May 20, 2018

Revival of the union co-op movement

Cooperative Grocer  - Earlier this month in Cincinnati, Ohio, roughly 150 worker co-op and union activists came together for the Third Biennial Union Co-op Symposium. This conference marked a watershed of sorts, as the union co-op idea is increasingly seen by both union and co-opactivists as a vehicle for community transformation. At the conference, leaders announced their intent to form a national network organization in the coming year. Participants also explored developing new debt and equity investment vehicles to expand the pace of development nationwide.

The idea of a unionized worker co-op may seem odd. By definition, worker co-op members own the company for which they work. You can’t really go on strike against yourself, for example. But unionized worker co-ops in the US have a proud history. In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor, then the leading US trade union with over one million members, not only had members in traditional companies but its members operated over 200 worker co-ops. In Minneapolis-St. Paul alone, according to historian Steve Leiken, there were 32 worker co-ops. In Leiken’s account, a combination of insufficient solidarity within the co-op sector and opposition from outside the sector ultimately led to the sector’s demise, but “for a few years in the 1880s, the cooperative coopers of Minneapolis dominated an entire industry.” Some of the worker co-ops formed remained in business for decades, but the links with the labor movement weakened over time.

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