Worker Cooperatives - Pathways to Scale

Hilary Abell
Affiliated Organization: 
Democracy Collaborative

This is an exciting time to be engaged with worker cooperatives. The worker cooperative model has stood the test of time; its foundations have been in place since 1844, when the Rochdale Pioneers developed their creative response to the suffering of displaced workers during the Industrial Revolution. Since 2008, the Great Recession has inspired more and more workers, advocates, and community developers to bring their creativity and energy to the next generation of the cooperative movement, fueling an explosion of co-op-related discussion and initiatives. I have welcomed this growth with a mix of enthusiasm and concern, as I have seen many people and projects learn familiar lessons the hard way, without the benefit of apprenticeship or full access to existing knowledge and experience. In this context, I embarked on this research project to promote deeper understanding and adoption of the worker cooperative model and to help build the field of effective worker co-op development in the United States. I hope that the reflections, information, and analysis here will be useful to early- to midstage practitioners of co-op development, and also to funders, thought leaders, and other field builders whose entrance into this space is so welcome as our movement grows. May it help us do less reinventing of the same old wheel and more innovating to increase business success and community impact. This paper represents a synthesis of practice, ideas, and perspectives from many sources: the eighteen co-op leaders and community economic development practitioners I interviewed, the colleagues I have learned from in my decade as a co-op developer, and many articles on cooperatives and social enterprise. It draws heavily on my personal experience during eight years as executive director of Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) and four years as a worker-owner at Equal Exchange. But it is truly the fruit of many people’s labor, love, and hard-won wisdom. I am deeply grateful to the individuals who supported the development of this paper (they are named in Appendix 1) and to everyone whose work and dedication have built the successful cooperatives whose stories are shared here. It is those co-ops that inspire my continued belief that we have yet to realize the full promise and potential of worker cooperatives in the United States.

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