Hundreds of cooperators from across sectors gathered in Washington, DC, for the 2023 Cooperative IMPACT Conference the first week of October, kicking off National Co-op Month. The agenda on Thursday, October 5 included a session called “Innovation Through Worker Cooperatives,” which solicited attendees’ input on how the broader co-op community can engage worker cooperatives, perhaps the fastest growing co-op sector in the U.S.
Conversation and excitement filled the room as attendees from across the country heard a short presentation from Esteban Kelly, Executive Director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and chair of NCBA CLUSA’s Board of Directors, and then put their minds together to respond to prompts, with different tables reflecting different geographies. What do you know about worker cooperatives in your region? How can the co-op community support them? What can the co-op community do to leverage the energy and interest in worker cooperatives? The dozens of tables each reported their own findings and discussions were supported by worker cooperators past and present, cooperative researchers, and staff of worker co-op associations.
A brief overview: The 2021 State of the Sector counted more than 600 worker co-ops employing 6,000 workers and earning $283.17 million in gross revenue annually. Kelly estimated there was a 30 percent increase in both number of co-ops and members since then. This high growth level excites those involved and reflects both existing worker co-ops’ resiliency as well as a wave of startups as people turn to cooperation to earn their living.
Worker co-op membership is comprised of a majority of women nationwide, and also counts percentages of people of color and LGBTQ+ communities that are consistent with, or in some cases higher than, the population in the U.S. Characteristics of worker co-ops include direct democracy in governance, equitable top-to-bottom pay ratios (usually 2:1, compared to 351:1 at a typical corporation), and patronage paid equally through number of hours worked.
Propelling the 6th Cooperative Principle, or “cooperation among cooperatives” into action, attendees contributed hundreds of ideas during the session. Opportunities for supporting each other and achieving shared goals jumped off the pages; here are some highlights:
- Intercooperation: Participants spoke of the need for intercooperation with worker cooperatives across sectors and often named the 6th Cooperative Principle directly. Additional ideas stated the need for more engagement of worker co-op associations to sponsor events, for example, and to support the voice of worker co-ops as a whole in particular areas.
- Utilizing worker co-ops: One tried-and-true way to support worker co-ops: use them whenever possible, wrote attendees, be they brick-and-mortars nearby or online.
- Financial and technical support: There was much discussion of how to allocate funding and technical assistance for the growing sector, especially in light of a membership growing in populations normally kept out of education and experience around business acumen.
- Legislative support: Attendees reported a lack of familiarity with incorporation statutes and legal structures for worker co-ops. Many wanted stronger, more sympathetic legislation and clarity discerning worker co-ops from other employee ownership models.
Worker co-ops across the U.S. range from home cleaners and homecare cooperatives to engineers and trash haulers. They have joined together regionally and nationally to work on these issues, however there is much to do. They are also using co-op principles by working together in co-op associations to address development, education, legislation and more across the country in places like San Francisco Bay, western Massachusetts and Vermont, Madison, Wisconsin, and New York City. These regional associations support the national U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops to center activity and identify strategies and trends.
Cooperators shared the activities they were going to pursue once they returned home. And NCBA CLUSA wants to hear the results! With Kelly as board chair, there is a great opportunity to incorporate feedback and to share the ongoing efforts of worker cooperatives. Many of the challenges mentioned—technical assistance, legal forms and financing—are a priority of the Federation, its members and supporters.
A key outcome of the dialog during IMPACT 2023 was that the issues raised will themselves require cooperative solutions. Thank you to the cooperators representing so many sectors, industries and geographies for supporting and humanizing the effort for a truly inclusive cooperative economy. NCBA CLUSA looks forward to continuing the conversation around supporting worker cooperatives.
—Adam Trott is Director of Member Relations at Shared Capital Cooperative, a national CDFI loan fund that connects co-ops and capital to build economic democracy. You can reach him at email@example.com.