Can good values be good business, too? For generations, the cooperative movement has been answering with a resounding “Yes!”
After a surge of entrepreneurial fervor following the 2007 economic collapse, cooperative ventures are even getting a nod from our divided government: In August, Congress passed the Main Street Employee Ownership Act. The measure aims to help launch the next crop of worker-ownership ventures by directing the Small Business Administration to take proactive steps to increase technical and financial assistance for budding worker-owned cooperatives. Although the law does not provide major new funding, advocates hope it broadens avenues for securing seed financing, and for conducting community-outreach programs through local SBA offices.
Although the law offers just a small boost to the sector, according to Melissa Hoover, executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute, “It’s a start. It’s the very first time that anyone ever said worker coops matter in federal legislation.”
Often the main barrier to launching a coop is simply lack of knowledge—worker cooperatives aren’t just a fluffy hippie social experiment, they’re viable businesses with a track record of promoting civic-minded sustainable enterprises. What worker-owned cooperatives offer is simply this: a stake for each worker in the future. Based on a structure centered on shared equity and worker autonomy, the business model, which hews to a principle of “one-member-one-vote” workplace governance, intrinsically guarantees that each worker profits in tandem with their labor. The key difference from the conventional corporate model is that workers share in the equity and direct how funds are reinvested, be it in pay raises and pensions, new hires, or investing in tech upgrades and staff training.
According to surveys of the roughly 300 to 400 cooperatives nationwide, more than a third were launched since 2000. Their trades range from craft breweries to cab companies. The median coop workforce has nine to 10 people (that’s basically the equivalent number of co-owners), and a total workforce of more than 6,800. Far from the penurious, tree-hugging stereotype, coops run on average a yearly profit margin of some 3 percent, yielding about $150,000 in profits. Compared to the precarious, low-wage jobs that are driving the fastest-growing industries, coop workers earn considerably more, about $15.80 per hour, and work just over 30 hours per week. Median tenure for employee-owners is also about 50 percent higher.
The foundation of the cooperative is an idea for a business that produces material and social good together, which in turn also does good for workers’ communities. This principle, reflecting an ethical framework known as the “solidarity economy,” is put to practice in ventures like the Queens-based eco-friendly cleaning company Pa’lante, which is cooperatively run by a group of housekeepers who merge environmental concern with labor empowerment. Or the driver-led Union Taxi coop of Denver, which also mobilizes against the expansion of exploitative ride-sharing apps.
Though worker-ownership doesn’t necessarily mesh with the traditional unionization model, the Oakland-based Design Action Collective has joined a unique cadre of unionized coops, represented by Pacific Media Guild, in order to fully embody the movement culture that the enterprise serves. On a larger scale, Cooperative Home Care Association has established a 2,000-strong presence in New York City’s home health-care sector, with a fully unionized staff of care workers, who also mobilize with labor-led campaigns for health-care funding.
The equity principle of worker-owned cooperatives could be especially crucial for communities of color, as a path toward expanding community investment and closing the abysmal racial wealth gap. A community-based cooperative can be a vital economic on-ramp for women, immigrants, and people of color historically excluded from entrepreneurship. So far, the cooperative sector is roughly 63 percent people of color, up from 59 percent in 2015.
While many coops are start-ups, conversion of conventional businesses to cooperatives can be a vital investment in marginalized communities, and also widen accessibility to credit, since start-up capital can be pooled collectively. Of the 15 new cooperatives that launched in 2016, 11 were conversions.
As struggling communities lose the mom-and-pop shops that have long been a bulwark of economic opportunity, Hoover says,“It’s really dangerous for our small-business ecosystem for [systematic sell-offs and closures, instead of conversion to coops] to happen.… What’s happening to those businesses as their owners are getting older is that they’re getting shut down or consolidated, it really changes that landscape.”
But conversions to more democratic ownership can preserve local assets, and in less-diverse economic landscapes, cooperatives can actively diversify historically white-male dominated sectors. “Who owns businesses in this country,” Hoover says, “are white men.… And who works in most businesses in this country are not white men.” When a retiring boss passes ownership onto workers, “you’re effectively making a racial wealth transfer from an aging white man to a much more diverse set of business owners.” Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, a coalition of worker-owned firms, has tried to expand its sector by launching a new Fund for Employee Ownership to finance fresh conversions of old local businesses.
When coops rescue a local family business, it could inject not just a capital infusion but an inspired redevelopment vision. Unlike your average big-box retailer, cooperatives tend to stick with their democratic ethos over the long run. Many coop enterprises actively partner with civic-minded financial institutions, like community credit unions. And while a single business won’t radically change the country’s dysfunctional social and economic policies, a network of cooperatives can foster progressive programs such as promoting workers’ health through providing comprehensive benefits, expanding access to affordable childcare, and cultivating more balanced schedule systems and labor-directed workplace-safety programs.
Now that the cooperative sector is entering a more complex economic horizon, it can push for more supportive public policies—like pro-cooperative labor laws that help worker-owners organize, city-based development programs like New York’s Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, and opening Workforce Development funding for coops.
“More and more, people who are developing coops to solve social problems are thinking at a bigger scale, and with more ambition,” Hoover says. “They’re thinking about…how do we leverage all the things that traditional businesses do, but for good?”
And since worker-owners practice and produce what they preach, the budding world of cooperatives is in a perfect position to make the change they want, and to pay it forward.