests a startling interest in the radical 1960s Arte Povera (art from poverty) movement in Italy:

The world-renowned Artist in Residence Program in 1990 allowing local artists to find materials in our processing facilities to create art.

… Anyway, we were, as we said, reminded by this chat of Pope Francis committing himself to helping not merely the indigent but ‘the weakest, the least important, …’. Could there be a better salve for the lowly status of garbage-collecting than a bank balance honestly earned through joint ownership?

Post-Gutenberg began as a spinoff of a paper setting out a detailed proposal for saving journalism from the machinations of press barons like Rupert Murdoch through a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ – owned by workers and customers.

Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, a member of the religious order famous, for centuries, for being frighteningly intelligent, would know about the remarkable success of huge cooperatives in, for instance, Switzerland. He would certainly stand a far better chance of pushing a new cooperative movement than any blink-and-you-miss-it blog like ours, or any of the pundits making the case for employee ownership on newspaper sites often, but to little avail – so far.

9 thoughts on “Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?

  1. Interesting idea! But what could the pope do? Provide funds to build those cooperative businesses?

  2. Nice to see you again, 5th … Pulpit power is what we have in mind. With the whole world watching him,could he, at the very least, draw attention to the difference co-ops might make to the lot of the most unfortunate workers? … And as you suggest, perhaps he might arrange for the Vatican to play venture capitalist, to get things started? … From Sunday’s New York Times, here is the Rockefeller Foundation helping a brilliant union started by Sara Horowitz to assist independent freelance workers — a vulnerable bunch if ever there was one:

  3. G.P.S. EARTH: 27°59’17” N Lat. & 86°55’31” E Long. (aka somewhere b/w Utopia & Dystopia.) Cheryll, your relative (whom I suspect is also mine) spouts common-garden cynicism: it’s not possible to rescue everyone from destitution. Yes, we know this. Thanks. Lives are spent hobbling through the morass, inching towards terra firma. Not a Christian. But mother of one…

  4. Ah yes, Soul Sister, … (guessing madly!) … He’s just a worried, well-meaning pragmatist. … Nothing gets the little wheels turning like hopeless pessimism — especially my own. … I do love your image of the morass. … Inching off, now, … thank you.

  5. One could argue that the Vatican is employee-owned too. However, to your point, PG, does the Vatican not need the poor to remain poor? In other words, would the organized church be willing to promote its main constituency to wealth and prosperity? Matthew 19:24 “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” I agree with you about the rubbish disposal engineer salaries. Cleaning up our stinky refuse is a very hard job. But the Greenlander and his neighbors should be composting those weeds, imho.

  6. Aine, I’m not sure I’d agree, here. At least some shared decision-making would be essential for me to consider it a species of employee-owned institution. Isn’t the Vatican an autocracy?

    About a compost pile. Yes, that would indeed be ideal. But the neighbourhood has more renters than owners, I think, and I am guessing that it’s rare for people not planning to stay for long to get that deep into their gardens and yards. … You are lucky, if you have a composting project — not just admirable.

    On the Vatican, how do you mean, ‘remain poor’? Do you know about this scandal — or the numbers:

    Founded in 1942 and housed in a small round tower at the foot of the Apostolic Palace, the Vatican bank generally does not give loans but manages deposits and patrimony for religious institutions, clerics and diplomats accredited to the Vatican, who are among the only depositors allowed to hold accounts there.

    […L]argely because of the Vatican’s reluctance to reveal its account holders to outside authorities — and especially to subject itself to scrutiny of past transactions — suspicion has swirled for years about whether some of its accounts had ties to organized crime or Italian political slush funds.

    In 2011, the only time for which figures have been made available, it had 20,772 clients, 68 percent of them members of the clergy, and $8.2 billion in assets under its management. The bank has said it has around 33,000 accounts.

  7. 5th, as you like the suggestion in this post that a specially dear friend — since p-G was nine or ten — thinks perfectly mad, I thought you’d enjoy seeing what comes up in Google as the first and third results for the terms, ‘pope francis cooperatives’:

    Pope Francis – Co-operative News…/pope-francis-his-fight-against-social-injustice-…Mar 19, 2013 – Latin America’s first Pope is a strong supporter of co-operatives, who helped the Argentina movement fight against corruption, human trafficking …

    Scavenger is Pope’s special Vatican guest | Inquirer News › Latest News Stories › World4 days ago – Sergio Sanchez stood behind Pope Francis at his Vatican inauguration … of a 3,000-member garbage scavenger cooperative in the capital.

    … Didn’t know any of this until a few minutes ago.

  8. p-G: Interesting, and quite a coincidence that a scavenger happened to be a special guest at the inauguration ceremony! So the pope already seems to believe in the power of co-operatives — let’s hope he shows it while he’s able to set change in motion.

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