When the Workers Become the Owners: Taking the Co-op Movement to the Next Level

Source: Truthout

There’s a revolution taking place in the US workforce – but you may not have heard about it.

Around the country, workers are starting businesses that they democratically control and that financially benefit them. These businesses, called worker cooperatives, are owned and governed by the employees. Every worker is a member of the co-op, which gives them one share and one vote in the company’s operations.

Worker cooperatives come in all shapes and sizes. Equal Exchange, a distributor of fair trade chocolate and coffee, has over 100 worker-owners, with a board of directors and co-executive directors, all ultimately accountable to the employees. My own worker cooperative, TESA (The Toolbox for Education and Social Action), has three members, and we operate with a more horizontal, collective governance structure. Cooperative Home Care Associates is a cooperative that has thousands of worker-owners and a traditional management hierarchy. Pedal People is a bicycle-powered trash, recycling and compost removal co-op with roughly 15 members; they all serve on the co-op’s steering committee and make decisions for the company using consensus.

TESA has been educating and organizing for worker cooperatives since 2010. We built and produced Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives, which has become the game of the movement, and has been played in thousands of homes and towns. We’ve also traveled across the country, giving trainings and helping to develop cooperative education programs. During the past five years, we’ve seen a surge of interest in cooperatives, and new ones springing up in different industries and communities every week.

However, even though the worker-cooperative movement is growing and employees are increasingly banding together to democratically own and run their workplaces, we still have a long way to go – proven by the fact that you may not have heard of us before. Right now, we’re only a small fraction of the workforce. We have a harder time getting access to capital from financial institutions that don’t understand our model. Plus, we’re constantly rediscovering that democracy can be a messy thing: Cooperatively making decisions for our businesses takes practice and time, especially when we’re so used to one or a few people having almost total control. Of course, many laws also need to be changed to make launching new co-ops more viable. And the list goes on.

So, I asked Esteban Kelly and Melissa Hoover, two prominent figures in the worker-cooperative movement, what they think needs to be done to bring our movement to the next level and really make large-scale change. Esteban Kelly is the co-executive director of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and a worker-owner with AORTA: Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (a worker-owned social and economic justice facilitation, design and consulting co-op). Kelly has also founded and served on the board of numerous other cooperative endeavors. Melissa Hoover is the founding executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute and the former executive director of the USFWC. She’s also previously been a worker-owner at a co-op, helped start other co-ops and serves on the board of multiple co-op movement organizations.

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