What Even Is A Worker Cooperative?

There’s a lot of debate as to what makes a worker cooperative and what doesn’t. Cooperatives more broadly are actually more common than you may think, with credit unions and housing co-ops being clear examples. A worker cooperative specifically has some differing definitions country to country. Richard Wolff thinks they can serve as a transition to socialism, bringing democracy to the workplace: https://youtu.be/Aij4wf7zcVQ

I think one of the best deep dives into what they really represent politically and economically was this video essay by Unlearning Economics, entitled “Worker Democracy”: https://youtu.be/yZHYiz60R5Q.

In the video, Unlearning Economics explains that worker cooperatives do not have a set structure, with variance between levels of worker ownership of the firm and decision-making power. Some may be entirely owned & operated by workers, others may elect boards, and others still may engage in profit-sharing.

The idea of worker cooperatives has been present in literature since at least the 1800s. A lot of theoretical benefits have been borne out in selected studies:

  • less inequality than conventional firms
  • workers have increased trust in the coop
  • workers can put more effort into the coop
  • higher rates of survival during downturns than conventional firms

While these important studies can show the viability of cooperative models of organization and enterprise, it’s important to emphasize that they are also inherently important because they bring justice and democracy to a workplace.

In that spirit, it’s important to research what are the policies, histories, and conditions which make each cooperative different. Unlearning Economics took away the following four policies as leading to greater worker democracy. Do you agree?

  1. Expansion of funding and law changes to encourage the formation of worker cooperatives
  2. Expansion of community-led efforts which include and encourage worker cooperatives through funding, education, and awareness
  3. Expansion of shares options in conventional firms and participatory voting
  4. Majority worker representation on corporate boards within conventional firms

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