Worker Cooperatives – a Viable Economic Alternative?

by Bernard Marszalek‚ Apr. 14‚ 2010

A multi-million dollar network of worker cooperatives in Cleveland, a successful alliance of Latina co-operatives in the Bay Area, and a worker co-operative store selling farm-direct food in West Oakland were just some of the projects presented at the California cooperative conference in Santa Rosa this past weekend. Add to these ventures the news that the United Steel Workers are planning to create cooperatives so that union members actually own their jobs and not just rent them and one must ask, “Worker cooperatives? What, in America?”


This year’s conference organized by the California Center for Cooperative Development (CCCD) focused on “job creation and building community-based economies to strengthen communities, create wealth, and transform lives.”


The CCCD is a newly organized non-profit dedicated, as it says on its website, “to promote cooperatives as a vibrant business model to address the economic and social needs of California’s communities.”


In an age when an abundance of crises seem to accelerate mass anxiety, it is all too easy to feel disempowered and retreat into our personal lives. Signs of resistance and hope, which could prevent this sense of powerlessness, do not make the evening news or the front pages of our daily press.


Worker cooperatives, food stores and housing co-ops are a tiny sector of the America economy, but community activists are beginning to recognize their importance. As activists across the country move beyond a resistance strategy with essentially minor victories, to proposals for positive, long-lasting economic change, cooperatives increasingly become an option to investigate. Co-ops have a track record of providing a solid economic base to under-served communities.


Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York provides above scale wages and real job control to over 1500 workers who would otherwise be exploited and marginalized. And right here in Northern California Alverado Street Bakery, a worker cooperative, was highlighted in Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story as an industrial bakery with good wages and benefits far surpassing the industry norm.


Historically, cooperative ventures have arisen from the efforts of ordinary people during previous economic slumps. In the Depression, hundreds of self-help groups formed in California (and across the country) that used barter and time exchanges of labor to create an economy without money. The network created by these groups formed the basis for Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign in 1934.


Economic community development projects have been around for decades, and there have been successful revivals of failing communities. But all too often these “successes” do not benefit the original in-need population, as in the case of urban gentrification. In other situations the “revival” may last for a few years but then fail due to unforeseen outside economic forces.


What the current crop of activists recognizes is that to achieve longevity economic development has to happen from the ground up. Professionals are necessary to move a project up to scale, but they must take direction from below and not assume that pleading to the power structure to provide benefits will insure long-term success. The social change process cannot be a top-down, outside-in affair, but must be exactly the opposite. When it moves into the arena of economic development, the work of democratic planning and community involvement, the strong points of social justice activism, changes lives in meaningful ways.


The transformation of community activism into economic activism began before the current recession and financial crisis. The Just Wage movement began in the late 1990’s, for example, and has had notable results. Justice for Janitors campaigns and union organizing drives in the growing service sector are other successful examples that have affected many communities across the country. The current economic crisis, however, accelerated the search for viable solutions to economic hardships as they became even worse than before.


The latest developments that have caught the attention of community activists revolve around creating economic power closer to the point of production, not by seizing production in the Marxist paradigm (not in itself necessarily a bad idea), but by collectively developing production to serve as a source for jobs.


Cooperatives, for instance, are on the agenda of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United). ROC-United is opening organizing centers across the country. In Chicago, they are planning a cooperative restaurant based on their successful Colors Restaurant in New York City. In Detroit, community groups and union organizers are discussing the formation of a worker cooperative food store10 to serve the inner city.


And across the country, established worker cooperatives have organized regionally, adopting the form pioneered in the San Francisco Bay area by the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC, say No Boss!). NoBAWC includes over thirty worker cooperatives and collectives with over a thousand individual members. At the US Social Forum in Detroit this June, cooperative economics will be a major aspect of this second US Forum that follows the model of the World Social Forums. Organizers expect 20,000 activists to attend. And later this summer, the Federation of Worker Cooperatives13 will be holding its third national conference in Berkeley.


These developments are significant in themselves, but they become all the more important when they ally with related movements. The Cooperative Conference, for example, brought together participants with the Sonoma County GoLocal campaign. This is a new and savvy network organized as a cooperative to link businesses and individuals in a joint effort to retain local economic power. And to eventually expand the local economy with job creation.


Couple this endeavor with credit unions, housing co-ops, land trusts and eco-friendly businesses and what we have begins to look like a movement for real change. While Wall Street spins dreams of financial bliss, the nightmare they brought to Main Street may be lifting to reveal a brighter vision. An alternative, grassroots economy may be on the horizon that will create a quality of life to address the needs of people, not corporations.

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