A Practical Approach to Making Co-ops Work

We don’t need a revolution to achieve a fair economy.
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“Cooperation is no drop‑in solution-​for-​everything. It’s a process that happens a million ways at once.”

Photo by Mike Harrington/Getty Images

 

In Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy, Nathan Schneider looks at how cooperatives can be the basis of a democratic economy, one in which businesses are accountable to the people who work, shop, and invest in them. In this excerpt, he recommends a practical approach to building a varied and resilient cooperative “commonwealth.”

As the stories I’ve told in this book declare, cooperation is no drop‑in solution-​for-​everything. It’s a process that happens a million ways at once, a diversified democracy. The troubles are as endemic as the promise. It starts with the capacities we already have, recombined to solve common problems. The commonwealth doesn’t defer its business until after the world passes through some revolutionary event. It doesn’t wait for things to get worse so they can get better. It doesn’t appear from nowhere and disrupt everything. Instead, it grows through what Grace Lee Boggs called “critical connections”—bridging generations, forging bonds too strong for profiteers to break. It requires people who know their own strengths.

A lot of those who have been drawn into the co‑op movement in recent years hope it can be something like universal basic income—a drastic, radical fix that changes everything. They try to create co‑ops for the hardest of problems, using the most untested of means, building their dreams out of policy proposals and foundation grants and panels at conferences. I watch the news of these developments closely. But some of the most remarkable things are happening more quietly, making use of latent resources already in our midst. 

When I first took a phone call from Felipe Witchger, the young executive director of the Community Purchasing Alliance in Washington, D.C., I’d never heard of him or his organization. I’d never come across it on the newsletters and feeds I follow. And when I attended CPA’s 2017 annual meeting, I realized what a lapse this was. Seated around me were representatives of the 160 D.C.‑area organizations—mainly churches and charter schools, largely people of color—that used CPA for purchasing such unglamorous things as electricity, security, sanitation, and landscaping. After three years in existence, CPA had saved them and the people they serve nearly $3 million. (A woman seated next to me, a part-​time church staffer, said she’d cut out $17,000 on copier contracts alone.) The co‑op had helped many of them switch to renewable energy, and their purchase of 580 solar panels, so far, had already brought down the price of solar for everyone in the region. On one end of the room were employees of a Black-​owned security company whose size more than doubled because of CPA contracts. Witchger was talking with some of CPA’s contractors about converting their businesses to worker co‑ops.

This kind of stepwise, ground‑up cooperation has enjoyed less fanfare since the Great Recession than the pursuit of theoretical tropes that seem fresh and radical. Some, for instance, regard the precise locus of production as so important that they would reserve governance rights in a worker-​owned co‑op solely to “producer” workers, who physically make a given widget, over the “enablers,” who answer phones, sweep floors, craft contracts, and the like. This kind of doctrinal fixation doesn’t do much to anticipate automated or offshore production, rising demand for service work, and the disguised labor of online platforms. It also inclines us to neglect how pockets of commonwealth might emerge from zones of economic life other than factory floors—from schools, from churches, from taking out the trash. Hints from the cooperative past, and latent opportunities in the present, might be better-suited to survive among profiteers with a multibillion-dollar head start.

Rusty old farmer co‑ops could show urban contract workers how to organize joint bargaining and insurance. A buttoned‑up mutual fund like Vanguard might be the model for a basic income grounded in genuine shared ownership.

Whether or not the Silicon Valley prognosticators are right to expect an economy less dependent on human labor, cooperators need to build on a diverse foundation, one that recognizes the diverse ways people interact with their economies—not only as certain kinds of workers but as consumers, users, contributors, small-business owners, and crowdfunders. We can learn to revive the democratic spirits dormant in so many credit unions, electric co‑ops, insurance mutuals, and employee stock-ownership plans. There is no single, gleaming, out‑of‑the-​box model. Commonwealths spread through variety.

The largest worker co‑op in my town is Namasté Solar, a solar-​panel installation company with more than 100 member-​owners. Since converting to a co‑op in 2011, it has been a thriving business—and a certified B Corp whose members get six paid weeks off every year. It has no trouble finding investors willing to finance growth without demanding control. But its greatest systemic effect has happened outside the worker-​ownership structure. First, Namasté spawned a spin-​off, Amicus Solar, a purchasing cooperative that helps small solar companies across North America stay competitive against large corporations. That, in turn, spun off another co‑op that pools maintenance services. Now the Namasté team is helping to create the Clean Energy Federal Credit Union, designed to provide loans for homeowners nationwide switching to renewables. One thing led to another, and out came a sizable chunk of commonwealth. Our newly legalized housing co‑ops did much the same thing; cooperative grocery stores have never done well in Boulder, as the market for good food is already crowded, but when the co‑op houses put their purchasing power together, they created a business that sells local and organic food for a fraction of the retail price. They realized their latent power and put it to use.

When we know the diversity and dexterity of past models, we’ll be better at finding the combinations we need for the present. The trouble is, longings for a perfect order can tempt us more than the unfinished commonwealths of the past, whose salvation remains incomplete and locked in procedural dullness. Unlike capitalism’s penchant for perpetual disruption, cooperation works best when it can work with what is already at hand.

Excerpted from Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy by Nathan Schneider. Copyright © 2018. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc.