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The US Worker Cooperative Movement Turns 20

Where Do We Go From Here?

When worker cooperators from all over the country gathered May 24-26, 2004 at the University of Minnesota – Minneapolis to form what was first named the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and Democratic Workplaces, there had already been a few long-standing worker cooperatives around the country:

  • In 1966, African American women sharecroppers in Alberta Alabama started quilting and sewing together to earn extra income to help their families escape debt peonage; and to address retaliation from white landowners who evicted sharecroppers for registering to vote. In 2004, the Freedom Quilting Bee was still in operation.
  • On the East Coast, conscientious objectors to the U.S. war in Vietnam had started pooling money to buy healthy food and operated out of church basements in Washington DC. In 1969, they outgrew basements and formed Glut Food Co-op, in Mt. Rainier, just across the DC line in Maryland.
  • Two years after Glut’s founding, in 1971, across the country on the West Coast in California, The Cheese Board Collective, a cheese shop and bakery in Berkeley, had cranked up its ovens and started functioning as a co-op.
  • Across the San Francisco Bay, Other Avenues, known as “The People’s Food System” had operated as a co-op in San Francisco since 1974. By the time worker cooperatives converged on UM-Minneapolis with their cooperative vision, Other Avenues had 30 years of experience bringing organic and local foods to the residents.
  • Rainbow Grocery started in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1975, and had already outgrown their original space by 1996 (Rainbow currently employs over 250 people).
  • Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing was founded in Madison, Wisconsin in 1980, building custom automation equipment.
  • Back East, one of the  oldest worker cooperatives still existing, Collective Copies, a worker-owned union copy shop in Amherst, Massachusetts, had led a successful strike and re-opened the business as a co-op with a union in 1983.
  • Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) started operations in 1985 with 12 health aides of color, to create good paying jobs with benefits that also provide high quality work in an industry known for poverty wages and poor working conditions. CHCA quickly grew to be the largest worker co-op in the country.
  • Equal Exchange was founded in Massachusetts in 1986, bringing fairly traded Nicaraguan coffee, and later many other products, to the US decades before most people had heard the phrase “fair trade.”

These are examples of worker co-ops in the United States in the late 20th century. While doing great work, and with a wealth of cooperative experience between them, before 2000 these somewhat isolated islands of democratic work and community care stood alone on the U.S. economic landscape, operating separately, and independent of each other. Maybe they didn’t even know that each other existed, or what they were doing to solve similar problems – especially those on opposite coasts. And most people in the U.S. knew little to nothing about worker co-ops. Regional worker co-op conferences started to help bring co-ops like these together, not just locally but regionally – with the goal to form a national network.

By that time, Grassroots Economic Organizing members had been writing about worker cooperative and alternative workplaces for 20 years, starting as the magazine Changing Work in 1984, and then the Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter. In 2000, GEO started to put together a directory called “An Economy of Hope” [see Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s article in this collection].  Around 2002, Bob Stone, a member of GEO,  had a mission. He got into his green pinto and drove to Boston, Amherst, New Orleans, the Midwest and West, bringing the news that GEO had created a directory and that worker co-ops should talk to each other more. He began to talk to organizers of the Western Worker Co-op Conference, and different cooperatives around the country, pushing the idea that these unique outposts of worker solidarity and democracy should come together to form local networks, then regional networks toward a national network to support each other and share best practices.

Stone credits Tim Huet, cofounder of and developer for the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives in Northern California, which helped to form independent bakeries in the Bay Area, with first talking about the need for a national worker cooperation association.  As a result of Stone’s travels and talks with the National Cooperative Business Association, a year later, the Eastern Conference for Workplace Development had its first conference in 2002. GEO member Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and NCBA member Leta Mach led a 15-coop organizing committee to pull off the conference. The Eastern Conference coordinated with the Western Conference for all regions to hold conferences in 2003, to lead up to a national conference in 2004. The Eastern Conference included the Southern region.  The Federation of Workplace Democracies in Minnesota (FWD-MN), organized by Tom Pierson and others, was also held in 2003. FWD-MN no longer exists2.

In late May 2004 representatives from the local and regional co-op associations and other cooperatives came together to form the first national federation of worker cooperatives.

Organizers and participants raised key questions at that first conference:

  • Should worker cooperatives even be helped by developers at all? The West Coast cooperatives had a strong DIY (do it yourself) ethic using intercooperation. Many more of the East coast co-ops had been developed by support groups with assistance from nonprofits.
  • Should a national worker cooperative organization be formed instead of loosely affiliated regional associations – would those associations be better to ensure strong local development?
  • Could the worker cooperative movement provide its workers with the benefits of traditional capitalist business such as health insurance and pensions?
  • Should cooperatives accept grants from philanthropies and could they truly be independent if money was accepted to start worker cooperatives, and outsiders managed the co-ops?

From our vantage point 20 years later, we can look back on that first conference, attended by 115 people who slept in college dorm rooms, as the official founding of the modern US worker cooperative movement1.

If we use the metaphor of human development, the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, at 20 years old, is now a very young adult – barely experienced, just becoming an adult and perhaps ready to hit its stride and become what it has the great potential to become. It seems to be a critical point in the development of the movement. Over the past 20 years:

  • The movement built alliances with workers in the union movement, organized labor, and developed an active and independent union cooperative movement (an article on its history and development is forthcoming).
  • More people of color have become a significant component of the worker co-op movement; and the publication of Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s Collective Courage:  A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, dispelled the myth of the cooperative movement being a “white hippy thing,” and educated an entire movement on the role of African Americans in the cooperative movement throughout history.
  • The formation, rise, and fall of the Democracy at Worker Network (DAWN), to put into practice a concept developed from the beginning of the USFWC: for peer development and peer-to-peer training by worker owners to help others become worker-owners and develop an ownership culture and control of their own enterprises.
  • The formation of the Democracy at Work Institute, to support worker co-op development and support the USFWC with research, and ability to accept grants.
  • Major municipal support in cities like New York, Madison, and Richmond, California, of worker cooperatives as an entrepreneurship and anti-poverty development strategy in cities.  Madison even had a councilperson, Rebecca Kemble, who was a worker cooperative advocate, Union Cab Co-op member, and past president of the USFWC board.
  • The United States, which was at one point the only industrialized country without a cooperative movement, stepped up into the world’s cooperative arena with the help of our friends at the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation (CWCF). USFWC not only developed a movement, but also sent representatives to CICOPA, the international worker cooperative association.

In tribute to, and celebration of, 20 years of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, GEO is launching this 20th Anniversary Collection. This collection will include interviews and articles discussing:

  • Perspectives from new and old movement leaders on what they think the worker cooperative movement accomplished and where it should go from here;
  • Analysis by various writers on our movement’s successes and failures;
  • Analyses of where we are headed, or should be, as a movement;
  • Issues that we should be addressing in a possible Artificial Intelligence-powered future threatened by climate change on the planet that threatens to disrupt our way of life.

Starting today, we will run articles throughout the rest of the year, on various aspects and issues of concern to the movement.  The collection will include:

  • A reflection on the first years on the road toward a US Federation, from local and regional worker co-op organizing to a national organization; and the role played by GEO, written by Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard.
  • An article, by Michael Johnson, of the Growing Democracy Project, reiterates an idea said in many forms over the 20 years – the worker cooperative movement needs to expand its reach to groups of people who think differently, but can all benefit from cooperatives.
  • An interview with John A. McNamara, former business manager of Union Cab in Madison, recipient of a PhD in Business Management from St. Mary’s College in Nova Scotia (whose Co-op Management program did not exist 20 years ago), and now a co-op developer in the Pacific Northwest as co-executive director at the Northwest Cooperative Development Center.
  • GEO member Jim Johnson’s reflections on what was happening in his world as a worker-owner, and his transition to freelance worker co-op developer, amidst the first 20 years of the USFWC and the organizing of the Democracy At Work Network..

Coming up on tap throughout the next several months:

  • A history of the U.S. Union-Co-op Movement.
  • Tech worker cooperatives and their role in the cooperative movement.
  • The US Government as a developer of worker and/or incubator of all types of cooperatives as a means to address economic inequities.
  • Lessons from New Era Windows, which was a phenomenon in the worker cooperative movement when a US factory, learning from Argentina, took over a closing factory in Chicago.
  • A history of financing and fundraising and new developments along these lines in the Worker Cooperative Movement.
  • The Role of Mondragon in the development and visioning of the US Worker Cooperative Movement.
  • The professional v. the grassroots style of cooperative organizing and training.
  • And whatever blogs or opinions you, our readers with opinions, may want to contribute.

Together, let’s explore what lessons we have we learned, and where we go from here.

Send articles and comments to editors@geo.coop and please consider making a donation.

  • 2Not to be confused with Forward Minnesota.
  • 1The first board dropped the “Democratic Workplaces” in the name, which was designed to include democratic Employee Stock Ownership Programs or ESOPs, as they already had their own national organization.
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