October is National Cooperative Month.
At the Jobs Council, we celebrated a month early: in September, we gathered with our partners for our third Workforce 360, a new forum that brings together the best of two of our previous stakeholder forums, Frontline Workforce Association and the Workforce Development Working Group. We chose to take on a topic that was new to most of us, both among service providers and policy advocates: worker owned-cooperative businesses.
Worker-owned cooperatives share several characteristics. First, they are revenue-generating businesses. But unlike traditional companies, these are co-owned and democratically operated by the people that work there; “worker-owners” share in the decision making process and profits made by the business. Worker-owned cooperatives also follow a set of guiding principles which include self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.
In a room full of people that dedicate their lives to building economic opportunities for low-income communities, the idea of worker-cooperatives has a lot of appeal. Data on worker cooperatives from the Democracy at Work Institute shows that 31% of United States-based worker cooperatives in operation today have been established since 2010. Of those new cooperatives, 60% of new worker-owners are people of color and more than 60% are women. In a city like Chicago where people of color and women are fighting for economic self-determination, it’s not a hard sell.
This is exciting in theory, but how does collective ownership and management work in various businesses across the economy? What opportunities exist on the local landscape to support the model? Can it be brought to scale?
During the Workforce 360, we heard from a panel of worker-owners (including from Salsedo Press, a printing company, and Visionarias Cooperativa, a catering cooperative) and experts that support the establishment of cooperatives (including Renee Hatcher from the Business Enterprise Law Clinic at John Marshall Law School and Cliff Helm from the Community Law Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.) Following the panel, we broke into small group discussions to get into the nitty-gritty of how workforce development services and worker cooperatives could work together to build alternative economic models. Here were some of our takeaways:
- Worker-owned businesses tend to emerge in the same sectors where many workforce providers develop job leads: service sector, solar and green jobs, healthcare, childcare and manufacturing.
- They address persistent challenges that marginalized workers often encounter in the traditional labor market: wage theft, discrimination, economic empowerment, career growth and long-term stability.
- Worker-owned businesses might be able to utilize public training dollars (from WIOA or other workforce programs) in high-demand/high-growth industries or those that require industry-recognized credentials. Workforce development agencies could help facilitate that, and serve as a pipeline of well-trained workers to enter into cooperatives.
- Workforce professions could support policy changes that help worker-cooperatives get established, get technical assistance, and continue to grow. (The Illinois Worker Cooperative Alliance has a white paper that includes these policy recommendations.)
Seeing these possibilities for collaboration, we here at the Jobs Council plan to take an active role in supporting a “cooperative ecosystem” here in Illinois. Later this week, we’ll be joining in on the inaugural meeting of the Chicagoland Cooperative Ecosytem Coalition. In the future, we hope to create more opportunities for crossover with worker-owned businesses, workforce professionals, and job seekers.
To learn more about worker-owned cooperatives, check-out the resources on our Workforce 360 webpage.
By Angela Morrison and Mari Castaldi