Future of work: Cincinnati experiments with co-op/union hybrid

A city hit by high unemployment is looking to examples abroad and from US history to create new ways of working

In Cincinnati, Ohio, a city with high levels of unemployment, new models of co-operation are being developed based on examples in US history – as well as current projects overseas.

The Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI) is a no-profit union co-op incubator founded in 2009. It develops union co-ops – a hybrid business combining elements of the democratic worker ownership of a single co-op business with the principle of workers’ solidarity.

As in a worker co-op, worker-owners in a union co-op own and democratically run their business on the principle of one worker, one vote.

And as in a unionised business, worker-owners are members of a union and elect a union committee to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

The union also promotes and instills solidarity between workers in different businesses, industries and countries.

It’s a model with a long history in the USA, proving popular in the years after the Civil War; historians have estimated that the movement had 750,000 members and 185-200 co-ops in 1886.

Since then the model has adapted to suit the times, in recent years drawing on the work of Mondragon, a federation of worker co-ops in Spain.

In 2009, Mondragon and the United Steelworkers union (USW) began a collaboration to create a template for union co-ops in the US.

The USW-Mondragon union co-op template replaces Mondragon’s social council with a union committee to engage in collective bargaining.
The union committee is designed to improve conditions for employees and aid communication within the business as it grows. The union also facilitates mutual assistance and understanding of workers’ struggles around the world.

Related: What does a future of automated work mean for co-ops?

 CUCI was born from these efforts and works to create jobs in  Cincinatti – a city where non-profits have links with Mondragon dating back
to the 1980s.

Co-founders Phil Amadon, Kristen Barker, Ellen Vera and Flequer Vera hosted CUCI’s first public event in February 2011, attracting 80 to 90 community members, and began working with Mondragon and local academic institutions to develop union co-ops.

The first, Our Harvest food hub, was launched in 2012. It farms organic food and operates a food hub that works with local growers and offers a food source for institutions, individuals, and businesses.

The second, Sustainergy energy retrofitting, which offers services such as insulation and LED lighting, came into operation in November 2013.

CUCI also assists with succession planning, offering services such as feasibility studies, business development, legal support and training.While the rapid growth of new technology brings challenge. it is also offering new possibilities in terms of ownership – and can offer an answer to the crucial question of financing of new models of work.

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