The Coop Way

Cliff DuRand

It’s as American as apple pie.  In small town America it was normal for neighbors to work together to raise a barn or maintain a commons. The competitive world of corporate capitalism has tended to atomize and separate us. This does not help us confront our epoch’s massive problems.

Yet amidst capitalism’s ongoing crisis many are reclaiming that more communal world. Workplaces partly or wholly owned and democratically controlled by their workers are proliferating. From 250,000 in 1975, the number of worker-owners has grown to 11 million in 11,000 firms today. Gar Alperovitz calls this new economy a democratic ownership revolution. In addition, millions of USians live, save, store, market, and buy in co-ops, including buildings, credit unions, electrical utilities, groceries. Unseen, cooperative labor helps sustains capitalism and could be its alternative.

In Cleveland, for instance, an integrated group of worker-owned companies, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, has taken the lead in local solar-panel installation, “green” institutional laundry services and a commercial hydroponic greenhouse. The New York City Council recently secured $1.2 million in funding to support the expansion of worker cooperatives to help low-income and minority New Yorkers become business owners.  New community based cooperative economies are springing up from Vermont to the San FranciscoBay area and everywhere between like Madison, Wisconsin and even Jackson, Mississippi.  Such economies fortify communities long abandoned by corporations.

Cooperatives can (and do) provide a deeply democratic, locally controlled, highly productive, efficient alternative. As a kid in North Dakota we shopped at a co-op grocery and were rebated a percentage of our profits. Co-housing co-ops, community gardens, schools, day and elder-care are cropping up. Coffee-drinkers go to co-ops like Equal Exchange which buys only from co-op producers in some of the world’s poorest regions.

The secret is that people who share their skills and profits don’t need absentee shareholders or costly managers. And working together yields collective control locally and, potentially, globally. In unity there is strength.

In San Miguel the Center for Global Justice has for years trained people in organizing and operating democratic businesses.  Results? TOSMA, the Saturday organic market - a co-op that breeds co-ops - Kurate stevia and moringa  co-op and many others. Mexico’s largest co-ops are cement-maker Cruz Azul and Pascual with its “Boing” drinks. In Guadalajara unpaid workers took over a tire factory and made it the TRADOC co-op.

The world’s largest co-op network is in Spain’s Basque country.  These Mondragon cooperatives have now agreed with the United Steel Workers in the U.S. to promote worker-ownership in the U.S.

Co-ops are not foreign. As Jim Hightower has pointed out “Co-ops are wholly in step with the values, character, spirit and history of the American people.”  If we USians yearn for a more communal world, its because our cooperative roots are deep. Cooperatives rightly trace their roots as a business form to England’s successful 1844 Rochdale consumer cooperative. Yet more radical if less durable “communes” were up and running in 1825 at New Harmony in Indiana (Marx was 10 years old) and in 1841 at Brook Farm near Boston.

The UN declared 2010 the International Year of Cooperatives.  Through the global cooperative movement ordinary people are liberating themselves from Wall Street. Cuba is turning to co-ops in a big way. The new economy abuilding is neither corporate capitalism nor state socialism.  Where is it headed? Where should it head?


Cliff DuRand is a co-founder and Research Associate at the Center for Global Justice.  At the conference he will talk about “21st Century Socialism: A North-South Convergence.”