U.S. Worker Co-ops Unite!

At their founding convention in late May, the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces set some ambitious goals. Co-op grocery stores and co-op businesses that supply them played a major role in planning the federation’s founding event, and several food co-op worker-members were elected to the board of directors.

The conference is the culmination of two years of organizing by three regional coalitions which have taken shape during the past decade: the initial Western Worker Cooperative Conference, the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, and the most recent Midwest Worker Cooperative Conference. Local associations are active in several states as well, including California, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts.

Conference participants came from diverse industry sectors: Equal Exchange, a $13 million worker cooperative and a pioneer in selling fair-trade coffee, based outside Boston, Mass.; San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery, with more than 200 worker-owners; and Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing in Madison, Wisconsin, which produces automated machinery.

Regional representation was not the only sign of diversity at the conference, which received high marks from many participants for its range of ethnic and gender identifications and ages, with a strong presence by young cooperators who assumed much of the leadership in organizing the conference.

The newly minted national federation will explore joint health insurance plans, create new educational resources, and expand and upgrade a national database of democratic workplaces. They hope to set up a retirement/pension fund that could be used both to finance start-ups and as a co-op loan fund; $65,000 has already been dedicated.

They used their new website (www.usworker.coop) to help plan and prepare for the decision-making that occurred at the conference.

To help move this ambitious agenda forward, the 115 participants at the founding conference, held at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Center for Public Policy in Minneapolis, elected a nine-member board of directors representing the North, South, East, and West regions.

The new board includes, from the West Coast: Brahm Ahmadhi, People’s Grocery in Oakland, Calif.; Lori Burge, People’s Co-op in Portland, Ore.; and Kirsten Marshall, Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco. The East is represented by Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo, based in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Grassroots Economic Organizing collective, and Omar Freilla of Green Worker Cooperatives in the Bronx, N.Y. Bob Cahill of North Country Co-op in Minneapolis, Minn. and Tom Pierson of Seward Community Cafe, Minneapolis, Minn. represent the North; and Alice Murphy of Blue Moon Cafe, Asheville, N.C. and Ajamu Nangwaya of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives based in Epes, Ala. represent the South.

Membership: standing on common ground

Interest in worker cooperatives—and other forms of employee ownership—has accelerated in this country in recent years. And it’s not just U.S. workers who are interested. Labor unions, community organizations, policy makers, and economic development professionals are coming to recognize that workplace democracy creates quality jobs and helps stabilize local economies and communities.

About 400 worker co-ops are operating in the United States in every segment of the economy, including software developers and machine shops; publishers, printers and copy centers; furniture makers and builders; home healthcare workers and childcare providers; cafés, bakeries and grocery stores; recreation, manufacturers, symphonies, and more.

Democratic workplaces—businesses in which employees participate in all levels of decision-making, and in which they either fully or partially own the assets of the business—include some Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), in which workers influence corporate policies. Nearly nine million employees, or eight percent of the private workforce, work in 11,000 ESOP companies, with aggregate assets of more than $400 billion, according to a December 2003 survey by the National Employee Ownership Center.

Going global with CICOPA

Another popular proposal at the conference was that of becoming more active in the rapidly growing international movement for workplace democracy by joining the International Organization of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Co-operatives (CICOPA), the worker co-op arm of the International Co-operative Alliance.

CICOPA president Rainer Schluter reported that in Europe they have seen a leap from 2,500 worker co-ops and related models in 1980, to 85,000 today, with a membership of 1.5 million worker-owners. In his conference keynote he also stressed the growth of the “social economy” in Europe, where businesses are increasingly based on serving people’s needs rather than maximizing profits for absent investors. Cooperatives, as well as other group-based businesses and many nonprofits and associations, should be included in this vision, he said.

“There have been two major failures in recent years,” Schluter told the worker-owners. “The state model failed, as we saw with the end of the Soviet Union. But the [speculative investor, profit-driven] model is failing as well.”

Cooperatives have a golden opportunity to help build an economy based on equality and justice, Schluter continued, “but if we are going to be effective, we have to be heard, and the only way to do that is by linking at the local level, the national level, and the international level.”

April Bourgeois, a member of the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation delegation at the conference, and also a CICOPA representative, noted that the United States is forming its federation for workplace democracy at a propitious time.

“This will give your worker co-ops a seat at the table in the international realm,” she said. “We have (CICOPA) members in Canada, and in Central and South America; the USA’s absence has been pretty conspicuous.”

Looks as if that’s about to change. Stay tuned for updates, and look for more coverage in the July edition of Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO)newsletter, a publishing collective that has been active in organizing worker cooperative solidarity for more than 25 years. (www.geo.coop)

Note: A listserve has been established for members of worker co-ops to discuss issues specific to them. Tim Huet of Association of Arizmendi Cooperatives in the San Francisco area is the list serve moderator and can be reached at [email protected] for an invitation to the group.

See other articles from this issue: #113 July - August - 2004