Skip to content
View Featured Image

From ‘An Economy Of Hope’ To The US Federation Of Worker Cooperatives

The United States of America was the last industrialized country in the world to establish a national federation of worker co-ops.

While there are many people who contributed to the founding of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, I would like to provide reflections on the role played by the Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter Collective. But first, I’d like to acknowledge and thank everyone who participated in various ways to organizing the first national US conference of worker co-ops and democratic workplaces in 2004, which established the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and who contributed to the USFWC’s first successful years.

In 2000, the GEO Newsletter staff released a directory they compiled over 18 months, An Economy of Hope: Annotated National Directory of Worker Co-ops, Democratic ESOPs, Sustainable Enterprises, Support Organizations & Resources. Led by GEO members Berta Nelson, Frank Lindenfeld, Len Krimerman, and Wade Wright1, GEO hoped to provide a list of “alternative enterprises” or “workplace pioneers,” in order to help:

  1. Consumers find and purchase from companies that do not exploit their workers or the natural environment, and are owned and controlled locally;
  2. Workers to know they can find, and demand to work in, firms that encourage and reward employee creativity, initiative and responsibility; and provide workplace democracy and worker ownership and control; and
  3. Students and activists to know about such companies, and find support organizations that provide needed resources and information about alternative and democratic forms of community and economic development; and offer opportunities to learn about economic democracy and to practice democratic decision-making and consensus building (education for democracy).

GEO also commented in the Introduction to An Economy of Hope, that this directory will help existing sustainable and cooperative enterprises to inter-cooperate, and “form a collaborative network with other local or like-minded firms” to begin discussing joint ventures, co-marketing, co-producing, and the like. It is this inter-cooperation that I want to focus on now.

In 2000, GEO only found about 300 examples of worker ownership and democratic workplaces, many of them worker co-ops, in the US. Some of these democratic enterprises knew about each other, but most did not. The Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NOBAWC) had existed since 1994 and provided a model for local coalitions of worker co-ops and democratic workplaces, but there really were not any other local worker co-op networks yet. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund had been bringing together Black farmers and cooperators from across the South since 1967, but 98% of them were not members of worker co-ops. At some point in the 1990s, NOBAWC started the Western Worker Co-op Conferences, and brought worker co-ops and democratic workplaces from the west coast of the USA together annually to discuss and share best practices, learn from each other, and provide training for worker co-op development and more democratic worker self-management. As GEO observed all this, member Bob Stone2, put An Economy of Hope into his suitcase and started traveling to major cities inviting worker co-ops in that location to meet with him so that they could meet each other. Known as our “GEO Traveler,” Stone helped to organize metro-area worker co-op networks in New Orleans, Boston, Amherst, and other places around the country using the NOBAWC model and information from An Economy of Hope.

Stone understood that we could not have a strong national movement without vibrant local and regional associations and networks. Now that we had names of worker co-ops and contacts because of the work done to create An Economy of Hope, we could connect co-ops and people together, help reduce feelings of isolation, and form commercial and movement bonds that would strengthen existing worker co-ops and help to create more. At the time, this was the only resource listing worker cooperatives and other businesses like them.3

Bob Stone also encouraged GEO to think about helping to start an eastern worker co-op conference to connect these fledgling local networks with other groups in the region. Stone brought Richard Dines, then membership director at the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA/CLUSA) together with me, Jessica Gordon-Nembhard (who had recently joined GEO), to start to think about organizing an eastern conference. Soon Leta Mach, NCBA education director, replaced Dines to work with us on this project. We created a planning committee, including GEO, NCBA, Ohio Employee Ownership Center, Southern Appalachia Center for Cooperative Ownership, Cooperative Development Institute, Cooperative Life, The ICA Group, Ownership Associates; plus representatives from major worker co-ops in the east such as Equal Exchange, Red Sun Press, Collective Copies, and an increasing number of others along the eastern seaboard.4 After extensive organizing, fundraising and planning starting in 2001, we held the first Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) in July 2002, at my place of employment at that time, The University of Maryland, College Park, co-hosted by the Democracy Collaborative and The National Cooperative Business Association.

Stone credits Tim Huet, of Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and later the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, with suggesting the need for a national federation. “Tim and the West Coast folks had already had a conception of a national federation,” Stone explains. “All of my own work on ECWD was in light of that ultimate national goal.” So the ECWD was a step forward toward a grander plan which was realized in 2004, because of all the careful planning and detailed grassroots and regional organizing that happened between 2000 and 2004.

The first Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy was an organizing feat, because while we wanted to follow NOBAWC and the Western Worker Co-op Conference in prioritizing worker-owners and being worker-owner-led, we had strong support organizations in the Northeast that had capacity to provide staff and volunteers to help with the organizing and planning, and money and resources to contribute to the costs of the planning and the conference. Also, since there were still few local worker co-op networks and the existing ones were fledgling, we had the challenge of finding and getting to know each other at the same time that we were organizing a major conference.

Adding to the challenge, many worker owners were too busy working and growing their own enterprises to spare much time for institutional planning and movement building. We agonized over how to help worker-owners find the time, and toyed with providing stipends, paying co-ops for the loss of a worker-owner’s time, and other ways to free up the time of our target participants. We tried a little of everything but ended up mostly partnering worker-owners with support people. We prioritized using worker-owners’ energy to choose and design the content of the conference, as well as how we learn together. We utilized support organizations and their staff and volunteers to handle logistics and some of the fundraising.

The first Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy was attended by 96 people mostly worker co-op owners and members of support organizations from Ohio to Maine, New Orleans to Washington, DC, and in between. We had agreed we would have been happy if only 20 people showed up, so having almost 100 people at our first conference was quite an achievement! We also felt strongly that any democratic workplace (such as 100% worker owned ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Companies) and democratically run nonprofits) was welcome, and would contribute to and benefit from such a conference (hence our name). So we focused on democratic participation and self-management best practices, with some sessions on Co-op 101 skills and human resources development in worker co-ops. We also included plenaries about worker co-op movement building and policy needs. By the time of the second conference in 2003, we added a track for more mature co-ops and democratic workplaces and what growth means. We organized two annual conferences until we had a national conference and federation, and then alternated years between regional conferences and national conferences.

I could go on about the ECWD and its accomplishments, however, I promised that this reflection would get us to understand better the development of the US Federation of Worker Co-ops. The ECWD, though important in and of itself, and celebrated 20 years two years ago, is only a part of this story. It is important to reiterate that once the ECWD was put in place, we started looking to the Midwest and the South for regional worker co-op conferences.

Strong national movements need strong local and regional networks and associations. So in 2003, in addition to holding a second ECWD (which included most of the South), and in addition to the West having its annual conference, the Midwest had its first regional worker co-op conference. But the planning for a national conference toward a national federation had already begun at the end of the first ECWD. At the 2002 ECWD, Tim Huet discussed the west coast idea that we needed a national federation. Three representatives from the eastern conference joined a national conference organizing committee to work with the West Coast: Randy Zucco of Collective Copies, Lisa Russell of Equal Exchange, and Josh Brown of Casa Nueva (soon replaced by GEO’s own, Ajowa Ifateyo).

Also encouraging us was Bruno Roelants, the General Secretary of the international federation of worker co-ops CICOPA (International Organization of Industrial and Service Cooperatives). Roelants, in his keynote speech at the second ECWD in Amherst, MA, urged that it was time for the US to have a national federation. We also had support from the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. By that time, the national conference planning committee had already decided to hold a national worker co-op conference in 2004 in Minneapolis (halfway between the east and west coasts).

At the 2004 national conference there was an agreement among the 115 attendees to found what was first called the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces. We hashed out what it means to be a worker cooperative, and regional boundaries for regional representation. We identified three kinds of members: worker co-ops, democratic workplaces, and regional and local networks (whose votes were weighted differently); plus individual members (who were non voting members). And as Ajowa Ifateyo notes in an article celebrating the USFWC’s 10th anniversary, “at that first conference, participants included provisions to ensure the appointment of women, people of color, youth, and differently-abled people.” I was one of those people who argued that from the beginning our federation needed consciously and deliberately to ensure our leadership and governance structure was inclusive, and be pro-active about including all dimensions of diversity. And in 2023, the USFWC board had grown to be actually majority people of color.

What are some of the lessons learned from this history for the next 20 years of the USFWC? First and foremost: the importance of good communications and the cultivation of democratic participation across the nation. Second, the value of peer-to-peer learning and interactions – having worker-owners meet together and learn from each other, as well as work and plan together, leading the way. Third, the critical role of grassroots organizing so that even the tiniest voices and smallest co-ops participate and are heard. Fourth, ensuring that links between local, regional and national networks remain connected and strong.

The impact of the directory An Economy of Hope, was to help us find each other in this harsh economic world, and help us to band together to support each other. The GEO editors explained:

“Looking through these listings, you will find, as we did, that a new and hopeful and inclusive economy is beginning to take root in these United States, one that offers a democratic challenge to TINA, the obnoxious myth that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to doing business, or to creating work, in the same old corporate capitalist way.”

The formation of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives is a key source of that hope. And the increasing numbers of diverse worker cooperatives and democratic workplaces in the USA today continues to provide us hope, and show that there is another way. We should not lose sight of the details at the grassroots – the people in our movement – and we must continue to honor our people, our worker-owners, and our achievements, from the bottom up. The way to a better future depends on this.

Notes:

  • 1Frank Lindenfeld and Len Krimerman co-founded the magazine Changing Work, and then transformed the magazine into the Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter in 1992. Wade Wright was managing editor of the print GEO Newsletter until 2004 when he retired.
  • 2For more about radical philosopher Bob Stone, see the website of The Center for Global Justice that he helped found after retiring to Mexico. He and wife Betsy Bowman last year completed Reading Sartre’s Second Ethics.
  • 3Later GEO joined others to establish the Data Commons Collective (now the Data Commons Cooperative) which used An Economy of Hope as the foundation of their database.
  • 4Please excuse me if I’ve left any organization out. See John Lawrence Report “report back” from the ECWD for more details. https://geo.coop/archives/eastcwd.htm
Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.