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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Role of Unions in Worker Co-op Development

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April 19, 2011
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By Mary Hoyer, Liz Ryder, Frank Adams, John Curl, and Deb Groban Olson of the USFWC UnionCo-ops Committee


Labor unions and cooperatives enjoy a long and rich history of interaction, despite historical tensions between these two sectors (see John Curl's 2009 book For All the People).


In the early days of the labor movement, strikers formed worker cooperatives so they could continue working and providing for their families while on strike.  During the Populist Movement, before the turn of the 20th century, cooperatives and labor unions worked together to form a political movement. 


In 1860 William Sylvis helped establish the National Molders Union which peaked around 1865.  Subsequent defeats at the hands of employers left the union diminished, and Sylvis turned to cooperatives as a way to eliminate the wage system and end class conflict.  The success of the first foundry cooperative in Troy, New York, spurred the organization of others.


In 1885, the Solidarity Watch-Case Co-operative, was organized in Brooklyn, New York, by the Knights of Labor (KOL) after a strike against the Brooklyn Watch Company for a shorter work week.  It became a thriving business, growing from eight to a hundred and ten workers, and was the first in the industry to give themselves a paid half-holiday on Saturday.  The members were part of a group called the Solidarity Co-operative Association, run by a committee appointed by KOL District Assembly 49 (Manhattan and Brooklyn).  This umbrella association raised funds to start new cooperatives and participated in their management. 


In the middle of the 20th century, the Steelworkers formed the Worker Ownership Institute in response to the exportation of jobs overseas.  They attempted to convert failing steel mills to Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) with minimal success against the tide of economic globalization. 


In 1983, Collective Copies in western Massachusetts (a print/copy shop) was formed as the result of a strike against Gnomon Copies by workers who had just joined United Electrical.  When Gnomon went under, UE reps helped workers organize as a co-op.  It continues as a successfully print/copy shop today.


In 1990, Maryland Brush Company in Baltimore, Maryland - which has operated since 1851 providing stock and custom brush products and related merchandise to the metalwork, rubber, pipeline/welding, and other industries--became employee owned with support from United Steel Workers of America.  It is a 100% worker-owned, one-vote-per-person Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) in which worker owners have voting rights on all shareholder matters.



Brushes from the Maryland Brush Company, which converted to a democratic ESOP in 1990 with the support of the United Steel Workers of America.


Unions have historically focused on bargaining with owners and managers for crucial benefits and working conditions rather than on ownership of enterprise and participation in decision-making and management.  Members of worker co-ops often reject union membership, thinking that their integral role in the co-op will protect them through any type of conflict. 


Worker participation schemes take many forms, but without ownership they can put workers in the awkward position of "thinking themselves out of jobs," while seeing their hard work and ideas financially benefit owners and managers rather than themselves.  Ownership via stock plans (ESOPs) gives workers a share in profit, but often leaves them without a majority voice in management decisions. Both ownership and democratic participation in decision-making - which are the cornerstones of worker cooperatives - are needed for workers to realize their full potential in the workplace.


The idea of labor unions as potential initiators of worker co-ops has recently emerged from various sources.


In 2007, Lynn Williams, longtime leader of the United Steelworkers of America, was the keynote presenter at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy in Asheville, North Carolina.  During the business meeting at this conference, participants mandated establishment of a Union Co-ops Committee to bring worker cooperatives and labor unions into discussion with one another.  Since the late fall of 2007, the committee has met monthly by conference call to which people throughout the United States (and Canada, where worker co-ops and unions are engaged in a similar dialogue) are regularly invited. 


The Union Co-ops Committee is now housed with the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and, although not all members are active on all calls, they monitor the work and progress of the committee.  Four major tasks the group has undertaken are:  1) establishing an on-line compendium of resources that labor activists can use to introduce the concept of worker cooperation to their members and leaders for development of new worker co-ops;  2) presenting workshops at worker co-op conferences about the work being done by union activists on worker cooperation;  3) collecting data and information on unionized worker co-ops and the benefits they offer;  and 4) presenting workshops about worker co-ops at labor conferences.


In 2009, the United Steelworkers initiated a discussion with Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain about a pilot project converting manufacturing companies to worker cooperatives in the U.S.  The union, during a time of grievous assault by capital and governments on labor in the U.S., continues to explore possible pilot projects on which this work can focus.


In 2010, the idea of labor unions - with their funding and research staff - as a model for initiating worker co-ops was raised at the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops conference in Berkeley.  Lisabeth Ryder of AFSCME Western Region discussed a strategy for countering privatization of government agencies with worker cooperatives, and Deb Groban Olson of Center for Community Based Enterprise in Detroit raised the potential for union cultivation and incubation of worker cooperatives.


The permanent link to this issue is


About the Author


Mary Hoyer is a community and cooperative development consultant working out of Amherst, Massachusetts.  She works with the Cooperative Fund of New England, a lending organization for cooperatives and community-based nonprofits; the Cooperative Development Institute, a regional co-op training organization; and the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, a regional consortium of democratically owned and managed businesses and their supporters.  She has worked in organizational development and governance, anti-racism and anti-apartheid initiatives, public and community education, and union organizing.  She co-chairs the UnionCo-ops Committee, a national group that functions under the auspices of the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops.




When citing this article, please use the following format:


Mary Hoyer, Liz Ryder, Frank Adams, John Curl, and Deb Groban Olson of the USFWC UnionCo-ops Committee (2011).  The Role of Unions in Worker Co-op Development. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue .






that last line, "union cultivation and incubation of worker cooperatives.", what does that mean? can trade unions make the transition of turning privately owned workplaces into worker coops? won't that be met with a lot of contempt from the private owners of unionized workplaces?

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