3.5 C
Tuesday, December 6, 2022
HomeBusinessBe your own boss: More co-op businesses are returning workers’ power


Related stories

Fears over debt as more people could turn to loan sharks to cover Christmas

Christmas is a time people celebrate, share joy and...

Inequalities hindering the end of AIDS

By Pa Modou Faal December 1 every year, is set...

Recognising domestic violence and accessing the support you need

By Joseph Clayton According to Women’s Aid, domestic violence is...

Killed by Mould: A court ruled.

Two years old Awaab Ishak has died because of...

Mojatu Foundation

Mother Jones reporter Alissa Quart investigates the trend of workers both owning and running the business they work for…

Renee Taylor was busy when I spoke with her. Following her release in 2013 after 25 years in various Chicago-area prisons, the 52-year-old Taylor has been prepping and delivering meals for the food service company ChiFresh Kitchen. This isn’t any old restaurant gig: Taylor owns a piece of her workplace. ChiFresh belongs to its five worker-owners, all of whom have also done time.

At worker cooperatives, workers both own and run the business. Sometimes they must buy in to become owners, and they may also have representation on a board of directors. Worker-owners tend to benefit far more directly from their co-op’s economic success, as the proceeds and the control stay with them. While co-ops make up a small portion of US small businesses, the pandemic and its aftermath have helped popularise the model.

Worker co-ops expanded in the United States in another such moment, the 1880s, many of them founded by Black people after the Civil War. “When we were freed after slavery, and went to work, we got the worst jobs and the worst pay and the least disposable income,” says Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. “Cooperatives were the way to get around” the exclusion from traditional businesses and even banks. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, freed Black people started mutual aid societies. They pooled members’ dues and monthly fees to pay for burials, and then additional stipends for widows and orphans, and shared money and work to buy and run farms.

The New Deal era also encouraged this cooperative work ethos, with the well-named Self-Help Cooperative Movement, which started in 1932 when unemployed people in the Compton neighbourhood of Los Angeles contacted farmers outside of the city to set up a barter system: labour for food. And these cooperatives didn’t die off in the Great Depression. In the 1960s and ’70s, there were also hundreds such enterprises.

And as the 2020 pandemic took hold, the worker co-op paradigm, with its labour-centred approach to business, held renewed appeal. Camille Kerr, the community organiser who conceived of ChiFresh, saw the co-op as an employment opportunity for formerly incarcerated women and a way to push ideas like non-hierarchical ownership, with each owner-worker sharing in the decision-making about, say, weekly menus. “The pandemic lifted up the need for us to focus on meeting each other’s needs, and to have infrastructure to meet each other’s needs,” says Kerr. “Things are going to happen, natural disasters. What better way to do it than collectively owned?”

“I’ve never worked for a place that took care of their employees at that level”

Kegan White, technician

All day, 28-year-old Kegan White completes detailed tasks like fabrication and de-rusting as a technician at a cooperative auto service centre in Norwich, Vermont. For his labour, White makes a competitive $23 an hour and receives dental and vision benefits, which he says are practically unheard of in the auto-repair industry.

The Norwich Service Station and its sister outlet, the Hanover Service Station in New Hampshire, are part of a large local cooperative that also includes three grocery stores and a community market and employs roughly 400 people.

This cooperative is different from the others featured in this project: like thousands of other co-ops in the United States, it is a consumer cooperative, not a worker-owned cooperative. But it shares the communitarian ethos of worker co-ops. The service centres have featured a voucher program called Co-op Car Connections, whereby the mechanics do crucial repairs for car owners unable to pay, from oil changes to fixing a broken seat belt. As COVID alighted, workers say their cooperative took care of its people. 

“The grocery stores did really good in the beginning of the pandemic and the company could have just kept all that money,” White says, “but they gave it back to the employees. I’ve never worked for a place that took care of their employees at that level.”

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.


- Never miss a story with notifications

- Gain full access to our premium content

- Browse free from up to 5 devices at once

Latest stories


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here