A shadow is hanging over America, the shadow of a wrecked economic system. Tens of millions of unemployed remain despondent about ever finding a job again, an entire young generation despairing of any hope for a good life, while corporate market pundits pontificate that our system creates the best of all societies, and no alternative is possible. A nationwide group gathering in Berkeley this coming weekend is putting the lie to the pundits.
The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), is holding its biannual conference at the Clark Kerr Center at UC August 6-8, riding an exhilarating wave of a movement that has swelled to worldwide importance over the past decade. The United Nations has recognized and encouraged this growth, and has asked all governments to form a partnership with the cooperative movement to solve the global problems of unemployment and poverty, problems that the current economic system is not structured to solve, and that are poised to engulf the world in disasters of enormous magnitudes. The UN has declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives.
All around us numerous people search anxiously for a job, while numerous storefronts and workspaces lie empty. What stands in the way of these two vast resources coming together to create new businesses and jobs on a large scale? The dominant economic system controls the resources to make that happen, but full employment and economic equity were never goals of the capitalist system. On the other hand, those goals mesh well with the cooperative movement. However, while numerous unemployed people would happily take a job as co-owner of a cooperative business, there are comparatively few cooperative jobs and businesses. At the precise moment that a great influx of resources is needed, funding sources are cut back. One focus of the conference is to examine different strategies for cooperative development, creating mechanisms to organize and finance the movement, and ultimately to fulfill its mission.
Conference workshops and speakers will also cover many other aspects and issues of the movement, some geared to the large picture while others focus on internal problem-solving on the intimate level of the democratic workplace.
One workshop will focus on development led and funded by cooperatives themselves. Adam Trott, of the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives ( VAWC), will discuss how that organization is mobilizing co-op resources in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, to develop new worker cooperatives, cultivate university curricula related to co-ops, facilitate cross sector co-op collaboration, and work for a cooperative economy. Two of their international models are lega of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy and Mondragon in Basque Spain, which have thousands of worker co-ops in their systems. The workshop will explore how cooperative-led development differs from nonprofit- or government-led development, and why VAWC feels it is key for the growth of the movement.
Another speaker, Ted Howard, is an architect of the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative of Cleveland, a nonprofit launched in 2008, with a mission of stabilizing and revitalizing six low-income neighborhoods in that city, with 43,000 residents and a median household income of $18,5000. Their cooperative development strategy leverages a portion of the annual procurement expenditures of anchor institutions such as local hospitals and universities, into the surrounding neighborhoods to create new co-op businesses and jobs. The first two Evergreen cooperatives, Evergreen Cooperative Laundry and Ohio Cooperative Solar, are both successfully launched, and two more co-op businesses are in their pipeline for this year. They plan an integrated network of 10 cooperatives with approximately 500 worker-owners, within 3 years.
Last fall the United Steel Workers Union, (USW), North America's largest labor union, and Mondragon International, the largest group of worker cooperatives in the world, announced that they are exploring a partnership "towards making union co-ops a viable business model that can create good jobs, empower workers, and support communities in the United States and Canada." A workshop led by several labor and co-op leaders will explore this growing partnership between worker cooperatives and unions as a strategy to create jobs. It will focus on how labor unions and support groups are creating successful unionized worker-owned co-ops, providing workers more control of their work and increasing union membership. A new type of "worker owner" union membership is being developed, to complement the usual collective bargaining type of membership, providing worker-owned companies with resources, and offering unions new members. Gary Holloway of the USW will give an update on the USW-Mondragon project, and others will report on projects in Oregon, Oklahoma and Maryland, followed by a discussion of ways that working people can gain control of local economic development.
A workshop led by Jessica Gordon-Nembhard of ONE DC (a social justice group which grew out of a neighborhood development corporation in the Shaw area of Washington, DC), will explore worker co-op solutions in the "informal economy," the "grey market," the spontaneous, underground economic activities that people do to survive. Many of these activities operate in ways similar to cooperatives and hold similar values. Organizing into formal cooperatives has proven beneficial to many of these groups. The workshop will look at examples of informal collective activity that transformed into formal cooperatives, gaining legitimization and community benefits, and explore how the co-op structure can help women, youth, immigrants, others left out of the mainstream economy, and all people struggling to survive.
Although no workshop specifically focuses on government relationship to co-ops, it is sure to be discussed. The Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NOBAWC), the local affiliate to USFWC, is currently proposing a worker cooperative and solidarity economy platform to the San Francisco Community Congress being held this August. The Community Congress is aimed at a vast re-envisioning of San Francisco within the global and regional economy, proposing a deeply new approach to sustainable community economic development, job creation, and affordable housing. Most of the cooperative platform is applicable to all the Bay Area cities. The current draft of the platform includes: "adopt the worker cooperative model for economic development on an equal basis with other business models; include worker cooperatives as a viable and sustainable business model in all relevant city literature; support worker cooperative incubation and technical assistance; support the inclusion of worker cooperatives in educational and vocational curricula; prioritize worker cooperatives as a preferable model of doing business; prioritize procurement of goods and services from local worker cooperatives; finance worker cooperatives through a revolving loan fund, whose capital is provided by city money through a municipal bank; encourage conversion to the worker cooperative business model as a viable option; provide assistance for worker buy-outs of struggling small manufacturing/light industry shops; consider place-based worker cooperative development as a primary way to rejuvenate a low-income neighborhood's economy."
Cooperatives have a long and deep history in the world and locally, dating back to Indigenous times, the Gold Rush, the Progressive era, the Great Depression, the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. Worker cooperatives are based on the simplest of concepts: mutual aid. But the cooperative system is unfamiliar to many people, who have spent their work lives inside the boss-employee wage system and its top-down command structure, and have little experience working democratically. Does the worker cooperative system work? It has proven its viability numerous times in numerous places. With worker co-ops democracy is practiced on a daily basis, and wealth is pumped back into local economies. Worker cooperatives are a model and a strategy for empowering people to create a socially just world. A society with an expansive sector of democratically-run enterprises is a inspiring concept for an era when all the old answers have failed, and the world looks for hope to new visionary solutions.
John Curl is author of For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America. Oakland: PM Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-60486-072-6