Does Your Community Plan for Coops?

What will the worker co-operative movement look like in 2040?

It will look like whatever we make it look like. We need to start thinking today about the world in 30 years.

I am not sure how useful it is to talk about the failure of capitalism. I say this for a couple of reasons:

  1. Capitalism isn’t failing. It is coalescing power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands. That is what capitalism is supposed to do. Whether this is sustainable on a ecological scale has yet to be determined.
  2. Capitalism is a crisis-based economic system. It is supposed to have periodic crisis or panics in order to weed out the fakers and the weak. This is economic Darwinism.
  3. A societal failure of capitalism does not ensure a co-operative resurgence. It may bring in other systems: feudalism (its predecessor), fascism, and state-socialism.
  4. A failure of capitalism (if it truly fails) may well be linked to an ecological collapse. This isn’t a world that we either want to see or will be able to survive within.

What we need to do, it agree to some realistic, attainable goals regarding our communities and economies. In this regard, the worker co-operative movement has a lot to offer:

  • Workers won’t pick up and move for a better tax cut
  • Worker Co-ops tend to raise the bar on pay, benefits, and working conditions
  • Worker Co-ops help train workers to engage with their community

One way of looking at the economy is to consider the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). These are areas linked to general economic identity. Madison, my home town, currently ranks as 88th in the list of MSAs.

How many MSA in the top 200 MSA have existing worker co-operatives? What percent of the MSA economy do worker co-ops represent? Do the planning documents of the MSA primary municipality or regional planning authority promote the development of worker co-operatives (or even mention worker co-operatives)?

We need to answer these questions. We need to set goals.

I would set the following goals for 2040:

  • Worker co-operatives will exist in each of the top 150 MSAs in the United States.
  • Worker Co-operatives will account for between 0.5% and 5% of the GDP for the each MSA
  • Worker Co-operatives will be part of the planning documents for the regional and municipal planning departments in at least 1/2 of the top 150 MSA and in all of the MSA’s in which co-ops already existed in 2010.

Well, there is an end point, but how do we get there?

We need to start by creating the materials for municipalities to see and teach them about worker co-operatives. We need to start locally within our own group.

In Madison WI we have a unique opportunity in the next year. The entire City Council is up for election along with the Mayor and the County Executive. We have a local network called MADWORC. We need to educate each and every candidate on worker coops. We need to hold a candidate forum (or more than one) for each race. We need to make worker cooperatives part of the discussion on how to create a sustainable local economy. We need to get candidates to commit (or at least consider) the idea of worker co-operative development as a way to move the local economy forward.

We need to do this in every community where we currently have active worker co-operatives: Minneapolis, San Fransisco, Austin, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, etc. If we can get the cities where we are already active on board in five years, we can start moving to other MSAs.

I’m not talking about partisan politics. I am talking about educating the elected officials and the planning bureaucrats. I am talking about raising the profile of worker co-operatives. Showing the success of Mondragon and connecting their success to our success. What local public official would love to support the development of a business that puts locals to work, improves the community, and will never leave?

We have to start today.


Please review the comments on some previous posts. Mark Rego-Monteiro has been making systemic comments on my series on the distributism, syndicalism and the future of the movement. I will be responding to his comments as well and hope that you do too!

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 Does Your Community Plan for Coops?

  1. Sounds like you´re ready to go, John! I´m not so ready to emphasize political organizing from my experiences in the NYC area. I´d say that regarding your point 1 on Capitalism as Failing is a perspective-oriented one. Your point indicates how capitalism is not failing the profit-accumulation goals of people like corporate executives and investors, and their political representatives right now. If we distinguish the point of capitalism as the use of money capital involving non-governmental organized enterprises, I think we can identify at least two elements that might be in common with co-operative economics.
    As for the concentration of wealth dynamic, I think of Science Applications International and St. Lukes Ad Agency, which I understand are extremely profitable co-ops. What are the social, environmental, and community responsibilities of any co-op that accumulates such levels of wealth? I would suggest that co-op values of social responsibility require additional social investment examples. Alaska pays all its citizens an oil residual, I understand. I suppose Mondragon offers a model of reinvestment in this regard, though it seems their international operations currently are planned to transition to co-op standards.
    As for political planning, my sense is that a certain critical level of awareness would be necessary. Perhaps in municipalities like Madison, Berkeley, and Asheville this is already possible. Failing some critical mass, I would think citizen organizing efforts would be necessary. Green Worker Co-ops in the S. Bronx of NYC is starting with entrepreneurial training classes, or approaching the different members of the activist community for starters. The Sierra Club already has a national alliance with USW, which in turn has one with Mondragon. There´s a strong basis among strong options. What responses would members of Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, and Oxfam have to discussing worker co-op enterprise initiatives, and political organizing?
    Paul Hawkens book on Blessed Unrest and Michael Moore´s latest with its sneak peak at co-op´s could be combined in a reading group, as well.

  2. An interesting perspective I’d like to include for discussion. Denmark, where agricultural co-operatives were innovated in the 19th century, experienced a dynamic democratic culture I learned through recent research. While I’d like to learn more about the details of people like the U.S.’s Horace Mann, N. Grundtvig in Denmark inspired Folk schools where some healthy level of democratic nationalism emerged and empowered a country in which the small farmers had been extensively protected during the transition from feudalism. Contrast England and Germany in particular on this point.
    Co-operatives became applied in many sectors and became extensively deployed throughout the Danish society. Nevertheless, even with the role of citizen organization in the development of wind turbine technology in particular during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, neoliberal culture overwhelmed the political process by 2000 after all those years when a conservative government was voted in and democratic wind incentives ended. Something important, then, in the form of a co-operative social democratic economic ideology has been missing in Denmark in this case, that can stand up to the predations of capitalist economic assertions.

  3. Mark,

    Without a doubt the long-term vision will require a different type of politics than the narrow identity politics that have dominated over the last 30-40 years. People need to make connections between the different movements. I think that the place to start is with the established groups. I know that Green Worker in the Bronx has done a lot to raise awareness, but their example demonstrates that it cannot be just a socio-economic movement. They need people on the City Council and the Borough Council to understand and champion worker co-ops. I think that the path to develop critical mass is to work with the existing regional groups: NoBAWC, VAWC and MADWORC. They need to insert themselves into local politics–not as partisan forces, but as educational forces.

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