Last month, America’s oldest craft brewery, Anchor Brewing Company, announced that it would shut down after 127 years. The news came as a shock; the San Francisco brand is well-known, and bars across the country stock their famous Anchor Steam beer. But a group of former Anchor employees have a plan to save the company: They want to buy it, and restructure it as a worker’s cooperative.
If they succeed, it will represent the latest chapter in a long history of worker-owned cooperatives in the Bay Area. Next year marks the 30-year anniversary of the founding of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives—NOBAWC, pronounced “no boss.” It began as an effort to connect nine worker-owned enterprises; now, there are 80 businesses in the network.
In a year when Silicon Valley has been defined by a catastrophic bank collapse, widespread layoffs, and a cage match as fraught with delays as the products Elon Musk claims to be developing, worker-owned cooperatives could be the innovation in Bay Area capitalism for progressives to embrace.
Of course, businesses that are owned and democratically operated by workers are not limited to Northern California—you can have your marine habitat surveyed by a worker-owned business in Washington, and purchase cooperative cannabis in Illinois. Co-op employees will put solar panels on your home in Colorado, and care for your kids in Ohio. But California leads the nation with an estimated 20 percent of America’s co-ops, the majority of which are in the Bay Area.
Worker collectives have existed in California since the late 1800s; some of the earliest were organized by rail workers who feared unemployment after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1904, after a union-busting attempt by butcher owners, members of the butchers union formed a worker-owned meat company in Oakland. A number of early cooperatives were formed by immigrants and women, people who had reason to distrust an employer-operated system: in 1911, a produce cooperative composed of Italian immigrants had grown so dominant that it sold 95 percent of the vegetables consumed in San Francisco.
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Today, Bay Area co-ops continue to let worker-owners make decisions democratically—and instead of choosing between what’s best for the business and what’s best for employees, incentives are such that those choices are one and the same. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Arizmendi Bakery, its location in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset took a vote about how to proceed; they opted to close for two months with full pay before reopening with safety precautions. The location—not unlike its walnut sourdough—has risen and thrived since.
In San Francisco and beyond, worker-owned cooperatives may be the one way that so-called “inclusive capitalism” can actually work. Worker-owners report taking home more money and receiving better benefits than they did in previous jobs, and enjoy a democratic say in their own working conditions. As Bay Area Representative Ro Khanna has put it, “Worker cooperatives can be part of the solution in building the working class and middle class in this country.”
As driverless cars swarm the streets of San Francisco, and reports estimate that AI will impact 300 million jobs, employee ownership can also be a bulwark against automation and corporate greed. Anchor’s downfall was preceded by its 2017 purchase by multibillion-dollar company Sapporo, which lowered starting pay, per workers. Those workers unionized, and the union is now leading the purchase attempt.
Certainly, transitioning to a cooperative model has its challenges. Because it remains a relatively uncommon structure for businesses, it can require extensive education for worker-owners to understand their rights and roles (such that some advocates are begging business schools to teach their students about it). And the restructuring process can be prolonged and expensive, often requiring consultants and bank loans to stick the landing; not every business that intends to become a co-op is able to see it through.
But that could change. Progressive leaders can make worker ownership easier by modeling legislation on the California Employee Ownership Act, which will provide government resources and education to co-ops and to businesses considering the transition; Massachusetts and Colorado have similar laws.
And there’s no reason such legislation couldn’t succeed across the country, since this issue has bipartisan support. The CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law a year ago, contains multiple provisions that support worker cooperatives, and the WORK Act, part of the federal omnibus, included spending for an Employee Ownership Initiative inside the Labor Department.
The inclusion of worker-owners in both acts is thanks in part to the work of the grassroots organization United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives. They ask supporters to urge representatives to join the Congressional Cooperative Business Caucus—and right now, they’re advocating for the Employee Equity Investment Act, which would ease the transition to worker-ownership for small businesses.
Why wouldn’t both parties want to make that happen? If the former Anchor employees succeed in saving the brewery, it will be because workers came together to save their jobs, to save a business they believe in—and above all, to own a piece of the product they make. Isn’t that the capitalist dream?