A Snapshot & A Challenge: The Worker Co-op Movement

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By Melissa Hoover

Worker co-ops, community organizing, asset-building, economic development, environmental sustainability. These connections came up again and again at the recent national worker cooperative conference, a co-op conference that was exciting to me in part for the number of people attending who weren't --as yet--in co-ops.

Two years ago, at the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperative's founding conference in Minneapolis, Shirley Grigsby from ACORN stood up at a plenary session and said, in essence: this co-op model is great but what does concrete benefits does it have to offer my community? This past October 13-15, that question echoed louder than ever, with some possible answers beginning to emerge. The Center for Family Life in Brooklyn came to talk about their plan to develop a women's cleaning co-op, and to share information with more established groups like WAGES and Jane Street Housekeeping. The Boston Workers Alliance is forming skills banks and temp worker co-ops, while doing political work to reform laws discriminating against former prisoners; they brought 15 people to the conference. Day-laborers from The Labor Co-op in Providence also attended, as did a representative from the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama. Staff and trainees from the Bronx-based co-op incubator Green Worker Cooperatives showed up in force, and became a resource for other conference attendees interested in their project. And the well-attended conference keynote address by Rick Surpin of Cooperative Home Care Associates of the Bronx, the largest worker co-op in the country, spoke to the question of how to create co-op jobs in a low-wage sector and some of the complications and innovations it entails.

Real and ongoing practical support for worker co-op growth happens most meaningfully at the the local and regional levels, so it was exciting to see representatives from so many of the local and regional groups present and talking with one another at the conference. Groups like the newly-formed Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives in western Massachusetts, FWD-Minnesota, Portland's PAWC and the Bay Area's veteran NoBAWC are already helping with replications, conversions, and technical support in their areas. One key role for the USFWC will be to collect these diverse experiences from regional and local groups, make their lessons available throughout the national worker ownership community, and help them find the resources they need to keep growing more co-ops.

Its clear that there's interest in worker co-ops as a way to create good jobs and, on a broader scale, economic development in communities that have been exploited and abandoned by traditional business models. The challenge that I saw emerging from this conference is for existing worker co-ops and co-op institutions to meet this growing interest and demand with a useful set of tools and resources, both financial and technical. As more organizations, from community groups to national nonprofits, take on developing co-ops, we need to be able to support those efforts with our rich store of knowledge. We need to think critically about the ways the nonprofit structure fundamentally differs from a worker co-op business structure and how to bridge those differences. And we need to plan strategically to help fund and replicate co-op incubators on a grassroots level.

The national federation can play another, two-fold role: connecting our members to sources of financing, and educating funders and lenders about the cooperative business model that we've proven is viable (if idiosyncratic to traditional banks). At the conference, a panel that included co-op funds, foundations, and larger lenders, pointed the way to the money. And several workshops, from the ABCs to Innovative Funding Models for Startups, to Preparing Financial Statements for Lenders, tried to demystify the process of getting funding and using it. Ongoing education--for both cooperators and finance institutions--will be essential to the growth of the worker co-op sector.

Conferences are by nature snapshots of a moment in time. This one revealed a worker co-op community that is more diverse and bigger than we thought, and ready to grow in response to the challenge of increased interest and demand. The real work comes in the daily job of building on the momentum and outreach generated by the conference. If we can find the money, organize the resources, and support the work of local federations, the next national conference will snap a picture that is even brighter, richer, and more developed.

Melissa Hoover is the staff person for the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives. She can be reached by email (see link) or by phone at 415-379-9201.