US Worker Co-ops in 2040?

What should our movement look like in 30 years?

30 years ago, the modern US worker co-operative movement was in its infancy. The Anti-War, Second Wave Feminist and Civil Rights movements were starting to move their way into mainstream society by questioning the post-WWII paradigm of the Cold War. At the same time, the neo-liberals were in full assault mode (working mostly in South America), but have made significant political gains with the election of Margaret Thatcher and (30 years ago this November) Ronald Reagan.

Co-operative Home Care and Equal Exchange joined the party a few years later and then it was fairly quiet for a decade or so. . .until activists on the coasts started creating regional networks such as the Western Worker Cooperative Conference and the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy. In 2003, Madison hosted the first (and to date, only) Midwest Worker Coop Conference creating the ground work for the formation of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives in Minneapolis in 2004. Now, six years later, the USFWC is on the verge of launching the Democracy at Work Network (DAWN) of peer advisors and creating the Democracy at Work Institute as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization.

DAWN will be providing something that our movement needs. Business consultants who understand the worker co-operative. As peer advisers, this group (and am one of the first cohort) will not be co-operative developers per se, but true peers who can assist worker co-operatives in the on-going development of their business model. This will help worker co-operative with affordable advice based on the TA’s knowledge and experience. The creation of DAWN was a key part of building the infrastructure for our movement.

Using the time-honored house imagery: if we see 2004-2008 as the creation of the foundation of our movement, DAWN is the basic infrastructure (the pipes and framing). Over the next 5-10 years, DAWN and DAWI will be working with the USFWC to create the basic shape. At the USFWC board retreat we discussed our future. We settled on a basic three year plan, but the larger visionary discussion was put on hold. We need to finish the foundation and frame (make sure that the gas and water lines are connected) and that will be the main focus of the next three years. Members of the organization need to start seeing tangible benefits (which DAWN should provide). All of this is vitally important, but we also need the vision discussion.

Where will our movement be in another 30 years? In 2040, I will be 76 years old. Chances are, if I am still alive, I will be hopefully still be blogging (or whatever the kids will be doing in those days) but I will likely not be fully involved in the movement or physically working a 40-50 hour work week. Almost all of our current leadership will be in the same position. The current crop of  Toxic Soil Busters will be pushing 50 (like I am now). What should our movement look like in that age?

I have to think that we will be far advanced from our current state. At the retreat, one director suggested a vision in which our movement is the dominant part of the labor movement (that we are effectively the Department of Labor). I look at the momentum of the last 30 years and fell hopeful that we can take that and create a really incredible movement. I believe that I will leave this world in better condition for workers than I found it. To achieve that will take a lot of work.

We need to do a better job of educating our members on worker co-operatives. In the larger worker co-ops, people come to the co-op because we are generally the best job in the industry. However, if we don’t connect that to the co-op movement, then we allow the dominant ne0-liberal paradigm to corrupt our movement. Ultimately, we need to create a vision of where our movement should be in 2040. What should the worker co-operative movement look like in the United States? In Canada? in North America? How should it relate to the traditional labor movement?  How should it engage the nation (s)?

I’ll be continuing this discussion over the next couple of weeks, but I really want to hear from you. Imagine yourself as a young person about to enter the workforce in the United States of 2040. One hundred years after the start of WWII. 50 years after the end of the Cold War. 135 years after the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World and 36 years after the creation of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives.

What does that world look like for the young person going to work? What are his/her choices? What support mechanisms exist? Most importantly, how do we create a road map to get there?

[There are about 400 readers of this blog, so I would love to just get 2.5% of you to write in. One sentence of what you want to see–let’s have a discussion]

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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3 Responses to US Worker Co-ops in 2040?

  1. What will it look like in 30 years time?
    Assuming we get: advances in instant communication, peak oil (and no cold fusion)and other sustainable living issues.

    I think more organisation will be forced to work in a worker co-operative way. There will be larger and more geographically seperated worker co-operatives, predominatly self-employed collectives working in the knowledge and creative industries.

    Mainstream management theory will have to move from it’s current systems and hierachy thoriles and practice to a world where individuals are more self-reliant and autonomous. I think worker co-operatives will benefit from this shift and we will hopefully have built up a body of knowledge of how to run effective worker co-operatives.

    Oh and I think we will have a first proper multi-national worker co-operatives by then.

    I’ll also be a 50 something asking the next generation what will happen…

  2. The co-operative movement should merge with the mainstream labor movement in order to form a powerful force for economic democracy. Furthermore, it should also merge with the environmental movement (a green syndicalism). All of these (and other) common values should be integrated/synthesized/transcended.

    In 30 years I hope that a young person will not have to worry about economic issues so much. Work will be guaranteed and exist within a democratic framework with the work week being drastically reduced. I also think scale is important. I envision most firms being small. Geographically, I envision local production for local consumption integrated into the local ecology, creating resilient communities.

    For getting there, forming federations will likely be crucial for developing and sustaining these practices. I think the merging of the co-op and labor movements is the best path on which to focus. Once people have greater autonomy in their workplaces they will likely act on other values that they were previously unable to such as reducing the work week, eliminating negative environmental and social practices, etc.

  3. As U.N.E.P. reports have confirmed the multiple environmental problems developing simultaneously with the greenhouse gases of the IPCC reports, consistent with most environmental NGO’s, my sense is that environmental consciousness and whole cost accounting will be one major factor in a co-operative society in 30 years. William Greider has described the efforts of Blue Ridge Paper in promoting an employee-owned and managed enterprise with perhaps all toxic effluent eliminated or transformed, and perhaps that is one example for the future. As Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpets, Inc., had an environmental awakening and has worked with his associates to create an environmentally advanced company, I can imagine a progression in which employee-ownership enterprises are established in this spirit. A general framework occurs to me with regards to the Sierra Club’s and Mondragon’s agreements with the United Steelworkers union.
    Latin America has a series of industrial co-operatives operating, from Argentina’s recovered factories to Brazil’s ANTEAG.
    I can envision, moreover, that the large sized co-operatives mentioned in the International Co-operative Alliance’s studies, such as France’s Credit Agricole and Japan’s Zen-Noh Agro co-op I believe it’s called will also reflect the local nucleus structure to address the agency problem. As the Brazilian Landless Worker’s Movement MST and Fair Trade in Africa have both asserted and empowered people to assume their own productive work as part of larger networks, I can foresee the transformation of automobile manufacturers like Toyota and their hybrid Prius into Mondgragon levels of co-operative functioning.

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