Union Co-ops present a hopeful model for achieving worker co-op growth

This weekend, I had the privilege of attending an eight-hour seminar on the union co-ops model, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative Development Center, Communication Workers of America Local 7777, Adams County Board of Commissioners Charles "Chaz" Tedesco, and many others.  The event was hosted over a two-day period at the Denver Pipefitters Local 208 building on North Broadway.  Our inspiring guest presenters included Kristen Barker of the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative and Rob Witherell of the United Steel Workers based in Pittsburgh, PA, who generously shared a wealth of experience and knowledge over the course of the event.

In attendance were about thirty people, made up mostly of union staff, members, and supporters, with a handful of co-op champions and developers (such as RMEOC, RMFU CDC, and myself) and a couple interested community members and graduate students.

Rob presented on details of the union co-op model, and what differentiates it from a regular worker co-op.  He also shared about his experiences with starting up a union co-op laundry in Pittsburgh, through partnering with local anchor institutions.  This approach is similar to the famous Evergreen Co-op model in Cleveland, Ohio.

Kristen Barker. (Photo by Amy Beres)
Kristen expanded by describing the history and strategies of the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative, and how CUCI's several union co-op projects got started.  With years as an avid community organizer, and deeply knowledgeable about Mondragon's model, Kristen offered a brilliant array of advice as she told the stories of Our Harvest, Sustainergy, and the up-and-coming Apple Street Market.  I was amazed to see the overlap between problems my local client co-ops had faced, and solutions presented by the union co-op model and the broad grassroots alliance underpinning CUCI's robust organization.

As Rob explained, union co-ops may provide an advantage to traditional worker co-ops by:
  1. Collective bargaining techniques and tools are a way to maintain accountability and equal flows of power in larger worker co-ops, where direct accountability may not be feasible (e.g. co-ops with more than 50 or 100 worker-owners),
  2. Unions provide an existing "solidarity framework" to protect co-ops: e.g. sustaining co-ops in downturns, pooling resources to have stronger, multi-employer pension plans, superior health insurance options, etc.  
Minsun Ji, graduate student and researcher from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, emphasized how the "solidarity economy" framework was much stronger in unions, and worldwide, than in the U.S. and in the co-op movement alone.  However, building a mentality of solidarity among co-op enterprises has the potential to transform our economy into a more equitable, resilient one, which a partnership with unions could stimulate.

Rob Witherell. (Photo by Amy Beres)
Paraphrasing MondragonUSA leader Michael Peck, Rob highlighted what unions can bring to the worker co-op model by saying, "Among co-op folks, the emphasis is placed on the worker-owner as an owner, whereas among the unions the emphasis is on the worker-owner as a worker."  Early cross-training and education on both union processes and co-op models, to help aspiring worker-owners understand the methods and culture on which worker and union co-ops are founded, was discussed as key for developing strong co-ops.

Lisa Bolton, president of Local 7777 (Communications Workers of America), told her story of helping launch Union Taxi several years ago, and the ongoing organizing process of another larger union co-op, Green Taxi, underway in Denver.  In sharing her questions and lessons learned, the room opened up to a lively, expansive discussion covering all aspects of union co-ops, from procedures to structure to legal matters.

This session was truly informative and intensive.  I wish to express my thanks to the amazing organizers--locally and from abroad--who shared their wisdom with us, and all the sponsors who helped make this educational opportunity happen for Denver.  I hope to be involved in helping move forward the next steps, which Lisa Bolton, Dick Peterson of RMEOC, and Amy Beres of RMFU CDC, outlined as forming a Colorado Union Co-op Initiative to stimulate and incubate union co-op development.

Union co-ops present the opportunity to bring together the best minds and the best strategies from both the labor and co-op movements, in the Front Range region and nationwide, to achieve creation of great jobs, democratic workplaces, sustainable local businesses, and community wealth-building.


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