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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Worker Education at Equal Exchange

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May 24, 2010
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By Esther West, Equal Exchange

(Editor's Note:  Equal Exchange, a worker-owned co-operative begun in 1986, partners with small-scale farmer co-operatives around the world to bring U.S. consumers fairly traded coffee, tea, chocolate, and other products.  Based in West Bridgewater, MA with over 100 employees, it is one of the country's oldest and most successful worker-owned co-operatives.  Its mission-focused business model is built on fairness, democratic structure, and stronger relationships between farmers and consumers.)

At Equal Exchange, the Education Committee is the frontline for creating well-educated owners of our worker-owned co-operative.  With co-op education, workers know why investing and participating means creating a stronger co-op where we strive to make our democratic ideals a reality, as well as how to strengthen and grow our co-op as a business. The Education Committee works to put people on the worker-owner track.  Connections are made about what we learn and how to contribute as a worker-owner.

EE Education Committee
Our Education Committee has coordinator positions and groups working on specific methods of co-op development.

We have:

  • worker-owner orientations for people on worker-owner track;
  • hour-long Exchange Times every Thursday that address various co-op, Fair Trade, social justice, or other issues;
  • a curriculum that people on worker-owner track complete their first year (currently being updated);
  • a comprehensive Worker-Owner Manual that includes a "Rights and Responsibilities" document worker-owners sign as testament to their investment in the co-op;
  • a library with many books, DVDs, and magazines on many topics relating to work, Fair Trade, movements, and more.  Staff regularly request materials that we order;
  • a Mentor-Buddy system where workers in their first year are paired up with a worker-owner outside their department to learn how to be responsible owners;
  • financial trainings to facilitate the creation of well-educated business owners of a co-operative;
  • a document describing ways people can get involved at Equal Exchange.

The Education Committee also works to make co-op principles meaningful by analyzing and addressing where any disconnects might lay between our ideals and actual practice.  

For example, since the worker-owner track curriculum was not as up-to-date and useful as it could be, people were not using it much, so we have been evaluating and updating it.  During a worker-owner meeting, staff formed small groups to evaluate the curriculum and give feedback on whether it meets the diverse learning styles and experience levels, which we have been incorporating as we update it.  

EE Owners Manual Table of ContentsWe are working on various ways to address areas where better communication is needed with staff who do not speak English fluently, as English is the most used language in documents and at work functions.  We are instituting translated lunches to discuss where needs are and how to address them.  Hopefully we will soon have personal and worker-owner manual documents translated so that people fully know their rights and have worker-owner information.  We also are adding more language books to the library.

Recently we also have been reflecting on what it means to be a worker-owner in a worker-owned co-op and how to communicate that to each other and outside of Equal Exchange.  Small groups were formed to develop thoughts and talking points, which are going to be visually represented in an artistic "Co-op Tree" in our main gathering space.  We are taking these thoughts and reflections to help us explain our unique democratic structure to others not in Equal Exchange or worker co-operatives, and we plan for other actions to come out of these reflections.

Cultivating the democratic and educational components of Equal Exchange means our co-operative as a business becomes stronger and more sustainable.  The Education Committee brings the co-op full circle, as we utilize people's participation to have these educational resources, which create better tools and co-op leaders, who then continue the cycle of co-op democratic and business development.


Esther WestEsther West co-chairs Equal Exchange's Education Committee, which has existed since 1997.  She is an Interfaith Program representative and worker-owner, and also is lead co-facilitator of the Coordinating Committee of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy.  She can be reached at


Group photo courtesy of Equal Exchange. Manual photo courtesy of Ajowa Ifateyo. 

When citing this article, please use the following format: Esther West (2010). Worker Education at Equal Exchange, Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 5,

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