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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

If this Is Us at 20, What Could We Be at 40?

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GEO Original
June 13, 2024
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Happy Birthday, USFWC!

This is truly something to celebrate. Where once there was nothing, a young movement has emerged. 

But let’s do so with the Blues, where triumph is celebrated in the midst of daunting struggles and searing tragedies. Let this be the morning of a second 20 years in which we become a force to be reckoned with, albeit still from the margins. We must acknowledge that we aren’t there yet.

My main work over the past 44 years has been about figuring out how we can consciously develop democracy all over this country. This has included 16 years of active involvement with the cooperative/solidarity economic movements. I believe that bringing this developmental perspective to the cooperative movement can be a rich and productive way for celebrating the 20th birthday of the USFWC. 

I have two suggestions for consciously growing the worker co-op movement, which naturally reach beyond to the whole cooperative economic movement. The first is to make full use of both Eleanor Ostrom's work and the wisdom emerging from the field of cultural evolution. (Ostrom won the Nobel Economics Prize for her work and theories on how groups could share use of a  commons – resources, land, buildings, etc. For  more information, see the 2011 issue GEO issue celebrating her work, Collective Action: Research, Practice and Theory; and the first chapter of the unfinished Growing Democracy Workbook.) 

My second suggestion might seem a far reach if not a deeply controversial idea: give a lot of attention and reflection to the so-called red regions of the US for expanding the worker co-operative movement.  In fact, for expanding the whole cooperative movement, which would include food co-ops and credit unions. I have been quite surprised over the past few years to meet and read people who have a strong conservative orientation and then equally strong commitment to democracy. 

This goes all the way back to the Farmers Populist movement and People’s Party of the late 19th century. They were deeply rooted in the South and Midwest, and actually developed a comprehensive and sophisticated cooperative financial credit system as an alternative to the exploitive crop-sharing system of that era. (See Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise for a deep history of this overlooked tradition.)

More on this suggestion later. For now let's develop the first one.

Ostrom, Cultural Evolution, and the Cooperative Principles

I study, think, and write a lot about democracy and movement building. One thing that has slowly become apparent to me is that there are two modes of doing this kind of thinking and reflection about democracy and our country. Two basic kinds of questions—WHAT and HOW—pretty well capture these two modes. 

For example, the seven Cooperative Principles (CPs) primarily respond to the WHAT question: "What is a cooperative?" And the answer: “A co-operative is an economic and social organization that embodies and practices these principles as its DNA.” 

The CPs do address the relevant HOW question to a certain extent: "How can a co-operative do this well?" But essentially the CPs are speaking about the "soul" of the co-operative and, by extension, of a whole cooperative movement of which the worker co-op movement is just a part. Yet, a part that also possesses the whole “soul.”

That brings us to Eleanor Ostrom, whom I sometimes think of  as “our Lady of the HOW.” She won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her collective work that identified the Core Design Principles (CDPs) that have enabled common pool resource groups to work well across the globe for centuries. These principles speak to the working "body" of all co-operatives that work well, and for consciously developing a broad movement of cooperatives and like-minded Solidarity organizations.

Although Ostrom's vast research project identified these principles by studying "common pool resource groups," they are sufficiently broad enough “to be used as a practical framework for increasing the efficacy of many kinds of groups.” (See Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups for a thorough discussion of this feature.)

Here we begin to see the complexity of how the CDPs can work in everyday life. This passage from Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups highlights this complexity as well as the varying degrees:

When we survey other kinds of groups, such as governments, businesses, schools, neighborhoods, and volunteer organizations, we also see enormous variation in how well they work and the degree to which they employ the core design principles. A formal analysis would be required to understand the relationship between the design principles and the performance of these groups, comparable to what Ostrom and her associates undertook for CPR groups. The main point that we are trying to establish here is that the design principles are not so obvious or instinctive that all groups quickly converge upon them. As a result, there is enormous room for improvement in the efficacy of groups of all sorts…
[italics added]

Below you can see the CDPs and the CPs in the same chart along with the specific function of each CDP. You will have to do the fun work of figuring out how each CDP relates to each CP, and vice versa. 

It's challenging at first, but a tipping point arrives soon enough. And then the lights start going on, and you can begin to grasp the power of the CDP tools for building and developing both individual co-operatives and a whole cooperative movement.

Here’s an example: CDP 2 (proportional equivalence) matches up with CP 3 (Member Economic Participation), which spells out the principle in detail. Another example is how CPs 6 and 7 along with “Krimerman’s 8th” match up with Ostrom’s 8th, which she succinctly explains in a piece written for the GEO Newsletter.


Ostrom’s Core Design Principles & the Cooperative Principles

Core Design Principles


Cooperative Principles

1. Clearly defined boundaries

Shared identity & purpose

The identity of the group and the boundaries of the shared resource are clearly delineated.

1. Voluntary and Open Membership

Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs

Equitable distribution of contributions and benefits

Members of the group must negotiate a system that rewards members for their contributions. High status or other disproportionate benefits must be earned. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.

2. Democratic Member Control

Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and cooperatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.

3. Collective choice arrangements

Fair and inclusive decision making 

Group members must be able to create at least some of their own rules and make their own decisions by consensus. People hate being told what to do but will work hard for group goals that they have agreed upon.

3. Member Economic Participation

Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the cooperative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their cooperative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

4. Monitoring

Monitoring agreed behaviors

Managing a commons is inherently vulnerable to free-riding and active exploitation. Unless these undermining strategies can be detected at relatively low cost by norm-abiding members of the group, the tragedy of the commons will occur.

4. Autonomy and Independence

Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.

5. Graduated sanctions

Graduated responding to helpful and unhelpful behavior

Transgressions need not require heavy-handed punishment, at least initially. Often gossip or a gentle reminder is sufficient, but more severe forms of punishment must also be waiting in the wings for use when necessary.

5. Education, Training, and Information

Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public - particularly young people and opinion leaders - about the nature and benefits of co-operation.

6. Conflict resolution mechanisms

Fast and fair conflict resolution

It must be possible to resolve conflicts quickly and in ways that are perceived as fair by members of the group.

6. Cooperation among Cooperatives

Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize

Authority to self-govern (according to principles 1–6)

Groups must have the authority to conduct their own affairs. Externally imposed rules are unlikely to be adapted to local circumstances and violate principle 3. 

7. Concern for Community

Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.

8. Polycentric governance

Collaborative relations with other groups (using principles 1–7)

For groups that are part of larger social systems, there must be appropriate coordination among relevant groups. Every sphere of activity has an optimal scale. Large scale governance requires finding the optimal scale for each sphere of activity and appropriately coordinating the activities, a concept called polycentric governance (McGinnis, 1999). A related concept is subsidiarity, which assigns governance tasks by default to the lowest jurisdiction, unless this is explicitly determined to be ineffective.

Krimerman’s “8th Cooperative Principle

Cooperatives collaborate to build a just, peace-based, and fully democratic society. Cooperatives collaborate with a diverse range of other citizen groups to build, and share power in, a fully democratic society whose institutions, resources, and opportunities are accessible equally by all, and where peace-building and peace-making are widely used to prevent and manage conflicts.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In “Searching For the Next Cooperative Principle” Len Krimerman argued that the above principle should be a cooperative principle. To a fairly large extent it is a cooperative movement restatement of Ostrom’s 8th Core Design Principle. 


I want to draw your attention to the 8th CDP. There is no match for it in the seven CPs, and it is the principle for the dynamic and complex structuring of a well-organized movement. However, there is within the cooperative movement awareness of it. Without knowing about Ostrom’s polycentricity principles, which is the 8th CDP, GEO's Len Krimerman has long advocated for it as an eighth CP. (See his 2008  Searching For the Next Cooperative Principle. It presents an idea that is vital for the development of a powerful cooperative movement.)  

I also want to bring the wisdom of current cultural evolutionary thinking into this discussion without doing so in depth. Basically it provides a major data-driven perspective on how to grow—or “evolve”—cooperation. David Sloan Wilson puts it succinctly enough for our purposes here:

The modern study of cultural evolution recognizes cooperation as the signature human adaptation and policy objective across all contexts and scales. It reveals,  more strongly than any other theoretical perspective, that cooperation can either succeed or fail as a social strategy in competition with non-cooperative strategies. Positive change efforts require the construction of social environments that allow cooperation to succeed at multiple levels and multiple contexts… [italics added]

Re-Inventing our HOW-TO Wisdom

All of these recent discoveries lead me to offer some strong recommendations for the task facing the worker co-operative movement and its USFWC, both for its sectoral development and also for a potential role as catalysts for an overarching cooperative economic movement.

There is much “how-to” wisdom to be garnered from the 8th CDPs and the between-group dynamic essential for growing cooperation. This kind of wisdom is missing from our seven Cooperative Principles. The major focus of the CPs is on what a single cooperative should be and how it needs to operate to be recognized as a cooperative. In short, it lacks a movement building cooperative principle. This is the problem Krimerman was trying to address with his recommendation for an 8th Cooperative Principle. 

On the other hand, the focus of the first seven Core Design Principles overlaps a lot with the seven CPs, except they have a decidedly HOW-TO perspective. In this regard, the two sets of principles are quite complementary. However, it is the 8th CDP, which embraces the vital "between-group" dynamic, which is essential to building a powerful movement.

Let's take a moment to look at the state of both of the worker cooperative movement and the whole field of cooperative economic institutions. First, the USFWC is a national organization, but there is a major structural gap between it and the individual worker co-ops. A co-op is located in a region, while the USFWC is national where it oversees the whole field of worker co-operatives. The individual co-op can get more relevant support and feedback for its problems and development from a regional group that functions well and from co-ops in other regions. Such groups can also function as intermediaries between the individual unit and the USFWC.

However, and this is very important, at this time there are only a few regional organization, and most of them are not playing significantly effective movement-building roles. For example, they have very little to do with each other, and the working relationship between them and the USFWC is not yet grounded in the kind of thinking needed to build a coherent movement. 

Then, going beyond all of this, there is no significant thinking going on that I know of as to how to build a coherent national movement based on meaningful working relationships between the worker cooperative sector, the consumer cooperative sector, and the credit union sector. As a result, the potential impact of each sector and their hundreds of food cooperatives, stores, service organizations and credit unions, and their billions of dollars and potential for economic and political change is severely limited.

So, it is necessary for us to get a picture of what a coherent cooperative economic movement would require before deciding yay or nay about going for it. However, before going there let's understand that this would be a prodigious piece of work. It would involve a lot of people and a lot of institutions making big adaptations.

Building a WHOLE Co-operative Movement

Immunity to Change

A whole cooperative movement would involve millions of people who do their financial business at members of credit unions, buy their food from food cooperatives, who use farmers who have more independence and love for the work, people who live in housing cooperatives and intentional communities, and who experience democracy every day on their jobs as worker cooperatives and/or employee owners. However, to make this happen will take a big change in how each movement works, the ways they do and don’t collaborate with each other, and, above all, how each member is educated. 

But there is a big stumbling block: we humans do not like to change. We talk the talk a lot, but we don't walk the walk nearly enough. There is no blame in this. There are many good reasons for this as well as bad ones. It is not a failure of moral resolve. Building a cooperative economic sector in our society is a very complex process, and the kind of change we are talking about here will take a long time—like 20 years or more. And it would require great persistence to keep on going step by step—just as we have done to achieve this solid beginning of a worker co-op movement in the US. 

Finally, as a species we simply haven't learned enough on how to do this kind of complex change. However, I think we are beginning to. Ostrom's work, the discoveries by cultural evolution regarding how groups can develop deeper cooperation, the tools that are coming from the field of organizational development, as well as the innovative work of many other enterprises all speak to this emerging possibility.

Okay. All that said, where can we start imagining what we need to know in order to go for building a coherent movement. How would individual worker co-ops, regional networks, and the USFWC connect with each other and what would their roles be?

The Weakness of the Individual Co-operative

We would need to start with the recognition that the most vulnerable part of our movement is the individual co-operative. There are two reasons for this. First,  universally, selfishness/rivalry is more likely to thrive and cooperation lag in isolated groups. There is substantial evidence supporting this from both evolutionary science and political science (primarily Ostrom's work). (To start connecting to the data behind these assertions, see Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups.)

The second reason the individual co-operative is the most vulnerable part of our movement comes from direct experience. The lone co-operative often has to focus on survival. More often than not they don’t have the time and energy to work in the larger movement, or even to do mundane business marketing to build support in the neighborhood where they are. For example, they may be competing with a commercial firm with more resources. Whatever the case, by banding together they have better odds for strengthening their cooperative advantage.

We should also note that there are some cooperatives that do not want to be part of a larger project. Pelham Auto in Belchertown, MA is a 50 year example of this.

So, all of our movement building needs to be acutely aware that to a very large extent the individual group that is poorly connected to other groups will be the weakest part of the whole. What human culture has been able to do more and more over the past several hundred thousand years is to minimize selfishness and maximize cooperation. Yes, in the year 2024 this might seem hard to believe. However, reflect on all the aspects of globalization which is an incomprehensible mosaic of elements working together. 

For sure, selfishness and violence have not been suppressed. Fears can run rampant. Still, it is possible for some people to see patterns of complex relating and find their way to sensing transcendent ways of being such as pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, and pro-Iranian. So, in the large scheme of things, the role of cooperative economics is to help evolve our capacity to minimize selfishness and maximize cooperation. 

The Power of Networking

The way we have evolved out of this trap is through multigroup networks. This started way back when our earliest hominid ancestors became able to join different groups together to enhance each other’s survival.. More specifically, individual groups that are nested in a network with other groups who share the same purpose will have more success in minimizing selfishness and maximizing cooperation. This sharing the same purpose is the primary dimension of Ostrom’s 8th CDP. The Balinese subak, an elaborately terraced water management system, is an example of a group of groups sharing the same purpose: growing rice, one of their survival foods. It has been working well since the 9th century. 

It is also of great benefit for groups to be nested in other networks who are aligned with its purpose. This was a core strategy of our Civil Rights Movement. It is the second or “polycentric” dimension of the CDP. It was also the main thrust of Krimerman’s proposal for an eighth CP: cooperatives collaborating “with a diverse range of other citizen groups to build, and share power in, a fully democratic society…” 

The central evolutionary principle at work here with aligned purposes is again that groups working together are more powerful than disconnected groups or groups competing with each other. Think of any metropolitan area. Everyone from a moderate-sized Madison, WI to an enormous one like New York City are complex cooperative arrangements made possible by services produced and delivered by a diversity of units at multiple scales. 

Some folks tend to think that a network is some connections that make sense but are just loosely associated. Not so. Not at all. Our Earth is a network of highly sensitive ecological networks. So is our human body until it dies. The complexity of all this is staggering. Our old friend Britannica captures this ever so succinctly: The cell is

the basic membrane-bound unit that contains the fundamental molecules of life and of which all living things are composed. A single cell is often a complete organism in itself, such as a bacterium or yeast. Other cells acquire specialized functions as they mature. These cells cooperate with other specialized cells and become the building blocks of large multicellular organisms, such as humans and other animals. [emphasis added]

In a very significant way, we really don’t know networking at all. I am suggesting that our ways of thinking about "national and regional worker co-op organizations" is too weak and narrow to draw upon the "substantial evidence" coming out of Ostrom’s work and the how-to wisdom of cultural evolutionary thinking. If the USFWC shared strong collaborative links with the other cooperative economic movements—food, credit unions, housing, etc.—then we could talk of a polycentric cooperative economic movement.

We need to develop a more informed and visionary framework than we have been working with, a framework that can generate a piercing awareness of 

  • the individual co-operative as an essential part of a larger regional whole, while  
  • the regional network’s identity lies in seeing itself simultaneously 
    • as the whole for its individual co-operatives, and 
    • as a part of that larger whole—that is,
  • the national network we call the USFWC, which, at this time, can only see itself as a disconnected part of a fragmented cooperative economic family that cannot yet play the transformative economic, social, and political roles that are its birthright.

All Co-operatives as Parts of Whole of Wholes

To put it a little less dramatically: The worker co-op movement needs to see itself as a single group entity that needs to be dynamically nested in a network with other groups who share the same and aligned purposes. Right now that polycentric potential is only glimpsed somewhere out on a distant horizon. That’s a starting point for developing an operational vision for how the worker cooperative or the food cooperative or the credit union movements have operated since I became involved in 2006. Nor before my time. All three are mostly disconnected from each other at local and regional levels. This means that their connectedness at the national level has little impact downriver in the whole of our country’s diverse economic system.

Further, there is little, if any, interest shown in exploring how they could combine at all these levels for the purpose of maximizing their own cooperation and minimizing their own rivalry. Which is to say cooperative/solidarity economics in 21st century America suffers from a deep immunity to change.

However, seeing this could be the beginning of 20+ years of slow, step-by-step self-transformation into a powerhouse of a movement. In fact, seeing and understanding this immunity to change is an essential first step in that direction.

Indeed, what would a 40th birthday be like for the whole cooperative economic movement?

Reaching Out Beyond the Left

In my experience with the worker co-operative movement here in the United States, it seems to be occupied mostly by people with a Left political orientation. I think this is seriously limiting the possibility of a wider and more interesting and more influential movement.

In the past five years or so, I have encountered more than a few people with a Right orientation that are deeply Democratic as well. Starting seven years ago, the Braver Angels organization, for example, has become a national network of 100 local groups that consciously bridge our political divides. They're 12,200 members come together from across the political spectrum. They have put on more than 3,200 events to diminish polarization by fostering hearing and understanding of different perspectives. 

They do this among themselves at all levels—local, regional, and national. So far their events have drawn 33,500 participants. Members have made it a new political home where many new personal relationships span their differences in political orientations.

Further, BA itself is a part of a larger nationwide bridging movement. First, it has created a networking space for all kinds of organizations that foster democracy in various ways. More than 300 organizations from across the spectrum are using this space to connect and work together. Then there is the #ListenFirst Coalition, another network of 500 organizations, is committed to bridging the deep divides in our country's political life. They include organizations like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, Hands Across the Hills, Citizen University, and Mediators Across Borders, International.

Clearly, democracy and inclusion are important to Americans across the spectrum. Does this not suggest that cooperative economics could find some rich ground beyond our political Left? 

If every day Americans from different political perspectives are coming together to make democracy work better than it is doing right now, could cooperative economic organization at all levels connect with these efforts for mutual benefits? There are certainly obstacles based on history, mistrust, etc., but we should try. For one, cooperative economics is already alive and doing well in most of our so-called “purple” states and even in some of our “red” states. 

And second, Braver Angels, #listen First, and other networks are showing us that there are hundreds of organizations and many people prioritizing bridging differences. It would seem a significant number would be approachable for exploring possibilities in areas of the country and ways of seeing the world which have not been included in our movement’s sense of what is possible. 

I think there are two first steps for finding out what we need to know in order to explore the possibilities here. The first one would be to form a representative exploratory "committee" from within our movement—hopefully from all three sectors—to map out how we could approach outreach. 

The second step would be actually reaching out to a few key organizers among these hundreds of bridging movements and elsewhere as well.  If we start now, perhaps in another 20 years we will have more cooperatives, more alliances, less division and more effort to save ourselves from climate change, wars, and continued alienation? Now that would be an amazing 40th birthday gift that the worker cooperative movement could give to the world.

So I leave you with this question: As a very young movement have we “grown” enough to take bold steps across some political lines for the sake of building a cooperative economic sector that can be far more influential than it has been? If so, I think you might be able to look back in your old age and see that we’d discovered an important pathway for making the world work better.


Michael Johnson’s bio is here.




Michael Johnson (2024).  If this Is Us at 20, What Could We Be at 40?.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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