Letter to the Editor: Cooperatives and Revolution

This is a letter in response to a previous story. If you’re interested in contributing a letter to the editor, please contact us.

By: Karga Fantasma

I enjoyed the article, “Building a New Economy From Below: Cooperatives and Revolution,” by Sasha Berkman. I would like to offer some comments. First, the differentiation of different types of cooperatives. Consumer: owned by consumers who buy goods or services from their cooperative; Producer: owned by producers of commodities or crafts who have joined forces to process and market their products; Worker: owned and democratically governed by employees who become co-op members; Purchasing: owned by independent businesses or municipalities to improve their purchasing power; Hybrid: a combination of co-op types, where people with common interests band together; and Multi-stakeholder: a type of cooperative that has different classes of members.

Second, there is a pretty broad spectrum of democracy and ownership within cooperatives and democratic workplaces. Cooperatives are a business model, and their survival and benefits depend on the profits of the enterprise. I think it would be wrong to say that cooperatives by themselves will be the end of capitalism, so I agree with the author. There are many factors that need to be addressed. Pretty often, worker cooperatives struggle with the cooperative culture, and their members are not necessarily committed to changing the social order or applying racial and economic justice principles.

There has been a pretty interesting development in worker cooperatives led by people of color and immigrants in the last five years. In cities where advocacy efforts have gained economic support from the government towards cooperative development, there has been a snowball effect on the creation of startups. They also share a lack of analysis, as well as top-down co-op development models, but there is a lot to learn from these cases. Cooperatives need a great deal of support to start. Managing a business takes a lot of time and knowledge, from legal to finances, from education in cooperative principles to governance. Sometimes the idealization of cooperatives forgets the commitment it takes to manage and own a business. Sometimes it takes a great deal of work for the workers to assume their responsibilities and peel off their skin as workers that follow orders, receive a check and don’t have to think about the sustainability of the cooperative.

There is a real need to develop education and connections with other social justice movements. Even within the cooperatives in the US, there is a big disconnection with the needs of their own communities. I agree that there is a need to connect the labor movement with the cooperative movement, although it may be worthwhile to really understand and learn about the criticism with the Mondragon model, which has a reputation for being the more successful corporate model. There are many efforts within the US: the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative, the Greater Dayton Union Co-op Initiative, LA Coop Lab, and the Union Co-op Council of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. The case of the unionizing and conversion of the Vermont Car Wash in Los Angeles is a great example of empowerment from the immigrant workers that took over the business after the owner abandoned the business without paying the workers. I think it would be great to start building bridges with the cooperatives that exist out there to learn from their challenges and from experiences that have built solidarity with the social justice movements in their communities.

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