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Truthout - April 2019

It’s been more than 10 years since the financial crisis of 2008, and working people are still being hammered by its effects — stagnating wages, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and a rise in the sharing economy to meet basic needs. At the same time, one legacy of the 2008 crash has been the growth of the movement for democratic worker-ownership.

Many have turned to the worker cooperative model as a way to build more sustainable jobs and communities, in large part because collective ownership allows for workers to equitably share the benefits in the good times and the burdens in the hard times. In the past decade, the number of worker-owned cooperatives in the United States has almost doubled from roughly 350 companies to nearly 600. This growth has primarily taken place in communities of color and immigrant communities. As a result, worker cooperatives now exist in diverse sectors across the country, including in the taxi industry, elder care, home cleaning, tech, construction and more.

I’ve been a worker-owner with The TESA Collective, a worker co-op, since 2010. TESA, which develops board games and tools for social and economic change, has been heavily involved in advocating for the cooperative movement. Over the past decade, our work has ranged from making a board game about cooperatives and co-creating a free documentary on how to start a cooperative, to working with incarcerated people to organize cooperatives behind prison bars. In that time, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in the cooperative movement from everyday working people, and now from policy makers and business owners alike. We’ve witnessed on the ground floor the innovative ways the cooperative movement is growing, and the impact it can have on the larger economy as a whole.

A New Path: Converting Traditional Businesses to Worker Ownership

In 2012, after four years of on-and-off strikes and union negotiations, workers at a Chicago window factory decided to buy their factory and own their jobs together, launching New Era Windows, a worker-owned cooperative. In 2014, employees of a small chain of businesses in Deer Isle, Maine, were worried about terminations when they learned that their founders were retiring. With support from the co-op movement, the employees were able to train themselves on democratic governance while finding the funding they needed to buy their stores, transforming into the Island Employee Cooperative. Just this year, the owner of Downtown Sounds, a music shop in Northampton, Massachusetts, pitched the idea of converting the store into a worker co-op, and selling his business to his longtime employees. The staff readily accepted his proposal.

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the growing trend of businesses being bought out and democratically owned by their employees. And these aren’t isolated incidents: they’re in large part due to organizing from the worker cooperative movement. This shift to converting traditional business to worker-ownership has been a key strategic decision by cooperative advocates. ...
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