Truthout - Unions and worker cooperatives have had a storied history - sometimes allies, sometimes antagonists. Still, since the late 19th century, the two movements have found ways to aid one another. As far back as 1877, the Knights of Labor were helping to organize worker cooperatives. And from 1880 to 1888, they were part of launching hundreds of co-ops. KOL's goal was to create the "stepping stones for self-employment" that would lead to a "cooperative commonwealth."
Through more modern times, unionized workers have continued to find ways to use the cooperative model to protect their jobs and improve their livelihoods. Union Cab of Madison, a cooperative taxi company with around two hundred and sixty members, was born in 1979 after union drivers struck for better conditions, and the owners responded by permanently shuttering the company. But some of these laid-off workers realized that this turn of events didn't have to mean the end - because they were the ones who had the skills and expertise that kept their old taxi company running. It took hard work and personal sacrifice, including struggling to raise $150,000 in start-up capital and initially only paying themselves an average wage of eighty-cents an hour, but they managed to found a business where all the workers, from the drivers to the dispatchers, own and run things together. Because of this, Union Cab today has some of the best conditions and pay in the taxi industry.
Similarly, Collective Copies is a print shop in Massachusetts with eleven worker-owners, which was formed in 1983 after a strike for better pay and conditions against Gnomon Copies. The workers were actually successful in their strike, but unfortunately, two weeks later, Gnomon, which didn't have a lease, was evicted from the building by the landlord. After months of picketing and organizing, the workers had won - but now they were out of jobs anyway. Instead of despairing, the workers decided to take action. They were inspired by their collective efforts with the union and were managing to (barely) stay afloat with their strike pay. So the workers turned to the cooperative model to launch a company that they wouldn't have to strike against. They pooled their resources and expertise, forming Collective Copies, which is still in business more than thirty years later.
There's been a sea change in the US over the past few decades, and unions have lost some of their historic power.
"Unions today are under siege from the private as well as the public sector," says Mary Hoyer, Co-Chair of the Union Co-ops Council of the US Federation of Worker Co-ops. "Very few people in the US have ever been a member of a union or understand the enormous benefits of unionization."
Hoyer believes that this is why more unions are beginning to intentionally turn to the worker cooperative model to fight for workers' rights.
"Several labor unions are working with community and co-op coalitions to develop unionized co-ops from the ground up," she said. "They include United Steelworkers in a ground-breaking agreement with Mondragon, United Food and Commercial Workers in their work in Cincinnati, Communications Workers of America, and the United Electrical Workers."
In 2009, the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial labor union in North America, and Mondragon, the largest system of worker cooperatives in the world, based in the Basque region of Spain, announced that they were teaming up to build unionized worker cooperatives.
The benefits from this collaboration have already started to bloom. The Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative, made possible because of the USW and Mondragon partnership, has helped launch two cooperatives: Our Harvest and Sustainergy. And even more are on the way. There are also union co-op initiatives being cultivated in roughly ten other cities, including Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco/Oakland, and St. Louis. 1Worker1Vote, similarly created through the USW - Mondragon agreement, is an organization dedicated to advocating for and supporting the development of unionized co-ops nationwide.
But why would a business that's democratically owned by its workers also want to have a union? That's because worker cooperatives are not immune to labor disputes, especially as they grow larger. After all, cooperatives are systems of people, and people don't always see eye to eye. That means that even if workers democratically run a business together, there are times when they might need someone else to defend them. While representing worker-owned cooperatives requires adjusting certain long-held frameworks and practices, unions can be critical in settling internal issues.