In worker cooperatives workers are both employees and employers at the same time. Why, then, would you need unions? Well, the answer is that you do not, but you may be better off with them. They have a lot to bring to the table. Their role and their way of thinking may have to change somewhat, but their contribution could be of great value.
Union participation used to be around 30%. Now it is around 10% and shrinking even in the public sector. The achievements of unions in worker rights is indisputable. Many of the benefits we take for granted came about because of unions, but what will unions do in a world where their members are also their opponents? Clearly unions must be looking for ways to remain relevant.
Many worker cooperators join cooperatives because they have an entrepreneurial streak. The self-determination feature of worker co-ops is really important to them. They may even regard unions with a measure of suspicion, even hostility. One of the cooperative principles says that cooperatives are, by definition, autonomous and independent. What room does that leave for unions?
Well, let us look at some areas where there is common ground. First, both have an interest in workers’ working conditions and both do that very well. Second, unions have a lot of business expertise, expertise workers often lack. This could become valuable, perhaps not so much for startups, but when converting existing businesses to the co-op model. Unions know a lot about how business owners think.
Cooperatives are made up of people and people often see things differently. As a cooperative grows, the distance between the shop floor and the boardroom tends to grow as well. It begins to feel more like a regular company and conflicts can arise. Unions are experts at coming up with creative solutions where others only see dead ends. Instead of representing workers in negotiations, their new role could be as mediators when disputes arise. As neutral partners, they can help straighten out simple miscommunications that have spiraled out of control.
Old school cooperators may still be leary of union participation, but I think it is worthwhile to at least look at what they have to bring to the table. It may be a process of trial and error to figure out exactly what that role should be. It may even turn out to be different in different situations.