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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Worx Printing: A Union Co-op

An interview with Kevin O'Brien

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October 20, 2022
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In this special episode in honor of National Co-op Month, Kevin speaks with Kevin O’Brien, co-founder of the union co-op Worx Printing. You may have seen Worx Printing at the Democracy at Work online shop. In this interview, O’Brien discusses his path to starting Worx, globalization and its effects on the apparel industry, the benefits and importance of the union-coop model, best practices for running and sustaining a business, and more. You can find more about Worx and support their work on their website.

About our guest: Kevin O'Brien is the co-founder and Managing Member at Worx Printing Cooperative, in Worcester, Massachusetts. For the past 20 years he has focused his career on understanding and working within supply chains. He has worked with Merchandising, Design, Manufacturing, Imprinting, Fulfillment, Distribution as well as Finance and Ecommerce. The foundation of Kevin's experience comes out of the New York City and Los Angeles Garment Centers and from manufacturing facilities throughout the country. His experiences have brought him in contact with the creative and technical genius, as well as the shortcomings, of ethical manufacturing practices. Kevin worked with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s on Worx’s predecessor, SweatX, trying to right the wrongs of the predatory cut-and-sew arm of the merchandise industry. SweatX shuttered in 2004 after two years of production due to exploitative pressures. In 2014, carrying hard-learned lessons from the closure of SweatX, Kevin co-founded Worx, a union co-op printing shop, to ensure that cutting-edge print technology was coupled with the highest bars of manufacturing and fair trade standards.

All Things Co-op is a Democracy At Work production. We make it a point to provide the show free of ads. Please consider supporting our work. Donate one time or become a monthly donor by visiting us at or become a patron of Democracy at Work on Patreon. Your contributions help keep this content free and accessible to all.



Richard Wolff: This is Richard Wolff. Welcome to All Things Co-op, a podcast by Democracy At Work.

Kevin Gustafson: All right, welcome, everybody, to another episode of the All Things Co-op podcast, a podcast by Democracy at Work. As you probably know, October is Co-operative Month, and in support of that today, we're talking with Kevin O'Brian, co-founder of the Worx Printing Union Co-op Print Shop in Worcester, Massachusetts. Kevin -- I'll let him give some of his own bio, but I checked it out a little bit -- graduated from university in '93, spent a few years as a paralegal, but then got into ethical trade, particularly in textiles, which I think overall is a long path leading to co-founding Worx, a union co-op print shop in 2014.

So we wanted to bring Kevin on and talk about Worx, his own history, the history of Worx, the union co-op model, and to just sort of overall highlight the great work that you all do, and direct all of the listeners and watchers to use their services. Democracy At Work does, and we were just talking before we pressed record that I often wear a t-shirt that was printed at Worx, so I'm very happy with the results. Unlike many other shirts too, it's gone through several washes and has not completely faded out. You buy some shirt printed in, I don't know, a factory, somewhere overseas, and by the fourth or fifth time you've washed it, it's completely gone. That is not the case with the shirts that are printed that Worx. So, Kevin, welcome to the show.

Kevin O'Brien: Thank you so much, Kevin. That's like the best advertisement for us ever.

Kevin Gustafson: I mean, it's just good t-shirts. And, you know, for me, I have some t-shirts that we printed at a union shop. I think maybe it's probably going on 15 years ago, was like a band that I was in and kept the shirts because it's got some nostalgic value. And I don't think I've washed it nearly, nearly as much, but those have even faded considerably. But I've gotten some shirts, like after the first wash, it's like, "man, what did they use to print these things?" But, you know,when you get good quality because if it says union made, it tends to be of a higher quality. So I'm curious, the first question I have is just, what's the origin story of Worx? But I'm wondering, and if that's going to necessarily weave into your own personal story. So maybe a bit of whatever background is necessary to kind of lay the groundwork to get us to understand how you came to co-found Worx, and why, and all of those kind of things.

Kevin O'Brien: Sure thing. Thanks. I think my story's somewhat irrelevant, but I was raised to believe in reciprocity and to treat others the way we wanted to be treated. I didn't know the labor movement, or find the labor movement, until I actually got involved in the apparel industry. And I got involved in the apparel industry right after NAFTA was signed, and globalization really started to take hold. And that giant sucking sound that Ross Perot talked about was real. And I watched the industry collapsing in on itself. And it was really 1999 and the WTO protests in Seattle that I watched in amazement, never thinking I would see something like that in my generation. I was used to seeing it in black and white, and to see it in full color was really eye opening.

And some comeuppance to Adbusters. At the time I was reading the journal and helping me understand what's happening with globalization, because nobody was really talking about it. And I think I was super lucky that at the time Ben Cohen, of Ben Jerry's ice cream had just sold Ben and Jerry's to Unilever as part of somewhat of a globalization hostile takeover. And the first thing that he chose to do outside of running Ben and Jerry's was to start a union co-op. You know, he wanted to perfect the American business, and choosing the apparel industry with a company called SweatX, which is where the X in Worx comes from.

You know, I think he bit off a lot. You know, the apparel industry is somewhat the story of America, and trying to jump to a union co-op without an existing infrastructure of support for union cooperativism was a really big challenge. And sadly, although we tried everything to get it to work, it didn't. And we closed that in the mid 2000s. And I kind of fell victim to trying to do it as a corporation. You know, I continued for almost a decade trying to make it work as a C Corp. but really found that all the evils of capitalism are exposed by a corporation. And I think probably it was my dad passing away, and challenging me to really go after the things in life that I believed in, helped me take the leap of founding Worx Printing in the same model as SweatX, a Mondragon-principle union co-op. And it just had such a list of incredible people, incredible organizations, and an incredible support network that wasn't there in 2001, 2002, that was there in 2014.

Kevin Gustafson: So what structures are you talking about in particular? I mean, obviously there's time that's passed. So there's been more people who've been interested, or learned about it, and stuff like that. But I think in some ways that there's like people power, I guess, and then there's like real infrastructure. Like what do you mean when you're saying more available infrastructure?

Kevin O'Brien: So in the early 2000s, we were using the ESOP support network which, you know, truly doesn't understand cooperatives, and partnering with the labor union UNITE. At the time, I think there was still some distrust between the entities, and there wasn't the cohesiveness that was necessary to exist between the cooperative and union. And in the time since we closed SweatX and we opened Worx, a few entities cropped up, including the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, which have a huge network of support mechanisms, and the the USW partnership with Mondragon. We're a USW shop, and we worked closely with Michael Peck from 1worker1vote.

Kevin Gustafson: Who's been on the podcast several times.

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, great podcast. Definitely worth going back and listening to.

Kevin Gustafson: And USW is the United Steelworkers?

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah.

Kevin Gustafson: Okay. And so I'm curious; you know, we've talked with Michael and stuff a bit about the union co-op model, but I do think that for many people who are coming into it, there's a somewhat familiarity with how unions work in a traditional capitalist business, in terms of organizing workers together, and doing contract negotiations, and potentially strikes if contracts don't get signed, and things like that. And then there's familiarity with co-ops in the sense that workers coming together to make decisions in a democratic fashion. And so I think there's a sense from a traditional labor union that says, "well, why would we need a co-op aspect of this?" And the person who's really just into co-op says, "well, why would you need a union if you have a co-op?" And so I'm wondering if you can, from your experience, extoll the virtues of the union co-op model, what the union without the co-op misses, and what the co-op without the union misses.

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, well I watched up close and personally an entire industry be dismantled by globalization. So I see us very much like Mondragon picking up bricks and trying to stack them on top of each other to rebuild a society for the people. So I don't think of it as structures that are opposing eachother. I get why capitalism hates unions, and I think that the only reason to oppose a union is because you don't want other people to have their fair share. And that's really what unions are trying to do at the end of the day, just make sure that everyone's treated fairly and equally.

Kevin Gustafson: But in the model of a capitalist business, I can see that the union represents the workers in their adversarial relationship with the owner of the business. In a co-op when the workers are the owner of the business, that adversarial relationship seems to either drop away or not be as necessary. What different roles is the union playing compared to the sort of General Assembly, or whatever the decision making structure within the cooperative? How do those interact in the union co-op, on the ground?

Kevin O'Brien: So I probably think of it like a sports team in a lot of ways. You know, there's usually a group of owners and a group of players. And the only thing that they need is a coaching staff. And our coaching staff is made up of the support organizations, and and I think of the union as one of them. You know, just as I think of the US Federation that is working with us and for us, and our community organizations are working with us and for us, the Union's also working with us and for us. So it's kind of like hiring a coach who's got 200 plus years experience in the game, and at the end of the day a contract -- whether it be a wedding contract, or a labor contract, or whatever contract you could write -- there's something very powerful about putting things down, or making things black and white. And we don't approach our union relationship in adversarial way. We start by opening up our books and explaining our business model and kind of saying, "this is who we are, what we are. How do we ensure that we treat everybody fairly in process? Because there are pressures when you're running any kind of entity, there are pressures to make decisions that day. I don't want to go too deep -- but I think human nature has a big portion of selfishness and that's good, it protects us, and it helps us survive. But it's also very enticing and seductive. And you need a fair and independent arbiter to to just remind you of what the purpose of what you're doing.

Kevin Gustafson: So the does the union -- does USW within Worx negotiate a contract with Worx? How does that -- I guess I'm curious how that actually -- because it seems like that's sort of negotiating with yourself. I mean, I guess maybe there's a situation where some people are more interested in the union side of it and working in the union. And then some might be more interested in working in the cooperative side of it. I'm not sure. I'm curious how that actually works.

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, I think we negotiate with ourselves every day, right? We think through the angel and the devil on each shoulder, and then we make decisions every day. And those little decisions are probably more important than any of the big decisions to make. They make up who we are.

I think when we sat down with Rob Witherell and Michael Peck at the very beginning, we said, "we've got to write an operating agreement for our worker cooperative -- which is a a business entity of owners -- and then we've got to write an agreement among ourselves as individuals of how we want to be treated and how we want to treat each other. And we very much wrote our operating agreement and our union contract so they coincided. Article one is the formation of the cooperative in our operating agreement. Article one in our union contract is the formation of our union. And each corresponds of how we want to treat the whole of us, and how do we want to treat the individual us. And yeah, I think it's a very healthy exercise to go through, whether or not you choose to be a union or not, is to talk to a labor person that can kind of check yourself. You know, are you doing the right thing for every individual? And it's complex. You know, we've learned a lot about unions and cooperatives in the process.

Kevin Gustafson: How often is there a conflict between, you know, the perspective of the union and the perspective of the cooperative as a business entity, as compared to an entity that represents the interests of each and every worker?

Kevin O'Brien: I think we're probably too young to to know that. The way we've been building it is, "what will happen when conflicts come up?" And I think conflict is inevitable. You know, things are going great for us right now. And I've been involved in businesses that are going well, and involved with businesses that are going poorly, and you never know how people are going to react when things get bad. And if there's a clear understanding of how operations run out, how people are fit into not just ownership, but the day-to-day operation. You know, there's clarity around it. And I think writing things down is this really healthy exercise because starting a cooperative, this is starting a business and it's really hard, and most of them fail. It's just the statistics behind starting businesses, and maybe the statistics are a bit higher for worker cooperatives, because there's more communication about that. It's not an individual or a group of individuals working for their own benefit and using the labor input to it. I mean, in addition, the labor union helps us feel more connected to our community, to the movement that has really been the pillar of worker solidarity throughout the growth of the corporation. So it doesn't feel as lonely being connected to a broader community.

Kevin Gustafson: I'm sure, yeah. How many people, how many worker-owners are there at Worx?

Kevin O'Brien: So believe it or not, we've we've actually had some turnover through retirement while we've been doing it. We started with a more senior group, but we're at three, four owners now. In the next month we'll double, and we have this really great relationship with our technical high school. You know, much like Mondragon and the technical college. We also work with the graphics communication department at our local technical high school. You know, bring in co-op students; not to mince the word "co-op," but there's a an age old cooperativism between businesses and high schools that allow technical high school students to work a week on, week off. It's called Shock Week. And it's been a really interesting way to support our labor input and we've been doing it so long that we actually have a person who graduated the program, is now working with us, and will now become an owner of the cooperative this year.

Kevin Gustafson: Awesome. So maybe to get into the weeds a little bit. Is your operating agreement -- you have also bylaws that talk about your decision making structure? How does that -- you have enough people where you can, I think there's probably some informality, in terms of talking, but like how do your -- how is your decision making? What is your decision-making model and how does that work?

Kevin O'Brien: So governance -- how you govern the cooperative -- is, I think, an ever-evolving process. And right now we just do it mostly by daily meetings. We start our day every day with a stand-up meeting with everybody who's working that day, and we cover the basics of what we're going to be working on that day. And then we also do some subject matter coverage, and we've been extremely lucky that one of the staff members in the Federation of Worker Cooperatives is a resident at a locale in Worcester, and we set up a training session to actually learn about co-ops 101, and governance, and finance through more of a classroom structure.

So, there's education about ownership, there's education about operational inputs. At the end of the day, I think the book and the concept of The Great Game of Business are probably foundational. They come out of an ESOP company who struggled with governance because of the lack of democracy within the entity. And I think it's probably the key and central function of education, the more people know, the more good they could do. And whether that's about a profit and loss statement, or a balance sheet, or whether that's about how the inputs they do on a daily basis affect the bottom line of the company, you need all of that to be successful.

Kevin Gustafson: Which is obviously something that is specific to what they'll teach in business school or something like that. But I think it reminds me of what happens at Mondragon, too, where you there is this continuous process of education so that, literally everybody understands at minimum, the kind of basic first rung understanding of basic business accounting, and those kind of things, to be able to understand what's going on because, transparency is nice, but if you show someone a book in a different language, it doesn't really -- if they can't speak the language, it doesn't really matter. And so I think that goes into even some Rochdale principles about the importance of continuing education and making sure that there's an awareness among everybody about what's going on. Because, I mean, you mentioned you have essentially open accounting, open, transparent, you open books to let anyone at any time look at it. How does that work? If somebody who worked in many traditional businesses, you'd be even nervous to ask about something like an open accounting.

Kevin O'Brien: Yes. And that's probably the core of the problem is the only reason you hide numbers is because you want to take more.

Kevin Gustafson: You're doing something that needs to be hidden.

Kevin O'Brien: Yes. And sadly, that's what we're taught. You know, I listened to your union co-op broadcast, and you're talking about that subject matter, of the lack of educational institutions in the United States that offer any form of cooperative education. And that's kind of being left to the the support networks that now exist for worker cooperatives to be able to go and actually listen to. People talk about open-book management, or sociocracy, or any of the principles of governing yourselves without a paternalistic ownership culture.

Kevin Gustafson: Yeah. Do you do you use a sociocratic style model? I mean, you're small enough where you could, but...

Kevin O'Brien: You know, we don't use a formal version of it. Like, what we do is pretty close to it. But we're entering a new phase of our development and we're lucky that Co-op Cincy also now exists, and Co-op Dayton, and Crenshaw, and all these incredible entities that are rising. Co-op Cincy, is like a dream for me, for Worcester. And we have a young, fledgling Cooperation Worcester organization, and we got a bunch of young cooperatives, but nothing like the structure that's been built in Cincinnati. And we're entering our training phase for our new owners and we're actually using a pretty thick book that Co-op Cincy uses to train their worker-owners, and it's such an incredible resource. You know, it's a guide to getting from point A to point B, and becoming a worker-owner. So just having that alone is a -- you know, I'm living in a completely different world than when we first started in this union co-op world.

Kevin Gustafson: So the one question I have is how are you -- I'm not super familiar with Massachusetts in terms of its friendliness or unfriendliness to cooperatives -- are you structured as an LLC that has a union co-op structure, in terms of its internal organization? Is there a cooperative business entity that you can be in Massachusetts? How does that work?

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, actually, it was super interesting to me when we decided to incorporate in Massachusetts, with the help of Michael Peck and Rob Witherell. And we were still kind of using that ESOP infrastructure for advisement, but we were blessed that David Eller, who had helped write the Massachusetts law for the formation of a cooperative, advised us to actually use the LLC model, which didn't exist at the time they wrote the cooperative law, because it was so malleable and it had such good protections for the individual workers. So we are an LLC with a cooperative operating agreement, and we file our taxes as a cooperative. So, yeah, that's a whole nother lengthy subject, how unbalanced our corporate law is.

Kevin Gustafson: Which is like the answer to the question, "well, this is a free economy, so how come there aren't more cooperatives?" It's like, "well, you know, a seesaw can be balanced if the two weights on the side are equal. But it's not the case."

Kevin O'Brien: Absolutely. All I ever want is a level playing field, and the law, it feels like to me, is there for people to unbalance the field.

Kevin Gustafson: So it's almost as if the government is not there to be a neutral arbitrator between sides.

Kevin O'Brien: I think that's back to where the contract becomes so important, because you can take any form of corporation or co-operative and you can unbalance it. And what what brings the level playing field into view is having that open transparency, and that third party to help make sure that the playing field is always level.

Kevin Gustafson: So that's interesting, too. I mean, essentially you're sort of saying that -- I think there's a almost an idealistic or utopian idea in the minds of even me and other people in support of worker co-ops, that this notion of checks and balances isn't necessary when you've got this direct democratic organization, or a culture, or whatever. And I think, again idealistically or utopianistically sure, like, yeah, you wouldn't need something like that. But when you're talking about real human beings, particularly in a society that is not, as we just said, equally balanced or even weighted towards creating these kind of ubiquitous structures, the necessity to have a check and balance, to be able to have something that can review a decision and go, "hey, you might not have considered this aspect?" Like, what about if I'm coming at it with my potential even narrower, but very focused kind of position, I can, to use the sort of American political lingo, you consent and advise to be able to to make it a better decision.

Kevin O'Brien: I think any entity is foolish to not use the benefit of knowledge. And labor unions have a collective knowledge where they've seen companies start, grow, peak, come across, and then fail. You know, there are very few companies to sustain growth forever, or maintain a plateau. And whenever you have 100 plus years of collective data and experience, and seeing those cycles -- if you have somebody who's got a 30,000 foot view of the playing field and can help advise you in each of those stages on how to ensure that -- you're protecting each other. And that's probably why you see the statistics of cooperatives excel compared to average corporations. And in cooperatives, people understand and it's open that the success or failure of a business depends on the person to right or left.

Kevin Gustafson: Yeah. There's much more solidarity as the kind of core business perspective rather than bottom lines or something. But so, you know, I mean, there's lots of different unions with all which are kind of some varied pasts, both the sort of, I would say, good and bad. So why United Steelworkers. What was it about them that was the more attractive model than whatever else is available?

Kevin O'Brien: Demand driven connection. The Mondragon story. I actually came to first hear the word Mondragon, you know, before any of this. When I heard it from the Ben and Jerry's Corporation growing up. And growing up, I thought of them as the best form of capitalism, the best company that there could be. And now, with the curtains drawn back, and to see it for what it is. But the first time I heard the word Mondragon, it was a reference to executive salary and the concept of ratio. I forget if they were claiming five or 6 to 1 ratio. Mondragon has actually, between all their business units, have anywhere from 5 to 9, which is still respectable in this day and age. But that was the first thing that clicked for me as I was watching CEO salaries more like professional athletes getting signed to bigger and bigger contracts. And growing up in the '80s, watching the Gordon Gekko style of cocaine business --

Kevin Gustafson: Greed is good, and yeah...

Kevin O'Brien: -- as much as you possibly can, and screw the worker, was such a weird contrast to how I'd been educated to that. So I knew that Mondragon was the secret ingredient that the labor movement in the US had missed with the Knights of Labor, and losing the 'fight of ownership,' I'll call it. We settled for collective bargaining when we should have kept fighting for collective ownership, which was there. That was a model that just kind of got snuffed out. And with SweatX, I really got to learn about the model, I got to learn why it was so important. And when the Steelworkers formed their alliance with Mondragon, I really got to understand the difference in the principles of ownership and governance. So Michael Peck runs 1worker1voat, and it helped us found Worx in 2014. As we start to grow as a cooperative, and start to really be successful with this business niche that we're in -- what we do is fairly unique and it's in very high demand -- it's not just printing, it's the fulfillment of printing, which some people call it on-demand printing.

Kevin Gustafson: Talk more about that. I guess in some ways we've talked about Worx in terms of its cooperative aspect, but even just as a business, what is it that you actually do, and what's the service you offer, and all that kind of stuff? I want to get to that.

Kevin O'Brien: You know, I just want to finish that thought if that's okay. There was a moment in 2018 where I'd spent like 18 years trying to build this, and we went out talk about the concept of using the cooperative finance system. And the cooperative finance system kind of said, "well, you're not really a co-operative because you don't have documented governance, you don't have to have a checklist of things to make sure that you're legit." Okay. And we were very blessed because we went back to Michael and he agreed to not only help us with that, but chair our board. Which isn't unique, to have an outside board member, it is unique to get Michael Peck.

Kevin Gustafson: Right? Yeah.

Kevin O'Brien: He's really been helping guide us in the foundational systems that we're using. And believe me, I don't purport to know a lot about cooperatives. I know about our co-op, what makes us market, what's made us strong: and that's equal parts caring about each other, and structuring it for everyone's success. But it's also equal parts having a good business idea. And in this day and age, if you're going to work in the apparel industry, it's changed, you know? Although it's not hard to get a T-shirt printed, or a hat printed, or a mug printed -- you can do it in every town and city in America, there's a shop you can go to -- but nowadays there's such a need to distribute items. You know, we work with so many groups and organizations that have a nationwide audience, like Democracy At Work, even an international audience. And ultimately, you don't want to be a retailer, you don't want to have us send you boxes of hats, boxes of T-shirts. Then people who want them, you have to figure out how to get one to each of them. So we work in a reverse model to how most prep shops work. Most projects built themselves to be able to produce volume of a single shirt. And we built our shop to produce one shirt at a time. So that allows our clients to put a virtual product in their shops. And although it looks exactly like a real product, you know. It's not made until somebody decides they want it, until somebody purchases it.

Kevin Gustafson: It's kind of on-demand printing.

Kevin O'Brien: Exactly.

Kevin Gustafson: So you actually send it. Like, if somebody places an order, you get that information, do you actually send it from your shop to the location, whoever the address, or whatever that's put into the order?

Kevin O'Brien: Yes. So the shirt that you bought would have come in as individual order. We would have picked a single t shirt and your size and your color. We would have printed that a folded up, put in a white bag and put a USPS sticker on it, delivered it to your home.

Kevin Gustafson: Wow.

Kevin O'Brien: And that allows Democracy At Work to focus on what you guys are great at, and lets us focus on what we're great at. And yet I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our partner in the middle there who helps us FII is an e-commerce giant in the political left. They've been managing merchandise for only Democratic entities since the Carter administration. They have an incredibly robust solution for managing e-commerce, and making sure that the actual work done on product gives back to organizations like ours.

Kevin Gustafson: So that's perfect. I mean, that leads me to the last thing that I want to -- there's sort of two sides of it. One, what are the lessons, best practices, things to avoid? You know, I know like that everything's perfect and things happen and whatnot. So there's the sort of negative side of the ledger in terms of lessons learned. But then how does -- I'm curious to hear in terms of your personal experience, and how you think that can help ultimately grow the the cooperative ecosystem. You know, you do have examples like Cincinnati and stuff, the anchor institutions. You know, there's really interesting ideas and innovations in terms of trying to grow an ecosystem. But I'm curious to weave your personal experience in terms of what's worked with you, and what you think might be generally applicable, might be specific to you that would help overall grow the cooperative economic economy or ecosystem, is what I usually say.

Kevin O'Brien: So I think Worx is lucky that I had so many experiences in the apparel industry prior to helping found Worx, and I've seen tremendous successes and I've seen tremendous failures. And I remember. You know, the day I committed to starting Worx is the day that I locked the door SweatX in downtown Los Angeles, 2004. I kept locking the door and then going back inside because I didn't want it to end. I believed so much that it was the right solution to our capitalist ills. And then I kind of had put that on the shelf while I followed people who I trusted, who were capitalists at heart. And I thought they were going to help get us back to a union cooperative. And eventually, as I said, it just came to life events where I just didn't want to do that anymore. I wanted to do the union co-op. And there was a solidarity economy event in Worcester, again with these beautiful infrastructure partners, and they were having a panel on why co-ops fail. And, you know, if anything, I was just scared. Having already seen a dream fail, I didn't want to see it fail again. So I wanted to go and hear what what the secret was, why do cooperatives fail?

And I remember there were four cooperatives, or members of four failed cooperatives, who agreed to be part of a panel. And I kept waiting to hear what that secret was. And no disrespect to these awesome people who tried something really hard in the world, but I thought they were just four bad business ideas. And it didn't have anything to do with the structure of the business, it was just there wasn't the core market research there, you know. And if you know your market, if you know what people want, which is, I think, business 101. The truth of the matter is I've never taken a business course. I studied sociology and how groups work together, and that's been a greater benefit through this process than understanding how business works. I've learned that mostly watching people do business the wrong way, and figured out how to do it the right way. And then again, having all these partners out there who can help with the formation of the cooperative. You can take your eye off that, you can trust that you're going to be able to find partners, you're going to be able to find infrastructure, you're going to be able to find grant money to help you structure your co-op in the right way. And you really just need to focus on making sure that you have a solid business idea that's going to produce profit, because that's all we really do at Worx, is rubbin' two nickels together until they're a quarter, and we hustle to make our money. If the market wasn't there for it, if people didn't have it, if there wasn't a demand for what we do, it wouldn't matter how we structured. If you lose money for enough time -- there's an old adage -- eventually you go out of business.

Kevin Gustafson: It's interesting. I like the idea that in some ways you can see the inherent benefit of the structure of a cooperative in terms of diversified inputs, in terms of not just labor inputs, but actually inputs in terms of strategic decision making, stuff like that, that there can be a significant benefit to that. But if what you're getting your inputs, either in labor or in strategic decision making, is towards an end that has no potential, then it doesn't matter how good the structure is. You know, you could spend $1,000,000 creating the perfect co-op structure, but if your business is making or selling something that people don't want, it's not going to work.

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah. And I do meet a lot of people who I think approach it from a good hearted nature, you know. They want to be a cooperative because of what a cooperative represents, but believe so strongly in that that they don't have their eyes focused on what is going to make the business work. And in that case, I don't know that I recommend people taking business courses...

Kevin Gustafson: We might learn the wrong lessons there.

Kevin O'Brien: So much is getting an order. If you want to learn about ice cream, get a job at an ice cream place. If you want to learn about T-shirts, get a job at a t-shirt place and learn what you can about how it operates, and what the structures of that industry are, and then use that knowledge for good. And then you can either look at organizing within an entity, and you can look at worker- or ownership-conversions, which are a huge opportunity today, with the aging baby boomer population of ownership, that want to sell their company to their workers. And whereas, doing that to an ESOP used to be the only way to do it, with the tax advantages of ESOP laws, those tax laws now apply to co-operatives. And a good owner who wants to see his business succeed can sell to a worker cooperative of owners.

But I don't know as much about that as I do about just starting from day one. And ultimately, you've got to figure out how to pay yourself. And then you've got to figure out how to pay another person. And another person, and another person. It may seem strange but I've been asked, and put in situations where I've had to talk to a group of employees of not getting paid. Very early in my apparel industry experience I found myself being asked by a owner to go on the floor of really poor workers, because he was afraid and he hadn't run his business right.

Kevin Gustafson: Probably should have been afraid.

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, I was. And it was probably one of the worst days of my life.

Kevin Gustafson: I can imagine. Yeah.

Kevin O'Brien: And in that day, I promised myself I would never work for somebody again who could do something like that. And sadly, that happened a second time to me at SweatX. I didn't run the place, I was working there, and it wasn't Ben, it was a different group, but they asked me the same question, or they asked me to do the same thing. And at that time, I said, I'll never put myself in a position where I have to talk to people, because it was equally as horrifying. And in December, I celebrate 200 months in a row of making payroll.

Kevin Gustafson: Right on. That's awesome.

Kevin O'Brien: It's a super small thing, and I'm sorry for bringing it up, but it's something to be proud of.

Kevin Gustafson: Yeah. That's worthy of celebration. And 201, 202, all of them are worthy of celebration. If somebody hears this and wants to support the cooperative economy generally, but has a a great T-shirt idea, or wants to get something printed, how do they find you? How can they do it?

Kevin O'Brien: Yeah, I think we've got a lot of exciting things happening with that right now. We've always just kind of operated in the background. But if you go to Democracy At Work and you buy a product, you're supporting us.

Kevin Gustafson: Which you can do that, that's mutually beneficial.

Kevin O'Brien: And that's true. You know, all of our incredible network of clients and and that's like a whole nother story of just the list of people who work by supporting them or what they're doing is awesome. Like what you're doing, it's awesome you're supporting us. But we're about to launch our own web store as well, and you can learn about it at our website And you know, I think the truth of the matter is, anything you do to support the cooperative movement, you are supporting all cooperatives, so we just help you advertise it on your chest.

Kevin Gustafson: But you know nothing like making yourself a billboard for a cause that is worthy of being advertised, rather than some other brand, or some other communication of status or whatever, and may as well communicate how to make the world a better place.

Kevin O'Brien: It's why I do what I do is because in this ever increasing metaverse, social media is one place you can express yourself, but in the real world where eyeballs meet eyeballs, skin touches skin, we breathe on each other, the printed T-shirt is the best form of advertising that's not controlled by a conglomerate.

Kevin Gustafson: Sure.

Kevin O'Brien: It's a way of individual expression that you're accountable for.

Kevin Gustafson: Exactly. Well, all right. I really appreciate you coming on and talking to us, giving us a lot of background about Worx ,and what you do, and the union co-op model. I think all of that is really helpful, really good information. I'll make a second plug, too. You can go to Democracy At Work and buy the stuff at the on the merch section. And if it's a T-shirt, it's going to be printed by Worx and if you have a if you have a company that needs something printed, check out Worx. You can become another one of their clients. And if you're that same business owner and you're looking towards retirement, hey, you can also talk to your workers about doing a conversion and add to the co-op economy, which I think would be certainly beneficial. So like I said, Kevin, I appreciate you coming on and talking. I love to talk to you when you get to your 220th consecutive month of payroll or whatever it may be, just to kind of keep updated as to how you guys are doing. And I'm just across the border in Vermont, so I may make a trip down to Worcester and check it out.

Kevin O'Brien: Anytime, brother.

Kevin Gustafson: All right, man. Well, glad to have you on. If anyone and if you're, you know, watching this podcast, Democracy At Work has many other podcasts, including Richard Wolffe, of course, Economic Update, and Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, Capitalism Hits Home, Cities After... We got a lot of good stuff at Democracy At Work in terms of our media outlook. And also our web page has a working on new co-op section all about like specifically about co-ops. We do have a section and you do co-ops. So all relevant, all useful. And you can go buy a T-shirt from Democracy At Work. It'll help us out. help Kevin and Worx out, and nothing like being on your own advertisement for a cause that makes a difference. So with that, Kevin, thanks so much and I'll talk to you soon.

Kevin O'Brien: All right.

Kevin Gustafson: Well, thanks. Thanks for listening to this episode of All Thing Co-op. To learn more about All Thing Co-op, check out our web page at And if you enjoyed this podcast and want to help support it, please go to to contribute any amount that works for you.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability



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