Worker co-ops are not the solution, but a vehicle (and a sturdy one at that).

“We do not aspire to economic development as an end  but as a means.”-– Don José María Arizmendiarietta (029)*

In early December, I attended a workshop in Post Falls, Idaho for Reimagining the Rural West. This initiative of the Western Governors Association includes several workshops and the Post Falls event included a panel discussion on the power of cooperation. It was convened by the Governor of Idaho Brad Little.

During the discussion on cooperatives and their role in rural communities, a state lawmaker from Idaho made a comment about the importance of agency among individuals. She expressed concern about seeing cooperatives as a solution and a flawed history of professionals coming into communities with empty promises.

Here is the full panel the discussion:

On the way back to the airport, I kept thinking about those sentiments and how the co-op movement in unique in community development in that it uses professionals to facilitate the discussion and share experiences, but the actual development and organization has its foundation in the people of the community. Even when a top-down model operates, it quickly gives way to the members of the cooperative.

“The human person that proceeds to cultivate his or her abilities with the only objective of being productive, insensibly and fatally becomes a slave to the productive machine.”— Don José María Arizmendiarietta (030)*

Co-ops aren’t a solution to the community’s problem. The solution resides within the commitment and energy of the people. Co-ops offer a vehicle in which everyone’s agency remains intact through a shared purpose and democratic structure. More importantly, the very act of cooperation is reciprocal, especially in a worker cooperative.

Co-ops that only engage in commercial activity don’t reach their full potential. The real power of cooperation is the development of the individual as a human being. Co-op developers generally only come into a community when asked by the founding members of a co-op. They don’t bring empty promises or gimmicks, they bring experience, advice, and tools, but it is always the members of the co-op that create the vision and work to fulfill it.

Arizmendiarietta speaks eloquently of the role of co-operatives in human development. I’ve heard many worker co-op members also speak eloquently of how their experience in a co-op helped them gain new understandings and uncover latent talents and skills. The “co-op”, at least for worker co-ops, is never an outside actor coming into to “save” a community. Worker co-ops are the community and its members are working to build a better world at the local level. In the process , but the members and the community mutually benefit–the definition of mutual self-help.


*Arizmendiarietta, J.M, Pensiamentos translated by Cherie Herrera, Cristina Herrera, David Herrera, Teresita Lorenzo, and Virgil Lorenzo. Otalora Management Institute.

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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