Social Impact of Worker Cooperatives

170522-farmworkers-topHistorically, worker cooperatives have flourished when times were tough. The first successful worker cooperative was a response to low wages and long hours in a textile mill in 1844 Rochdale, England. A hundred years later, students in Mondragon, Spain, began to manufacture household appliances to survive the devastation of two wars. In 2008, New York City restaurant workers, who had been displaced by the September 11, 2001 tragedy, organized to start their own worker owned restaurant.

In 2015, New York State launched its Exploited Worker Task Force to root out exploitation in 14 industries where conditions were particularly rampant. What is still missing is a way to prevent these workers from falling back into exploitation. Worker owned cooperatives provide a path for them to take control of their lives and earn a decent living.

Worker cooperatives can be started in any industry. It does not have to be in one of these. In fact, it may be better to choose a different one because, while these are relatively easy businesses to start, you would have to compete against those who are not following the rules. You would be at an immediate disadvantage. The best industries for worker cooperatives are industries with these attributes:

  • Labor intensive
  • Low startup cost
  • Easy to learn

One of the biggest hurdles is lack of worker confidence. The reasons most workers give for not starting their own business is lack of skills and it is too difficult. Those excuses become invalid in a worker cooperative because workers who organize themselves as worker cooperatives, share the burden with others. Together, they can accomplish what they could not do on their own. Besides, there are numerous resources available at the Democracy at Work Institute.

Birth of a Cooperative: Hoedads, Inc., a Worker Owned Forest Labor Co-Op

One of the most fascinating parts of the Hoedads story is that they created a cooperative before they knew what a cooperative was. It came about as a natural development by trial and error. The other fascinating part is how they learned to solve conflicts. Working or living in community can be messy, but they found a way to make it work.

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