Are Co-Ops the Answer? Around the world, people are democratizing the workplace
Long before the Occupy movement sparked renewed protest of rising inequality, another global movement was quietly engaged in building a more democratic economy. From coffee growers in Kenya seeking a fair market price to worker-owned green businesses reviving the American Rust Belt, cooperatives are helping to spur a reinvention of work in a period of worldwide recession.
Globally, an estimated 1 billion people are members of cooperatives, and many believe that the scope of worker- and member-owned enterprises across the world represents a revolution already in the making. With combined earnings rivaling Canada’s GDP, co-ops could be the fastest-growing business model by the end of the decade. To promote awareness of their potential, the United Nations has declared 2012 the “International Year of Cooperatives.” Cooperative organizers, though they have generally worked on a separate track from protest movements, have called on Occupy and other mass movements to help build “an economy worth occupying.”
“It was really serendipitous that the ‘Year of Cooperatives’ happened at the same time as the Occupy movement,” says Cheyenna Weber of SolidarityNYC, a group that links social movements with “solidarity economy” initiatives. “There’s so much attention to this because people are intimately aware that the economic crisis is not going away on its own … they’re starting to get serious about doing it themselves.”
But do the swelling numbers of cooperative businesses constitute a force capable of transforming the broader economy? Governmental support for co-ops, though increasing at the behest of the U.N., is based on the principle that co-ops can create employment as part of a mixed economy, most often in sectors where capital has already retreated. And though most co-ops follow a set of seven principles - among them open membership, autonomy and concern for community - there are significant differences in how directly members or workers participate in decision-making and how explicitly they engage with broader economic justice movements.