Building the Worker Cooperative Movement

By Becca Koganer, Equal Exchange Sales Representative, Northampton, Mass

As I sit stuck once again, at Chicago O’Hare Airport, I am slightly thankful for this unexpected couple of hours between travel which has forced me to slow down and reflect on the two days passed where I met some of the most dedicated people in the cooperative movement.

As a newly elected board member to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), I feel almost without words following this two day intensive retreat. We met in Madison, WI, a city with more heart than I can describe both in terms of vibrant coop community and beautiful people. These retreats are once a year, a time for the board to sit down and get our heads together around strategic planning for this movement.

In the weeks leading up to the preparation for this weekend meeting, I have to disclose my intense anxieties around being on a new board; a working board (and I mean WORKING!); and being the youngest and most inexperienced among the group. Somehow, I volunteered for this. There were moments as I prepared to fly out, reading over the documents that had been sent around describing some of the work that was to come once, twice, three times- thinking maybe it isn’t too late to pull out of responsibility I had signed up for.

The intimidation I felt leading up to this retreat mostly pertained to my own insecurities around feeling new. But hey, who doesn’t get butterflies on their first day at a new job? Reflecting now, I can’t believe I let my nerves get to me because I sit here thoroughly reminded of what it’s all really about: the people. People are at the heart of this movement, and in a truly human moment, I felt like a person; not a sales representative of Equal Exchange, not the eastern regional representative to the Federation’s board, just truly human. I suppose I was worried about not being able to live up to what was expected of a board member, and filled with almost a crippling respect for those residing on the board and their unyielding servitude for this movement.

What do I mean by movement? Yes, it’s true that worker cooperatives are business model, but WE are so much more than that. The Federation is trying to build a democratic society in which workers are in control of the management, governance, and ownership of their places of work; workplaces that uphold the values of empowerment, equity, dignity, and mutual respect. The Federation serves its members by doing work they cannot do on their own; we are a member driven organization. Our business model is a vehicle for change. If you are familiar with Equal Exchange, this should sound familiar.

Equal Exchange is a successful worker cooperative whose products are vehicles for social change. It’s true we sell coffee, tea, chocolate; delicious things. We use these delicious things to impact the lives of consumers and producers through our trading practices embodying authentic fair trade. The work the USFWC does parallels this ideology.

I immediately felt at home when I stepped into the house of our board president. Her home was an open and accepting place, filled with posters identifying her activist roots and solidarity with so many movement (environment, labor issues, etc). It wasn’t just the physical space in which we met for our retreat that was filled with this home-like comfort for me. Every board member brought this kind of electric energy that could have inspired perhaps even some of the most cynical people I know.

It has been a powerful year for cooperatives. The International Year of Cooperatives declared by the UN is coming to an end. This past summer in Boston, the USFWC held the most well attended worker coop conference in the Federation’s history. All eyes are on our movement and this weekend 8 people (2 staff and 6 board members) sat around a table for more hours than I would like to admit planning how to best serve our members and serve our movement for the future.

I am grateful that I can bring this experience to my coop and to all those who read this now, in hopes to create a better understanding for the importance of the role of having a national organization doing this work: building membership, education, advocacy, and finances for worker cooperatives. There is so much work to be done, and despite the inspiration I feel now from being on this board, we can’t do this alone. We need all of you to get behind this movement and help drive it to where it needs to go.

Cooperatives are stewards of the values of their members. At Equal Exchange, our values are around issues of social justice and economic transformation for our producer partners (farmer cooperatives), sustainability, and the environment (to name a few..). The worker cooperative movement is vast, and it serves communities of all kinds. Worker coops serve local, regional, national, and international communities. Equal Exchange works with farmers in Central and South America connecting them to a fair trade market. TESA (Toolbox for Education and Social Action) of Northampton, MA serves their communities by providing educational resources, including but not limited to cooperative education for college credits at the local community college. Union Cab of Madison, WI serves their communities by providing transportation for the greater Madison community from hospital workers who need to get to work in a snow storm to students who need a safe ride home from the bars. Rainbow Grocery of San Francisco, CA serves their community by providing a full service grocery store with products that they believe in, from vendors that they trust. There are tech worker coops, engineering worker coops, psychotherapy worker coops, and wildlife biologist worker coops. There are regional networks all over the country serving their member coops on the ground by offering technical assistance to their members and helping convert local businesses to worker coops. No matter what your passion is, there’s a space to create a worker owned, democratic business out of it. The list of worker coops and networks isn’t short, but it needs to get longer. We need to build this movement up and up and up. Only then, can we leverage our capacity to build a REAL democratic society.

I’m excited to continue with my work nationally on the USFWC board, internationally with Equal Exchange, and locally/regionally with the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives (VAWC).

What can you bring to the worker cooperative movement?

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