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A Co-Op Solution: Fighting the ‘New Normal’ with Workplace Democracy

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Academics and politicians are catching on. The mayor of Richmond, Calif., a town with a 16 percent unemployment rate, recently unveiled a renewal project that centers cooperatives as engines of economic growth and empowerment. Gayle McLaughlin’s initiative takes cues from both Spain and Cleveland, Ohio, whose Cleveland Foundation distributes grants to cooperatives like the Evergreen network.

In Congress, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.) has proposed the National Cooperative Development Act. The bill establishes a federal organization—the National Cooperative Development Center—that would provide start-up capital for worker-owned enterprises, training for development organizations, and grants to cooperatives around the country. The act allocates a modest $25 million to the center, but advocates say every little bit helps.

Federally-funded loans would help a common problem of worker cooperatives: Acquiring start-up money.

“A typical bank doesn’t even understand cooperatives, the concept,” Beckett said. “They’re not dealing with one person who will put their house up as collateral.”

More disquieting is the bill’s lack of support among members of Congress more interested in quibbling over other matters.

“It perturbs me that we could only get three cosponsors for this bill,” Kelleher said. “I’m hoping that they’ll come around to this very modest, job-creating proposal. [The act] can be effective—it can certainly be effective.”

The National Cooperative Development Act was introduced just in time for the United Nations’ International Year of Cooperatives, which urges governments worldwide to sponsor cooperative development and kicked off earlier this week. The U.N. declaration specifically recognizes the benefits that cooperatives offer for marginalized people and their massive potential for ameliorating poverty.

This consciousness-raising has found yet another loud voice in the U.S. in recent months: University of Maryland Professor Gar Alperovitz, whose op-ed in the New York Times, “Worker-Owners of America, Unite!,”was followed shortly by an article for Occupy Boston’s newspaper. In the latter piece, Alperovitz calls for a democratizing of ownership, and expresses hope for a cooperative future. Constituencies, he writes, must “come to understand why these new economic models are important to a democratic future.”

That democratic future, if cooperative advocates are right, would have none of the booms and busts that have rocked the world economy. It would involve, Kelleher said, people being “active participants in the political system regardless of their socioeconomic status.”

Asked to dream big, Kelleher does: “The purpose in a cooperative economy would be to serve people. To serve needs, economic needs, social needs, the physical needs of people, and profit would not be the primary motive.”

But for now, worker-owners and advocates are enjoying the immediate perks of cooperatives: control over their own working conditions, greater pay, economic security, and a good level of empowerment. There’s a human benefit, too: Cooperatives are local businesses that bolster community and, through their emphasis on worker dignity, encourage good relationships between worker-owners and customers. Personal attachments are common.

Nisey Baylor, the eponymous owner of Nisey’s Boutique, credits Glut for the location of her business: She saw the neighboring space for rent after shopping at the co-op for years.

“Co-ops like Glut have customers that have been coming for 40 years straight,” Baylor told Campus Progress. “They’ve got loyalty on their side.”

Back inside Glut, Abuyu says he drove a rig cross-country before he started working at the store 11 years ago. His tenure means he knows all the regulars, and as Abuyu rings up the last customers of the night under the watchful eye of Gil Scott-Heron (“Rest in Power”), one man is eager to share his feelings toward the place.

“It’s like family here,” the customer says.

This post was originally published by Campus Progress.


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Photo from eddie.welker via flickr

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5:19AM PST on Jan 25, 2012

Worker owned is a way to save the middle class it will help people of color to be able to give jobs to their own neighborhoods it is a great deal

8:37PM PST on Jan 23, 2012

Thanks for the article.

1:48PM PST on Jan 23, 2012

Mondragon co-operatives work very well. They started in Spain.
The lowest payed person and the highest paid person was only 3 levels apart in wages. the companies that did this type of business,ended up with child care,schools,doctors and bankers all working together to have a nice community. they ended up providing 1/3 of the national gross products.
There are several versions of this type of business structure. It is a win-win situation, and all involved like doing their job; which of course makes for prosperity for all of them.

9:50AM PST on Jan 23, 2012


6:49AM PST on Jan 23, 2012

Thanks for putting me in touch with this National Cooperative Development Act. I will contact my representatives. on this issue. It is intolerable that we live in a democratic society but spend most of our working lives in autocracies.

3:16AM PST on Jan 23, 2012

Watch the Government stick its nose in on the pretext of Eminent Domain (for the greater public good). It just can't resist crapping up anything good and working well.

7:20PM PST on Jan 22, 2012


5:51PM PST on Jan 22, 2012

i know where i want to work, and i'm not the working type

5:18PM PST on Jan 22, 2012


5:08PM PST on Jan 22, 2012

Excellent article. I've seen the coop method of ownership work in a couple of very successful businesses here in Idaho. Sure makes for loyal, hardworking employees when they can benefit from the success of the business, too!

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