This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.
In the decades after World War II, the union movement was one of the main forces boosting the incomes and security of working people. But the number of union members peaked in 1979, and in many places unions have struggled since then.
In 2009, United Steelworkers sought to change that. They met with representatives from Spain-based Mondragon, the world’s largest worker cooperative, to develop a plan for industrial steel workers to transition into worker-ownership. Cooperatives, they believed, would put more power in the hands of workers.
The partnership sparked an idea with labor organizers in Cincinnati. And in 2012, labor representatives founded the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI), a union co-op incubator that nurtures startups, aiming to create an integrated network of union co-ops that sustain and support each other.
The union component makes it possible to scale a co-op, says Kristen Barker, the executive director of CUCI. Even with the assurance of “one worker, one vote,” worker-owners still fill different roles, which can lead to division. Unions help remedy that by backing workers independently of the co-op.
In the CUCI network each co-op—currently three, with four more in the works—pays 10 percent of its profits into a fund to help other businesses when they’re trying to expand or when markets are slow.
When the J.C. Penney in Ely (pop. 4,000) shut its doors in 2003, the residents were devastated. Some 250 miles from the nearest major city, they were left with few shopping options. It also left a three-story building vacant at the center of downtown. Officials unsuccessfully tried to bring in major chain stores to fill the space. “We couldn’t find merchants that were interested in investing in our little town,” says Virginia Terry, who lives just outside of Ely. “We decided we’d do it ourselves.”
The town came together to form the Garnet Mercantile in 2004. Through newspaper ads, town hall meetings, and the support of town officials, they sold more than 800 shares at $500 apiece—mostly to locals—to finance the store, says Terry, an original shareholder and now president of the store’s board. “We all wanted to keep our community viable,” she says. Today, the store has a staff of four and includes a market for local vendors and craftspeople.
When the local Winn-Dixie closed 18 years ago, Northeast Greensboro was left without a grocery store. The neighborhood became one of the city’s 17 food deserts, and those living in it were more susceptible to obesity and diabetes.
After the area failed to attract large chain stores, a group of neighbors spent four years establishing their own store: Renaissance Community Co-op.
“When the spark was lit that we can do this for ourselves, that’s what resonated with a lot of the community members,” said James Lamar Gibson, a co-op volunteer who grew up in Greensboro.
With help from the Fund for Democratic Communities, neighbors raised more than $2 million from foundations, the city, and grassroots projects. They also pre-sold owner-memberships. This fall, neighbors will be able to buy fresh food at a local store—one that they own.