The massive disruption to the economy from Covid-19 pandemic is prompting innovative responses from the co-op movement, which is already adjusting to the transformational effects of digitisation.
Among the most recent developments is Shop Coop, an e-commerce site set up in the USA to sell items produced by worker co-ops across the country. It is currently attached to non-profit organisation Worker Ownership Resources and Cooperative Services (WORCS) and will formally set up as a worker co-op by the summer.
Shop Coop has been set up by three friends in California, including Patrick Conlon, who says the team is also working on other ventures – a tourism co-op and a worker co-op support fund.
Mr Conlon told the News he began developing the concept last summer when the pandemic was driving increasing numbers of shoppers online. “I tried Google searching the idea to buy some worker co-operative items and found nothing of the sort,” he said.
“I always have to do deep searches to even find worker co-operatives and see if they have products I am interested in buying.
“Because of my affiliation with WORCS we get approached by worker co-operatives out of the woodwork all the time; many exist in obscurity, I am finding, outside of registries.”
This will change, he thinks, as awareness of the worker co-op model grows, with the Covid-19 crisis prompting interest in economic alternatives.
“Most worker co-operatives produce goods to be consumed locally, it seems, with some exceptions,” he says. “I hope to establish a national and eventually international sales channel, creating a worker co-operative supply chain. I want to help get this sector of the economy rolling.”
Partners include WORX, a print-on-demand service based in Massachussets. WORX is one of the growing number of union co-ops set up in affiliation with the United Steelworkers Union.
The site will also offer bookings from Echo Adventure Cooperative, a tour guide adventure co-operative based just outside Yosemite National Park.
Mr Conlon is in discussion with several other co-ops, including Tesa Collective, Equal Exchange, Once Again Nut Butter, Flying V Farms, AK Press, Cooperacion Santa Ana, Fertile Ground Cooperative, Small World Food and Ocean Editors.
And the venture might even extend beyond the US borders: Shop Coop says it has has received inquiries from co-op networks in England, Australia, and South America about potentially being a North American importer and online vendor for items produced around the world.
As the project grows, the priorities are to increase the product range and “really just get the word out to the co-operative movement, organisations who are friendly towards it, and individuals who want to support it”.
“I want to find winning products produced by worker co-operatives that people in the general market find appealing,” adds Mr Conlon. “Scope will come when the co-operative sector grows and develops. It is tiny now, but I know that will change in the next 20 years as the silver tsunami of retiring business owners creates massive opportunities for their employees to convert into worker co-operatives.”
Shop Coop plans to incorporate as a worker co-operative by the summer. “There was a law passed in 2015 to legally recognise worker co-operatives as a distinctly separate business organisation in the state of California,” says Mr Conlon. “Our plan is to diverge it from WORCS completely by the end of the year. We are launching it this way because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the economic chaos in the last year and we believe it is going to take some time to get the word out to enough to people to get momentum.
“By the end of the summer it will be structured as one member, one vote as far as ownership and decision making are concerned. This process may go faster if demand is much higher than anticipated.”
Shop Coop isn’t the only new venture with WORCS’ involvement. In the Greater Sacramento Area, a non-profit thrift organisation is being set up to use surpluses for start-up capital for the worker co-op movement.
“This organisation is going to be a worker self-directed enterprise,” says Mr Conlon. “If you talk to many worker co-operatives – at least young and start-up co-ops – they usually have some story about how banks will not take them seriously if you have in your business plan that you are a worker co-operative.
“Start-up capital and adequate capitalisation is the number one reason why businesses, in general, fail. It is the same with co-operatives and co-ops have an extra challenge of the financial sector lacking an understanding of the seriousness or even legitimacy of worker co-operatives.”
At the moment, only a handful of lenders service worker co-ops, he adds.
“The majority of them service the entire United States and there are by and large no lending institutions that do operate on the local level – with some exceptions, of course.”
The fund is set to launch this month in February, and WORCS is currently carrying out the paperwork to get things ready.
Other new WORCS projects include organising workers to launch a new Arizmendi Bakery in Los Angeles. Arizmendi is a network of five bakeries and other worker co-ops in the San Francisco bay area.
“We have had a study group since July,” says Mr Conlon. “Tim Huet, who was one of the founders of the Arizmendi Bakery, has gone on our study group Zoom meetings to talk in depth about starting a new bakery.
“We are exploring mobile bakery models with an eventual brick and mortar location. We are exploring mobile models due to the pandemic and the risks of getting into a lease agreement and further lockdowns that could affect Southern California.”
WORCS also has a chapter in Las Vegas, he adds, which is exploring a used book store with online and mobile applications.