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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Co-ops in the Time of Corona

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March 26, 2020
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[Editor's note: John prefaced this entry on his blog with a "special message" that reads, in part:

I really want you to comment. I want to hear about what your co-ops and your community [are] doing to support each other right now. Perhaps we can make this a record of this historic time (perhaps GEO will coordinate the stories in an anthology).

We think that's a fine idea, and we encourage readers to let us know about mutual aid projects you're involved with in the comments section below, or by sending an email to]


cross-posted from The Workers' Paradise

As the Corona Pandemic continues to build steam, worker co-ops are at a crossroad.

Like other small business owners, worker-owned businesses don’t necessarily have a deep supply of money to weather this storm. While worker co-ops can prioritize the health and well being of the membership (share hours, across-the-board pay-cuts, etc.), a bottom exists. At some point the the fixed costs have to be paid (the rent, the mortgage, utilities, taxes). As governments require people to shelter in place, no plan is presented to protect any small business let alone our worker co-ops.

We need to save each other. We need to fight for all of us.

At some point, the government will have to intervene and provide support, but how do our co-ops survive until the politicians of this age finally recognize that the neo-liberal model of trickle-down economics simply doesn’t work in a global economic and health crisis. Tax cuts are meaningless if there isn’t any income to tax.

In Olympia, the local co-op network, CoSound, has convened a meeting of co-ops in the region to figure this out. It meets later today to begin a process of working together stay strong (or at least viable) during this crisis. Ultimately, co-ops need to manage their fixed costs and hope unemployment insurance can keep the membership together. Combining this with group purchasing (which is how consumer co-ops started out in the 70s) and political action to force elected officials to do more than simply shut down the ability to earn a living. We must demand that the supply side also supports workers ability to survive during the crisis. I expect that local co-op networks across the country will be doing likewise.

What does this mean? I am sure that everyone has a favorite tactic. Seattle is currently providing $800 for families to buy groceries. There are a number of ways to go, but we need to make sure that we support each other and work together to demand that our elected officials recognize that there is no “safe” path forward. They need to make the hard decisions to keep our communities solvent even if that means losing the next election. We also need to reach out to the larger labor movement and work with them to protect all workers. Today, more than at any point in my lifetime, the need for class solidarity means survival.

A nice thing about the time-off is that it provides the means to organize, agitate, and lobby. Even if we can’t rally in front of their offices, we can make sure that they hear us. I don’t have a good rallying cry, but we must argue that our communities remain intact.

Assuming that our movement survives, we need to plan for the next crisis. The US Federation of Worker Co-ops has done a good job getting in front of the wave and helping us to navigate resources. We need more. We need a Solidarity Fund. This could follow Mondragon’s model: 10% of surplus before disbursement form every worker co-op to be held by the Federation. It could be distributed on either an at-need basis or in a national crisis through grants or low-interest non-extractive lending with the aim of covering fixed costs through the crisis.

This is a crucial moment for our movement. We could easily lose the majority of our co-ops but we can also fight hard to make sure that we keep as many as possible. It is ultimately up to us.


Header image by Drug Addiction Clinic Vita. CC BY-SA 4.0

John McNamara is a Cooperative Development Specialist with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center. He was a member-owner of Union Cab of Madison for close to 26 years and is a founding member of the late, great Democracy at Work Network.

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