The Upward Trend at Work: Building a Cooperative Society

The institutions of capitalism and the patterns they are based on have evolved over several centuries. They began among European people in the 1600s and spread from there to much of the world, until today we have “global capitalism.”

The primary goal of capitalism, enforced by competition, is to generate profits for business owners. It is not to maximize the well-being of those who do the work. Even in the best of times for working people, this economic system has not been able to generate jobs or living wages for all, leaving many impoverished. And the jobs it does provide have become less and less skilled, with less and less job security, generating great dissatisfaction and hardship among working people.

Capitalism has been crisis prone from the start. There have been frequent financial panics, depressions, and recessions—the 2008 global crisis being the most recent—in which unemployment is high, wages and salaries are stagnant, and working people are pitted against each other. The majority of working people suffer, but the most vulnerable groups, especially People of the Global Majority, suffer the most.

The conflict between capitalism’s ability to produce great wealth and technological change and its inability to meet the needs of working people and their families has been evident from its beginnings, and people have been predicting its collapse ever since. Yet it persists.

The living conditions of working people, both working and middle class, only improve when the people are united enough (in unions) and are in a position to bargain effectively with business owners. However, under current conditions, this occurs infrequently, leaving working people with stagnating or declining incomes.

As an economics teacher, I learned that teaching college students about the shortcomings of capitalism would leave them with feelings of hopelessness, discouragement, and powerlessness. I tried contradicting their distress by having them read about people’s visions of what a cooperative, rational society would be like. However, without actual examples, they were not very convinced.

In RC we have held out the re-emergent goal of creating a cooperative society. Motivated by the need to show my students that such a society is possible, I searched for examples. What I found was that with the failure of global capitalism to meet people’s needs, even in the best of times, people in growing numbers have been experimenting with alternative solutions. They have been creating new worker-owned and cooperative businesses, public banks, credit unions, land trusts, neighborhood corporations, social enterprises, municipal utilities, small-scale organic farms, and traditional non-profit corporations.

Currently in the United States there are 40,000 cooperative businesses, and 130 million people participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. Cooperatives generate $514 billion in revenue and more than $25 billion in wages. More than 13 million U.S. workers own more than 11,000 employee-owned companies.

An example is Evergreen Cooperatives, in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. They are a group of three worker-owned companies that have taken the lead in local solar-panel installation and “green” laundry services and a commercial hydroponic greenhouse that can produce more than three million heads of lettuce a year. Their goal is to provide jobs for a lower-income inner-city workforce.

Globally, cooperative enterprises employ 250 million people and generate $2.2 trillion in revenue. In the twenty largest nations, employees working in cooperatives make up almost 12 percent of the employed population. One of the world’s largest worker cooperatives, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC), was started in the 1950s in the Basque Country. Today it has grown into an international corporation of 289 companies, employing more than 80,000 workers in financing, manufacturing, retail, social service, education, and research and development. It has total assets of $37.4 billion and total revenues of $14.6 billion. The Basque region joins Quebec, Canada, and the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy in having the world’s highest concentrations of cooperatives. In 2009, MCC and United Steel Workers of America signed an agreement to create worker co-ops in the United States.

There is also is an international movement to create “social enterprises,” which combine the social mission of a non-profit or government program with the market-driven approach of a business. In an era of declining government funding of public services, social enterprises are helping to fill unmet social needs. They create businesses both to make money and to further their social mission. There are several hundred of these enterprises in the United States and many more in Canada and Europe. In the United States their annual revenue is $500 million.

An example is Pioneer Human Services, in Seattle, Washington, USA. It offers drug- and alcohol-free housing, employment, job training, counseling, and education to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and creates businesses (that manufacture, distribute, and sell products) to generate earnings to fund its social mission. It has 1,000 employees and a revenue of $60 million and provides jobs to more than 700 people drawn from the ex-offender, homeless, and drug-recovery populations it serves.

These cooperative efforts, of millions of people around the world, are part of an upward trend full of promise. Unfortunately, they are not reported in the mainstream news.

Dan Nickerson, the International Liberation Reference Person for Working-Class People, put forth “A New Initiative on Ending Classism” in the July 2014 Present Time. It called on RCers to prioritize communicating the insights and practice of RC to working people. As we think about doing that, we should consider reaching out to the people working in these cooperatives, as they are on a cutting edge of transforming our society.

To learn more about this cooperative movement, the following resources are useful:

An inspiring documentary Shift Change: True Stories of Dignified Jobs in Democratic Workplaces:

Democracy Collaborative:

Community Wealth:

U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives:

Democracy at Work Initiative:

National Cooperative Business Association:

Evergreen Cooperatives:

International Cooperative Alliance:

World Cooperative Monitor:

Mondragon Cooperative Corporation:

United Steel Workers Union:

Yes! Magazine: Powerful Ideas, Practical Actions:

Chuck Barone

Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA

(Present Time 187, April 2017)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00