Are Co-ops the Answer?
Source Dave Anderson
Date 12/06/26/10:02
Are Co-ops the Answer?
Around the world, people are democratizing the workplace.

Governmental support for co-ops is based on the principle that they
can create employment as part of a mixed economy, most often in
sectors where capital has retreated.

Long before the Occupy movement sparked renewed protest of rising
inequality, another global movement was quietly engaged in building a
more democratic economy. From coffee growers in Kenya seeking a fair
market price to worker-owned green businesses reviving the American
Rust Belt, cooperatives are helping to spur a reinvention of work in a
period of worldwide recession.

Globally, an estimated 1 billion people are members of cooperatives,
and many believe that the scope of worker- and member-owned
enterprises across the world represents a revolution already in the
making. With combined earnings rivaling Canada’s GDP, co-ops could be
the fastest-growing business model by the end of the decade. To
promote awareness of their potential, the United Nations has declared
2012 the “International Year of Cooperatives.” Cooperative organizers,
though they have generally worked on a separate track from protest
movements, have called on Occupy and other mass movements to help
build “an economy worth occupying.”

“It was really serendipitous that the ‘Year of Cooperatives’ happened
at the same time as the Occupy movement,” says Cheyenna Weber of
SolidarityNYC, a group that links social movements with “solidarity
economy” initiatives. “There’s so much attention to this because
people are intimately aware that the economic crisis is not going away
on its own … they’re starting to get serious about doing it

But do the swelling numbers of cooperative businesses constitute a
force capable of transforming the broader economy? Governmental
support for co-ops, though increasing at the behest of the U.N., is
based on the principle that co-ops can create employment as part of a
mixed economy, most often in sectors where capital has already
retreated. And though most co-ops follow a set of seven principles –
among them open membership, autonomy and concern for community – there
are significant differences in how directly members or workers
participate in decision-making and how explicitly they engage with
broader economic justice movements.

Moreover, because growth-oriented cooperatives must continue to
compete in a capitalist market (though the Evergreen cooperatives in
Cleveland have been able to make use of a quasi-public market that
draws on the purchasing power of local hospitals and universities),
contradictions often emerge between the enterprise’s business
practices and the values it espouses. While the Mondragon cooperatives
in Spain’s Basque region – often considered the most successful
example of worker-owned enterprise – have been hailed for their
collaborative handling of economic downturn, protecting jobs at home
has necessitated an expansion of their operations overseas. Today, the
group has more subsidiaries abroad than actual cooperatives, and uses
a two-tier system of membership in which nonmembers are not eligible
to vote or share in other benefits enjoyed by members. In January
2011, one of Mondragon’s appliance factories in Poland became the
target of a go-slow strike from workers fighting stagnant wages and
the use of temporary workers.

Elsewhere in the world, worker-owned enterprises have also struggled
with identity crises: Argentina’s famous occupied factory movement has
suffered divisions between those factories that seek legal recognition
from the state and viability within a market economy and those that
have maintained an anti-capitalist stance and attempt to further the
spread of occupations.

Though cooperatives represent a promising means of building new
economic models, many activists are quick to point out that the old
ones aren’t going to disappear without a fight. For this reason, Weber
says, her group’s early efforts to engage with Occupy Wall Street
(OWS) were sometimes marked by distrust. “Certain people are really
attached to the idea that cooperatives aren’t radical enough,” she
says. “But there’s a tension: You have to build something, and you
also have to create space for it to be built. We’re looking for a way
to push our vision as far as we can within existing economic models.”

Within OWS, New York activists have started two co-ops – a
screen-printing guild and “OccuCopy,” which provides printing and
designs for progressive groups – and are in the process of starting
two more.

But beyond activists starting their own co-ops, the model holds
potential because the number of individuals involved in workplaces
that are partially or fully employee-owned now greatly exceeds
membership in private sector unions. Given this fact, Gar Alperovitz,
author of America Beyond Capitalism, notes that activists could also
play a greater role in organizing within existing cooperatives and
supporting workers’ efforts to become owners. After winning a reprieve
of their plant’s closing with support from local labor groups and
Occupy Chicago in February, the United Electrical workers who famously
occupied the Republic Windows and Doors plant in 2008 are now
considering purchasing the plant and running it as a worker co-op. And
in March, the United Steelworkers and Mondragon announced details of a
plan to develop manufacturing cooperatives using a “union co-op
model.” Both developments represent promising models of how
traditional progressive institutions can foster initiatives for
democratic ownership.

“Any serious political movement has historically walked on two legs,”
says Alperovitz. “It had to involve protests, elections and
demonstrations … [and]building a new direction institutionally… .
We’ve got to do both.”

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