Are Co-ops the Answer?

Around the world, people are democratizing the workplace.

Rebecca Burns

Ohio Cooperative Solar members on top of the former HealthSpace building on the Cleveland Clinic campus. (Photo courtesy of Janet Century)

Long before the Occu­py move­ment sparked renewed protest of ris­ing inequal­i­ty, anoth­er glob­al move­ment was qui­et­ly engaged in build­ing a more demo­c­ra­t­ic econ­o­my. From cof­fee grow­ers in Kenya seek­ing a fair mar­ket price to work­er-owned green busi­ness­es reviv­ing the Amer­i­can Rust Belt, coop­er­a­tives are help­ing to spur a rein­ven­tion of work in a peri­od of world­wide recession.

Governmental support for co-ops is based on the principle that they can create employment as part of a mixed economy, most often in sectors where capital has retreated.

Glob­al­ly, an esti­mat­ed 1 bil­lion peo­ple are mem­bers of coop­er­a­tives, and many believe that the scope of work­er- and mem­ber-owned enter­pris­es across the world rep­re­sents a rev­o­lu­tion already in the mak­ing. With com­bined earn­ings rival­ing Canada’s GDP, co-ops could be the fastest-grow­ing busi­ness mod­el by the end of the decade. To pro­mote aware­ness of their poten­tial, the Unit­ed Nations has declared 2012 the Inter­na­tion­al Year of Coop­er­a­tives.” Coop­er­a­tive orga­niz­ers, though they have gen­er­al­ly worked on a sep­a­rate track from protest move­ments, have called on Occu­py and oth­er mass move­ments to help build an econ­o­my worth occupying.”

It was real­ly serendip­i­tous that the Year of Coop­er­a­tives’ hap­pened at the same time as the Occu­py move­ment,” says Cheyen­na Weber of Sol­i­dar­i­tyNYC, a group that links social move­ments with sol­i­dar­i­ty econ­o­my” ini­tia­tives. There’s so much atten­tion to this because peo­ple are inti­mate­ly aware that the eco­nom­ic cri­sis is not going away on its own … they’re start­ing to get seri­ous about doing it themselves.”

But do the swelling num­bers of coop­er­a­tive busi­ness­es con­sti­tute a force capa­ble of trans­form­ing the broad­er econ­o­my? Gov­ern­men­tal sup­port for co-ops, though increas­ing at the behest of the U.N., is based on the prin­ci­ple that co-ops can cre­ate employ­ment as part of a mixed econ­o­my, most often in sec­tors where cap­i­tal has already retreat­ed. And though most co-ops fol­low a set of sev­en prin­ci­ples – among them open mem­ber­ship, auton­o­my and con­cern for com­mu­ni­ty – there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in how direct­ly mem­bers or work­ers par­tic­i­pate in deci­sion-mak­ing and how explic­it­ly they engage with broad­er eco­nom­ic jus­tice movements.

More­over, because growth-ori­ent­ed coop­er­a­tives must con­tin­ue to com­pete in a cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket (though the Ever­green coop­er­a­tives in Cleve­land have been able to make use of a qua­si-pub­lic mar­ket that draws on the pur­chas­ing pow­er of local hos­pi­tals and uni­ver­si­ties), con­tra­dic­tions often emerge between the enterprise’s busi­ness prac­tices and the val­ues it espous­es. While the Mon­drag­on coop­er­a­tives in Spain’s Basque region – often con­sid­ered the most suc­cess­ful exam­ple of work­er-owned enter­prise – have been hailed for their col­lab­o­ra­tive han­dling of eco­nom­ic down­turn, pro­tect­ing jobs at home has neces­si­tat­ed an expan­sion of their oper­a­tions over­seas. Today, the group has more sub­sidiaries abroad than actu­al coop­er­a­tives, and uses a two-tier sys­tem of mem­ber­ship in which non­mem­bers are not eli­gi­ble to vote or share in oth­er ben­e­fits enjoyed by mem­bers. In Jan­u­ary 2011, one of Mondragon’s appli­ance fac­to­ries in Poland became the tar­get of a go-slow strike from work­ers fight­ing stag­nant wages and the use of tem­po­rary workers.

Else­where in the world, work­er-owned enter­pris­es have also strug­gled with iden­ti­ty crises: Argentina’s famous occu­pied fac­to­ry move­ment has suf­fered divi­sions between those fac­to­ries that seek legal recog­ni­tion from the state and via­bil­i­ty with­in a mar­ket econ­o­my and those that have main­tained an anti-cap­i­tal­ist stance and attempt to fur­ther the spread of occupations.

Though coop­er­a­tives rep­re­sent a promis­ing means of build­ing new eco­nom­ic mod­els, many activists are quick to point out that the old ones aren’t going to dis­ap­pear with­out a fight. For this rea­son, Weber says, her group’s ear­ly efforts to engage with Occu­py Wall Street (OWS) were some­times marked by dis­trust. Cer­tain peo­ple are real­ly attached to the idea that coop­er­a­tives aren’t rad­i­cal enough,” she says. But there’s a ten­sion: You have to build some­thing, and you also have to cre­ate space for it to be built. We’re look­ing for a way to push our vision as far as we can with­in exist­ing eco­nom­ic models.”

With­in OWS, New York activists have start­ed two co-ops – a screen-print­ing guild and Occu­Copy,” which pro­vides print­ing and designs for pro­gres­sive groups – and are in the process of start­ing two more.

But beyond activists start­ing their own co-ops, the mod­el holds poten­tial because the num­ber of indi­vid­u­als involved in work­places that are par­tial­ly or ful­ly employ­ee-owned now great­ly exceeds mem­ber­ship in pri­vate sec­tor unions. Giv­en this fact, Gar Alper­ovitz, author of Amer­i­ca Beyond Cap­i­tal­ism, notes that activists could also play a greater role in orga­niz­ing with­in exist­ing coop­er­a­tives and sup­port­ing work­ers’ efforts to become own­ers. After win­ning a reprieve of their plant’s clos­ing with sup­port from local labor groups and Occu­py Chica­go in Feb­ru­ary, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal work­ers who famous­ly occu­pied the Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors plant in 2008 are now con­sid­er­ing pur­chas­ing the plant and run­ning it as a work­er co-op. And in March, the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers and Mon­drag­on announced details of a plan to devel­op man­u­fac­tur­ing coop­er­a­tives using a union co-op mod­el.” Both devel­op­ments rep­re­sent promis­ing mod­els of how tra­di­tion­al pro­gres­sive insti­tu­tions can fos­ter ini­tia­tives for demo­c­ra­t­ic ownership.

Any seri­ous polit­i­cal move­ment has his­tor­i­cal­ly walked on two legs,” says Alper­ovitz. It had to involve protests, elec­tions and demon­stra­tions … [and]building a new direc­tion insti­tu­tion­al­ly… . We’ve got to do both.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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