And here’s why
My personal story
For many of us, when we think about the kind of work we want to do and how we want to do it, it becomes hard to imagine a “job” that matches our ideals. I’ve been at this crossroads numerous times: keep doing the work you love but have no financial security…or get some financial security and do work that doesn’t serve your purpose. The latter usually forces you into a dysfunctional workplace with limited flexibility, rendering you unable to live a healthy life.
In my adult life I’ve done a lot of different things and nothing makes me happier than the work I currently do. I want to keep doing this work and always be looking for a way to take it to the next level, to push myself and generate power in my community. But the options that traditionally exist for owning your own labor are incredibly frustrating.
Let’s look at a standard corporate structure for example.
The system isn’t broken, it’s fixed
In a traditional corporation the amount of ownership (money) a person/entity has in a company, the more say they have in governance. This setup is what has allowed for greater and greater concentration of wealth at the top. When the richest people get to determine the allocation of money in a company and employees have no social safety net to fall into, people stop protesting and put up with it because they have very few other options.
The structures we do have parading as checks and balances are pretty pathetic. Remember when Amazon bought Whole Foods? When someone has enough money they can literally buy power. And this concentration is well documented.
“In 2015, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon had combined profits of $82 billion; 10 percent of all profits of publicly traded companies. In 1975, 109 firms accounted for half the profits; by 2015, 30 companies did.”
— The curse of middle-aged capitalism, The Washington Post
Even companies that masquerade as a free public good like Facebook are able to make billions of dollars off of us. We provide all of their data, they turn it around to sell ads and information, then take all the money, and their users/labor pool have literally no say in what happens. Users have no power or governance.
Public corporations are extractive industries, make no mistake. For them it’s win-win. For us it’s lose-lose. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
There has to be a better way
When we were getting ready to start Good Good Work we knew we didn’t want to have a traditional corporation (see above). But we also knew we didn’t want to have a nonprofit. There’s an incredible amount of overhead involved in running a nonprofit, and while many have powerful missions and do great work, this system is also fraught with dysfunction.
Both seem to play into the defective relationship loop of neoliberalism. One breaks something and plunders all the goods, the other scrambles to pick up the pieces behind it. Act and react with no end in sight.
So what do we do? How do we keep ownership of our labor and avoid all the pitfalls of both structures? For us the answer was simple: worker cooperative.
What’s a coop?
People have a pretty similar reaction when they hear we have a coop. Most people say, “Oh my friend used to belong to a farm coop, like at a grocery store. Is it like that?” The others are split. They may get the concept but are unclear as to how they work. And a very, very small percentage are already into the coop scene.
But co-ops aren’t new. Workers have been forming cooperatives since the 1700s. So why don’t we hear more about them? Worker owned coops are a serious threat to the economic structures and oppressive systems that are tearing our communities apart.
If you want to get serious about taking down neoliberalism or capitalism as we know it, you’ll want to work from the ground up and organize people to take back the power of their labor. Instead of participating in the for-profit vs. nonprofit wrestling match cooperatives take a step to the side and get to work in a different paradigm.
Honesty around money
Coops are built to generate income. There’s no cultural awkwardness around financially supporting the labor of those inside the coop. Rents and mortgages require money. Food generally requires money. Same with wifi and healthcare and transportation. Everyone needs to generate money to live a life within a capitalistic system. And living outside of the system is incredibly challenging and limiting.
At this point in time I’m not of the belief that money is inherently evil. How it is currently being used against us is evil. Creating competition without collaboration is anti-human. The work of a cooperative is to transform money into a social and economic lubricant for a more egalitarian society.
“The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” —
Working cooperatively in the US
Unlike traditional corporations where shares (money) buy power (votes), co-ops put up a firewall between ownership and governance. One person, one vote, no matter how much equity they have. Ownership in a co-op is often based on labor as well. Many have a sort of internal currency called patronage. At a co-op like REI membership relates to how much money you put into the co-op. In a worker co-op that patronage (ownership) is often related to labor.
In this way, co-ops are able to reward hard work without creating robber barons. People are more invested in the success of their employer because they’ve got an ownership stake in the company and bad ideas and practices have much less of a chance of thriving under distributed, equal governance. Take for example health coverage. Employees wouldn’t choose to get rid of employee benefits if they knew the employees losing benefits would be them.
Worker cooperatives keep money in communities as well. There’s good evidence to suggest that workers at co-ops are happier, make more money, work more effectively, and stay in their jobs longer.
“After 5 years in business, 90% of co-ops are still operating. Only 1 in 20 of traditional businesses stays open for 5 years.” — RMEOC
There’s a lot of work involved in starting a cooperative. We want to give you a few resources to understand more and see if becoming a co-op is right for you or someone you know.
Many states have an existing structure for cooperatives. They are: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The United States Federation of Cooperative Workers can help you understand co-ops and how they work, get you plugged into the co-op community, and answer a lot of your questions.
Research by Professor Virginie Pérotin of Leeds University Business School looks at two decades’ worth of international data on worker owned co-operatives.
The National Cooperative Business Association has acted as an advocate for worker cooperatives for 100 years.
Democracy At Work Institute, part of The United States Federation of Cooperative Workers provides co-op resources in Spanish.
The Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center offers workshops, resources, and space for cooperatives in the mountain time zone.
Have questions about working cooperatively? Want to know more about how we set up our co-op? Just give us a holler!