As we near the halfway point of the year, I’m looking at my reading list and thinking about what I’d like to learn in 2022. I’d love to read more about worker-led cooperatives.
I want to know…
What industries are most hospitable to these set-ups?
What regulations help or hurt them?
What do they look like at inception and how do they change as they grow?
I’d love to read economic analysis or field-manuals for organizers and entrepreneurs. Previously, I’ve read this case study of day care coops from Capita and James Chappel’s Catholic Modern. That latter is not specifically about coops, but it’s pretty fascinating on trade unions as part of economic justice and the dignity of work.
I’m always interested in how we can build an economy that is more hospitable to women—one that doesn’t treat us all like interchangeable parts. I’d like to specifically explore how coops approach this question.
Where would you suggest I start? Have you worked in a coop or made special efforts to buy from one?
(And, if you don’t have a coop-specific suggestion, feel free to share your own reading requests to see if other commenters have a recommendation)
I'm collecting recommendations in one place; I got linked to this piece by Stephanie Slade of Reason: https://reason.com/2018/10/21/can-laundry-and-lettuce-save-c/
This free online course is a good place to get started: https://courses.institute.coop/p/intro
Here's a great syllabus: https://sites.evergreen.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/248/2015/07/Syllabus-40116.pdf
*Special shoutout: the movie The Rochdale Pioneers
Another syllabus: https://www.thenews.coop/32494/sector/retail/syllabus-umass-economics-cooperative-enterprises/
*Special shoutout: John Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Co-Operatives in the Age of Capital.
Here's a syllabus with an explicit gender angle: https://cleo.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Sobering_2015_Teaching-and-Learning-Guide-for-%E2%80%9CGender-In-equality-in-Worker-owned-Businesses%E2%80%9D.pdf
*Special shoutout: Hacker, Sally, and Clara Elcorobairutia. 1987. “Women Workers in the Mondragon System of Industrial Cooperatives.”
Catalog of worker coops in the US: https://info.usworker.coop/iframe/directory/worker-co-op-dem-workplaces?page=2
Some research that I've done, suggests that coops work best when the work is highly specialized, like Mondragon https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative
The Myth of Mondragon is on my reading list because it takes a critical look at the structure.
Echoing what some other people have said about agriculture, reporters in the Food & Environmental Reporting Network have done several long pieces on cooperative models in agriculture. None of them link to much data; they're mostly journalistic articles, but they show a lot of case studies and might give you ideas for places/communities to research more.
"The Collective Future of American Agriculture" https://thefern.org/2021/12/the-collective-future-of-americas-food-system/
"As the Heat Rises, Farmworkers Band Together" https://thefern.org/2019/03/as-the-heat-rises-farmworkers-band-together/
"How Rural America Got Milked" (looks at how co-op models can fail to help small owners) https://thecounter.org/how-rural-america-got-milked/
A few example orgs, some of which you may know of:
1) The Mondragon Corporation in Spain is kind of the paradigmatic example of worker owned cooperative in the modern economy. Whenever I've read about such movements in the US, Mondragon and the Catholic imagination with which it's associated is often mentioned.
2) Equal Exchange Coffee is a worker cooperative. EE helped pioneer the fair trade coffee movement in the U.S. and it has come to champion a version of the movement that centers worker-owned cooperatives.
3) I believe that Ocean Spray is a worker owned cooperative as is King Arthur Flour co.
Points 2 and 3 lead me to suggest agriculture is an important place to start when thinking about and looking for examples of worker coops.
Yes! I do make a special effort to buy from worker-owned cooperatives (and fair trade companies) and have also done local community organizing with churches and companies to expand the supply of fair trade goods available in our community (again, a certain definition of fair trade incorporates worker ownership). Among other things, we got churches across our city to make a switch in its coffee and other purchasing and lobbied retailers to carry more of these products.
As for the limits on the model, my hunch is that access to capital and (for commodities) access to retail markets are more limiting factors than are regulation (I can't think of any regulations at the moment that inhibit or disfavor cooperatives though I could imagine there could be some). A way to get into the nuts and bolts of economic cooperatives in the U.S. at the moment would be to look at what those in the community development finance space are doing vis a vis cooperatives - look at who these institutions are financing and where. CDFIs (comm dev financial institutions) are a type of financial institution that combine mission-oriented objectives along with traditional financial analysis. Cooperative businesses are often in CDFI's portfolios.
Hope some of this is helpful and additive to your existing research. Would love to read more about where/how these types of businesses can best be created and supported. I support them, likely, for many of the same reasons you do :)
Not on co-ops specifically, but I assume you've read John Paul II's Laborem Exercens? If not, do. He has a lot to say on the dignity of *the worker* as the proper subject of the work, and the implications of all that. Here's an excerpt from section 7:
<quote> For certain supporters of such ideas, work was understood and treated as a sort of "merchandise" that the worker-especially the industrial worker-sells to the employer, who at the same time is the possessor of the capital, that is to say, of all the working tools and means that make production possible. This way of looking at work was widespread especially in the first half of the nineteenth century. Since then, explicit expressions of this sort have almost disappeared, and have given way to more human ways of thinking about work and evaluating it. The interaction between the worker and the tools and means of production has given rise to the development of various forms of capitalism - parallel with various forms of collectivism - into which other socioeconomic elements have entered as a consequence of new concrete circumstances, of the activity of workers' associations and public autorities, and of the emergence of large transnational enterprises. Nevertheless, the danger of treating work as a special kind of "merchandise", or as an impersonal "force" needed for production (the expression "workforce" is in fact in common use) always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism. </quote>
I'm moving to NC soon, a state that is unfriendly to birth rights. I.e., the law excessively restricts midwifery care, e.g. by not allowing nationally licensed CPMs to administer a simple shot of Pitocin to stop a postpartum hemorrhage, which midwives can do in most other states. These restrictions are probably a legacy of institutional racism, since black midwifery persisted even after OBs took over most white birth. NC's oppressive midwifery laws make me anxious that I won't find a community of people there who share and value my experiences of safe and empowering out-of-hospital birth.
To ameliorate that potential lack of birth-friendly community, I've recently been daydreaming of starting a Mothers' Community Center. Part gift shop, part lending library, part pregnancy resource center, part meeting space for birth classes, mom groups, and red tent circles. And I'm wondering if it would be a good candidate for operating as a co-op.
I don't know how much it costs to start or operate such a storefront, or how to run a co-op. I have several years of retail experience and some savings, and that's it. Probably my dream won't happen. But I'm in the process of researching it further.
There's always the All Things Co-op podcast at https://www.democracyatwork.info/atc. I've listened to a few and they seem interesting.
The newsletter curated by Elias Crim (and friends) is fabulous. It’s called Ownership Matters, linked here: https://ownershipmatters.net/.
The outdoor/sporting goods store REI is a co-op, or at least used to be. It might make for a useful case study of failure; according to a worker petition:
"REI has a rich history of being a cooperative that has cared about its employees and authentically values them. Up until about 15 years ago this was true, but in recent years REI's leadership has been adopting the corporate practices similar to other large-scale retailers..."
Gar Aperovitz has written a lot on this sort of thing. His most recent book (that I know of) is What Then Must We Do? --- there seem to be only a few pages directly addressing your question, but I think you'd find the book as a whole interesting, and his endnotes would probably send you in helpful directions, too.
How about Grocery Activism by Craig B. Upright? Haven't read it but because I've purchased from U of MN press before I get their catalogs and that's where I learned about it. My friend who works in a natural foods co-op also read Storefront Revolution by Craig Cox as part of her undergrad program, I remember her talking about it as a formative book for her, but that book is almost 30 years old so it might be a bit dated.
A book that's on my TBR pile: Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy by Nathan Schneider. From the publisher's promo copy: "Everything for Everyone chronicles this [co-op] revolution -- from taxi cooperatives keeping Uber at bay, to an outspoken mayor transforming his city in the Deep South, to a fugitive building a fairer version of Bitcoin, to the rural electric co-op members who are propelling an aging system into the future. As these pioneers show, co-ops are helping us rediscover our capacity for creative, powerful, and fair democracy."
My friend Andrew zitcer has a new book out about this! https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/practicing-cooperation
This may be on a syllabus; I couldn't see all of them, but in case it's not:
International Cooperative Alliance https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/what-is-a-cooperative
Grassroots Economic Organizing - https://geo.coop
and I wonder whether you've already seen this, about socio-economic system of Partnerism grounded in the work of Riane Eisler. https://www.partnerism.org/#intro-page
Not a book but Dr. Richard Wolfe talks about coops all the time on his podcast Economic Update!