Worker-Owned Cooperatives

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I can't help but believe that in the future we'll see in the United States and throughout the Western World an increasing trend toward the next logical step: employee ownership. It's a path that befits[1] a free people.

Worker-owned cooperatives are a type of cooperative.

Fundamentally, worker-owned cooperatives are about extending democracy into the workplace. In an age of globalization geared to benefit multinational corporations, worker-owned cooperatives can potentially serve as a countervailing force offsetting some of the more destructive aspects of global corporate dominance.

Worker-owned cooperatives are business entities that are owned and controlled by their members, the people who work in them. The two central characteristics of worker-owned cooperatives are:

  1. workers invest in and own the business and
  2. decision-making is democratic, generally adhering to the principle of one worker-one vote.[2]

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At a time when many are disillusioned with big banks and big business, the economic crisis and growing inequality in our country, employee ownership offers a real solution for workers and communities. Shift Change: Putting Democracy to Work is a new documentary (scheduled for release in fall 2012) that highlights worker-owned enterprises in North America and in Mondragon, Spain. The film couldn’t be more timely, as 2012 has been declared by the U.N. as the International Year of the Cooperative.

Worker-owned and/or worker-managed cooperatives in Portland

Proposed Worker-Owned & Community-Owned Industrial Policy

Which industries could worker-owned cooperatives focus on to affect maximum social change?

  • Media
    • Oregonian/OregonLive replacement
  • Food production
  • Internet infrastructure (community-owned broadband)
  • Healthcare
  • Energy (renewable in particular)
    • Solar panel production and installation
  • Manufacturing
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Laundry
  • Housing
    • Co-housing

Resources, Local

NWCDC is an active member of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), and CooperationWorks!, the cooperative development network.
Brief explanations of different kinds of cooperatives.
Networking and educating the Portland cooperative community to seed and catalyze mutual support, public outreach, and advocacy projects that strengthen the local cooperative economy.

Resources, General

Community co-operatives are businesses which trade primarily for the benefit of their community. Controlled by the community themselves, they have open and voluntary membership and, crucially, they encourage people to get involved – either by becoming a member, or by volunteering time or getting involved in another way.
Co-ops that combine best practices from the international co-operative movement with best practices from the open source software and hardware communities are now possible. Soon anyone will be able to set up an Open Co-op and invite all their stakeholders to help finance, govern and organise the co-op online.
Coming Soon To a Detroit Near You! The COLORS Co-op Academy is an intensive learning experience designed to cultivate new worker-owned good food businesses rooted in principles of democracy, sustainability, and justice.
Women's Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) is dedicated to promoting the economic and social well being of low-income women through cooperative business ownership.
The Sustainable Economies Law Center is partnering with Project Equity, the Green Collar Communities Clinic (GC3), the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, the Sustainable Business Alliance, and Laney College to create the San Francisco Bay Area's first ever worker cooperative academy!
A map of the 300+ worker cooperatives in the U.S., and some other movement organizations.
Map of the Worker Cooperatives in the United States - Portland
"News from the frontlines of economic solidarity and grassroots globalization-from-below."
GEO Resource Library
Features news, guides and other resources.
The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives is a national grassroots membership organization of and for worker cooperatives, democratic workplaces, and organizations that support the growth and development of worker cooperatives.
The mission of the Democracy at Work Institute is to promote the worker cooperative model by sharing skills among existing cooperatives, providing practical support in the form of training resources and referrals to those interested in starting worker cooperatives, and educating the public about the need for and benefits of worker-ownership and workplace democracy.
CoopZone provides Canadians with resources and consultants to help develop co-operatives.
CooperationWorks! is the Center of Excellence for cooperative business development.
"Fostering critical thinking and understanding about cooperatives."
The cooperative ownership model is used in a wide variety of contexts in the United States, ranging from the production and distribution of energy to delivery of home health care services for the elderly. Although cooperative businesses have been responsible for many market innovations and corrections of market imperfections, little is known about their impact as an economic sector. Until this project, no comprehensive set of national-level statistics had been complied about U.S. cooperative businesses, their importance to the U.S. economy, or their impact on the lives and businesses of American citizens.
The Ohio Employee Ownership Center, a non-profit outreach center of Kent State University, supports the development of business across Ohio and around the world by its efforts that are proven to save jobs, create wealth, and grow the economy. The OEOC's work rests on a simple philosophy: broader ownership of productive assets is a good thing for employees, communities, and our country.


Cultivate.Coop is an online hub for pooling knowledge and resources on cooperatives. It is a space to collect free information for those interested in cooperatives and where people can build useful educational tools for the co-op community.
Overview: This Curriculum on Cooperatives for Graduate Schools is designed for students in professional graduate schools (though the material could easily be adapted to other venues, including undergraduate school).
To strengthen all retail food cooperatives by creating community and promoting the sharing and development of resources among members.
The Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives or NoBAWC (pronounced "no boss") is a grassroots organization of democratic workplaces dedicated to building workplace democracy in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.
For nearly one hundred years, NCBA’s mission has remained the same: To develop, advance and protect cooperative business.
"Economics for people, not profits."


(Also see Democracy At Work | A social movement for economic democracy.)

Employee Ownership

An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is an employee benefit plan which makes the employees of a company owners of stock in that company.
The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) is a private, nonprofit membership and research organization that serves as the leading source of accurate, unbiased information on employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), equity compensation plans, and ownership culture.


A collaborative legal resource library created by the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) and the Green-Collar Communities Clinic (GC3).
Neither our communities nor our ecosystems are well served by an economic system that incentivizes perpetual growth, wealth concentration, and the exploitation of land and people. Communities everywhere are responding to these converging economic and ecological crises with a grassroots transformation of our economy that is rapidly re-localizing production, reducing resource consumption, and rebuilding the relationships that make our communities thrive. However, as new solutions for resilience emerge, many are running into entrenched legal barriers: laws originally designed to protect people from the ills of industrialism are now preventing many communities from growing and selling their own food, investing in local businesses, creating sustainable housing options, and cooperatively owning land and businesses. Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) exists to bridge the gap in legal expertise needed to transition from destructive economic systems to innovative and cooperative alternatives. Our 10 programs work together in identifying key leverage points in our existing economic and legal systems, removing strategic legal barriers, and creating replicable models for community resilience.

Platform Co-Ops

Maira Sutton, Shareable: Tightly controlled, profit-driven corporate platforms corrupted (a more grassroots-driven, equitable sharing economy) with their brand of transactional “sharing” that all too often depends on externalizing the costs and risks to users and individual service providers — Airbnb hosts and Uber drivers, for example. In addition, those that create most of the value on these platforms usually have no say in how the businesses are operated. Such practices are part and parcel of an effort to grow quickly at all costs, and sometimes with the ambition to establish a global monopoly.
Just for one moment imagine that the algorithmic heart of any of these citadels of anti-unionism -- Taskrabbit, Handy, and Uber (etc.) -- could be cloned and brought back to life under a different ownership model, with fair working conditions, as a humane alternative to the free market model.

News Articles & Reports

Gar Alperovitz, The Nation: In recent years, there has been a steady buildup of interest in new forms of democratized ownership. Worker-owned cooperatives, neighborhood land trusts, and municipal corporations all democratize ownership in one way or another, but they do so in decentralized rather than statist fashion. The trajectory of change is impressive. Examples of successful worker ownership range from Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York City to the Evergreen complex of solar, greenhouse, and laundry cooperatives in Cleveland. Mayors and city councils in places like Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Richmond, California; and New York City have started to provide direct financial or technical support for these developments, suggesting a new nexus of political power.
Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, Fast Company: Companies like Uber now tend to describe what they do as the "on-demand economy" rather than "sharing." But there is also a movement underway to create a real sharing economy online, one in which people can truly co-own and cogovern the platforms they rely on. This means bringing together new technology with the long history of democratic, cooperative enterprise.
In his encyclical, the Pope entreated us to “seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress”. A framework for a more democratic, collectively owned and managed economy could be part of this. The re-imagination of the economy is already in motion. It’s time for the climate movement to get on board.
Setting up a forest worker's cooperative broke new ground, demanding skilled decisions that had to be learned on the job, just as the techniques for efficient tree planting evolved from practices learned on the muddy, steep slopes of regional forests.
“The Hoedads were a bunch of hippie tree-planters. They had a co-op and they used to be huge around here.”
Union leaders, in particular, argue that there is significant opportunity to expand the coop model by associating it more closely with unions. This make sense: Unions are looking for new allies and methods for increasing worker control, while cooperatives can benefit from the organizational skill and scalability of unions. Associating with coops would also allow the unions to extend their reach. While the union movement is concentrated in manufacturing, a recent study by Hilary Abell finds that 58 percent of cooperatives are in the retail and service sectors. “If you go back to the beginning of the labor movement,” says activist Carl Davidson, “unions and cooperatives used to go together like bread and jelly.”
As the traditional job market deteriorates, the number of worker cooperatives in the United States is growing as people seek more stable and rewarding work. An ecosystem of worker cooperative development organizations is emerging to accelerate this trend.
Worker Cooperatives are designed to help build assets and wealth among low-income individuals and communities, and create entrepreneurs and community leaders.
Public interest in cooperatives has surged since the global financial crisis, as people cry out for an alternative to business-as-usual. In spite of their many benefits for individuals, businesses, and society, however, cooperatives are not well understood in the United States. The field of worker co-op development is just beginning to create the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to increase its scale and impact.
Interview with Vanessa Bransburg who supports and builds successful worker coops in Brooklyn, New York. Response to listener on scarcity and its economic effects.
GAR ALPEROVITZ: There has been a change in consciousness that makes this one of the most interesting periods of American history, maybe the most interesting. There's a loss of belief in the corporate system; there's a recognition that something is fundamentally wrong, So there's an opening to a whole different vision of where to go forward.
MICHAEL ALBERT: Markets as an institution, even without private ownership, are one of the worst creations of humanity in its entire history. They warp human development, warp personality, misprice virtually everything. They skew development away from human well-being for most of the population. They violate the ecology. They produce class division. It seems to me that saying these things should be no more controversial than saying we don’t want dictatorship or we don’t want private ownership. No one would say that the fact that we need to experiment, to learn, to listen, implies that we ought to hold in reserve or even jettison our understanding that private ownership and dictatorship are disastrous.
When the workers are the owners.
Members of Occupy Sandy launched the initiative to fill the need for creating jobs for the large number of victims, residents who were left without work after the natural disaster swept through the city on Oct. 29, 2012, impacting various New York neighborhoods.
(Discussion of what's going on with worker-owned cooperatives on Portland Indymedia.)
How manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, and others are doing business the cooperative way.
Workers at the New Era Windows Cooperative are celebrating the grand opening of their new unionized, worker-owned and -operated business. Almost a year to the day after their window factory closed, a group of former workers have launched their own window business without bosses. They successfully raised money to buy the factory collectively and run it democratically.
With Americans' interest in socialism rising, we need to seriously consider alternative designs to the current system, argues Alperovitz, in this practical critique of some known models.
How cooperatives are leading the way to empowered workers and healthy communities.
It's fitting that President Obama in his State of the Union address chose Youngstown, Ohio, as a model for a high-tech manufacturing hub initiative, but it would be even more fitting if he pointed out that Ohio is also the inspirational home for the fast-growing idea that workers should become not just employees but owners of the companies in which they work.
Since the advent of the industrial revolutions there has been a noble experiment both here and abroad of businesses that owned and democratically controlled by their worker/owners. If you know about these types of businesses, you probably think of them as small and local. For the most part that’s true here in the US. However, if we look across the Atlantic we find a very different story.
A bold new threat to the economic status quo brings on a press blackout.
Portland’s community of worker-owned and co-operative bike stores, like Citybikes in Buckman, are striving to make Portland a city where anyone can ride a bike, and where everyone should feel like they can be a cyclist.
The United Steelworkers, Mondragon, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center Announce a New Union Cooperative Model to Reinsert Worker Equity Back into the U.S. Economy
On July 2, 2012, in a step that more and more companies have been taking, Chelsea Green joined the ranks of companies turning ownership over to their employees in a new business model.
Gar Alperovitz, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, discusses his books "Making a Place For Community," and "America Beyond Capitalism." Topics include worker-owned cooperatives, grassroots democracy and alternatives to corporate-controlled capitalism.
The Tenderloin Today Project is currently working to create an employee-owned company, where employees will earn somewhere around $25 per hour. This company will be owned and operated by the Tenderloin resident-employees and will provide the additional benefit of teaching workers how to run a company.
Business Matters explores the history of the worker owned cooperatives in the US. This podcast features interviews with several worker-cooperative success stories and a financial collective that provides funding for these type of businesses. Also reports on a recent remarkable development that links the Mondragon folks and a large US union in a novel experiment.

The Mondragon Model

1956-2012: The Mondragón Co-operative Experiencie
Interesting links in the field of Co-operativism
Excerpt from Chapter 11 from, “The Organization of the Future,” published by the Peter F. Drucker Foundation.
The Mondragón Cooperative Corporation, or MCC, is often considered the most successful example of worker-owned enterprise in the world. Taking its name from the small town in the Basque Country of Spain where it was founded, the MCC’s reach now extends across Spain, Europe and the globe. Its highly integrated network of cooperative businesses competes successfully with conventional corporate rivals both locally and worldwide.
At a time when many are disillusioned with big banks and big business, and growing inequity in our country, employee ownership offers a real solution for workers and communities. Shift Change is a new documentary (premiering in October, 2012) that highlights worker-owned enterprises in North America and in Mondragon, Spain.
Film trailer: Shift Change: Putting Democracy to Work
More links to resources from Shift Change here.
UT professor George Cheney presents “Practical Lessons for a New Economy from the 55-year History of the Mondragón Cooperatives in Basque Country, Spain.”
The MONDRAGON Corporation is a corporation and federation of worker cooperatives based in the Euskadi. Founded in the town of Mondragón in 1956, its origin is linked to the activity of a modest technical college and a small workshop producing paraffin heaters. Currently it is the seventh largest Spanish company in terms of asset turnover and the leading business group in the Basque Country. At the end of 2010 it was providing employment for 83,859 people working in 256 companies in four areas of activity: Finance, Industry, Retail and Knowledge. The MONDRAGON Co-operatives operate in accordance with a business model based on People and the Sovereignty of Labour, which has made it possible to develop highly participative companies rooted in solidarity, with a strong social dimension but without neglecting business excellence. The Co-operatives are owned by their worker-members and power is based on the principle of one person, one vote.
Praxis Peace Institute Founding Director, Georgia Kelly, discusses the unique collaborative business model of the Mondragon Cooperatives located in the Basque country of Spain. Founded in 1955, Mondragon now encompasses 264 businesses and employs more than 100,000 worker-owners. It is a highly successful cooperative model with over 50 years of proven success. They have established research centers, bank and credit unions, a university, youth cooperatives, and small to large businesses. This presentation will cover the ethics and vision of Mondragón as well as unique success stories that are an inspiration to those seeking alternatives to business-as-usual. The goal of the Mondragón Cooperatives is to create community through economic relationships and to transform society through conscious economic practices.
The northern Spanish town is dominated by its eponymous €15bn corporation that controls over 100 smaller co-ops
More reports from Yes! Magazine on cooperatives here.
Why are we told a broken system that creates vast inequality is the only choice? Spain's amazing co-op is living proof otherwise

The Evergreen Cooperatives

The Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, Ohio are pioneering innovative models of job creation, wealth building, and sustainability. Evergreen’s employee-owned, for-profit companies are based locally and hire locally. They create meaningful green jobs and keep precious financial resources within the Greater University Circle neighborhoods. Worker-owners at Evergreen earn a living wage and build equity in the firms as owners of the business.
The Evergreen Cooperatives are a connected group of worker-owned cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. They are committed to local, worker-owned job creation; sustainable, green and democratic workplaces; and community economic development.

Cuba & Worker-Owned Cooperatives

The Cuban government is placing high priority on the development of worker-owned-and-managed firms and has recently passed a law intended to launch an experimental cadre of 200 such firms. Under the law, workers - rather than government bureaucrats or elite boards of directors - will democratically run the businesses, set their own competitive prices, determine wages and salaries and decide what to do with the profits they generate. In other words, Cuba's new worker cooperatives will operate pretty much along the same lines as their successful cousins in the capitalist world, including Spain's Mondragon Cooperative Corporation.
Fidel Castro's admission that Cuba isn't working doesn't mean a change to capitalism – far from it
Cubans have already been forging an alternative socio-economic reality for decades now. For instance, we can think of how they revolutionized their agricultural sector during and after the Special Period, making Cuba the first nation to adopt a predominantly organic farming sector rooted in agricultural co-ops and the notion of subsidiarity (i.e., economic activity with a strong focus on the local and managed by local people).

See Also