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Co-op Currents: Workplace democracy at unions, co-ops, ESOPs, and staff collectives in Philadelphia

April 23, 2015 Category: People

As Philadelphia’s labor history shows, worker co-ops can be used as tools for transformation and liberation. Worker co-ops are businesses that are owned and democratically controlled by their workers on a one worker, one vote basis. Right now, we only have four worker co-ops in the city of Philadelphia, but our city’s history is full of interesting examples of both worker ownership and worker control.

In 1806 in Philadelphia, a labor union of shoemakers went on strike for higher wages. Their employer sued eight of the union’s leaders and won the suit, and the defendants were fined and made to pay court costs. Instead of “slink[ing] back to a boss,” these shoemakers then went on to open a cooperative boot and shoe factory, according to historian John Curl.

worker-coop-timelineEarly Philadelphia labor history is peppered with worker co-ops. In 1791, carpenters in Philadelphia formed a co-op during a strike to support themselves. In 1834, the cabinetmakers union opened a cooperative warehouse. In 1849, the seamstresses union formed a co-op. Often, these co-ops formed because workers needed to create an alternative to the poor wages and working conditions offered by employers.

Other co-ops were formed as part of a grander political vision. The Knights of Labor, a union that was founded in 1869 in Philadelphia, was kept completely secret for nine years. When its secret got out, it announced its goals, one of which was to “establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a cooperative industrial system.” The Knights of Labor was among the first unions to organize black and white workers together. It also recognized women’s work in the home as economic labor and had over 30,000 women as members.

In the mid-20th century, workers’ rights advocates turned away from worker co-op development and focused instead on labor union organizing as the best way to secure better worker control. While co-ops enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s, the rise of the modern worker co-op movement is just beginning to gain momentum.

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We have three operational worker co-ops in Philadelphia today: Childspace Daycare Centers, Home Care Associates, and W/N W/N Coffee Bar. If all goes well, we’ll welcome Alliance Taxi Co-op as our fourth worker co-op in the coming months. Philadelphia cooperator Esteban Kelly was recently appointed co-executive director of the U.S. Federation for Worker Cooperatives. The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, an organization I work for, is holding a worker co-op film fest on May 14 at W/N W/N Coffee Bar to show examples of worker co-ops around the world.

Workplace democracy vs worker ownership

To be a co-op, you need two components: member ownership and democratic member control. If you separate those components, workplace democracy and worker ownership can take many forms, many of which can be found in our region.

ESOPs, employee stock ownership plans, are widely used in the US. In an ESOP, the company’s stock is held for the benefit of the workers, but unlike in a worker co-op, ownership and control are not necessarily equal and democratic. Some ESOPs, such as Dansko shoes (headquartered in Chester County, PA) and Once Again Nut Butter, are 100 percent worker owned, which brings them closer to the worker co-op structure. A recent blog post from the Cooperative Development Institute explores the differences in greater depth.

Of course, not every workplace is owned by an individual or a group. A school or nonprofit, for example, is not owned by anyone, but their workers can still achieve workplace democracy. The Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), a nonprofit in Oakland, has been exploring that question in its own organization. Prometheus Radio Project, a national nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, has a collective staff structure, in which all staff members receive the same wage. Structures like these might give staff members, for example, control over their schedules, their work systems, and which benefits to prioritize, while leaving the nonprofit’s board of directors to set strategic direction.

We all carry a lot of ingrained norms about what work should look like: work is hierarchical, work is boring, work is obligatory. But maybe you wouldn’t need a boss if you set up systems of mutual accountability. Perhaps you wouldn’t need to hide your salary from your coworkers if you were all making a living wage. Maybe you’d look forward to being at work if you saw your suggestions for improvement implemented.

Image via Mo Manklang

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