What Worker Cooperatives Actually Look Like

worker cooperative case studies
Mondragon worker-owners at their cooperative dryer factory in Spain.

Factories. Industrial fabrication. Greenhouse farming. Solar generation plants. Banks.

Whatever you might imagine worker-owned businesses to look like, Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin’s new documentary Shift Change:  Putting Democracy to Work will probably counter your assumptions. The new film, which opened in Oakland in October and will be screened in Wisconsin, Washington, and California over the next few months, offers an in-depth look at what worker-owners have to say about cooperating.

The United Nations declared 2012 the Year of the Cooperative; Young and Dworkin have said that their film is a quest for alternative models of working, ownership, and finance in the still-simmering political and economic aftermath of the Great Recession.

Through interviews with line workers, managers, pharmacists, clerks, and more, Shift Change trains its lens on the daily life of co-ops. These companies may look the same as traditional businesses, but according to the dozens of interviews on film, have very different environments: more collegial, more mutually respectful, where the contributions of each worker-owner are valuable, and expected.

Some of the businesses profiled:

  • The Mondragon Corporation – The fifty-year experiment in the Basque region of Spain has grown into a network of 256 companies employing about 83,000 people. It includes appliance manufacturing, grocery stores, auto parts manufacturing, gas stations, perfume stores, …and on and on. Founded by Father José María Arizmendiarrieta in the brutal aftermath of the Spanish Civil War as a “humanist form of business,” the Mondragon Corporation focuses on long-term economic stability, moving employees from company to company in lieu of layoffs.
  • Evergreen Cooperatives, Cleveland, Ohio –  A network of green cooperatives of predominantly African American workers; they include commercial laundry services, solar energy systems, and vegetable farming in urban greenhouses. The film explains Cleveland’s economic condition, a post-industrial landscape with a high unemployment rate, and how Evergreen made it happen with a combination of public and private contributions.
  • Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, San Francisco: six independent worker-owned and managed cooperative bakeries in California. Founded 30 years ago, the association works together to share financial and legal services; some of the profits go to incubate new co-op bakeries and grow the association.
  • The Madison network of co-ops: This group includes insanely high-tech Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing, which designs and builds custom manufacturing equipment for the medical, automotive and energy industries. Union Cab is a cab company bought and re-started by cabbies after a strike; also appearing in the film is Community Pharmacy.

The examples in Shift Change “tell a compelling story of real possibilities at a time when many think there are no solutions to this current difficult economic situation,” said Paul Hazen, President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association, which offers resources for fledgling and advanced cooperators.

As for future directions, the film mentions the three-year partnership between the USW and Mondragon, announced in October 2009, formed “to collaborate in establishing Mondragon-like industrial manufacturing cooperatives that adopt collective bargaining principles to the Mondragon worker ownership model of ‘one worker, one vote’ within the United States and Canada.”

In March of this year, the USW, Mondragon, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center announced some of the first fruits of that partnership, a new melding of worker cooperatives and collective bargaining to form a new form of “Worker Ownership for the 99 percent.” Principles and design are available online.


Hannah Miller is a writer, ecologist, and adventurer living in Colorado. She is interested in everything, but particularly in creative sustainability practices, the Internet, arts and culture, the human-machine interaction, and democracy. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, and D.C., and taught English, run political campaigns, waited tables, and written puppet shows. She definitely wants to hear what you're up to. You can reach her at @hannahmiller215, email at golden.notebook at gmail.com or at her site: www.hannahmiller.net.

7 responses

  1. what about the uk? Scott Bader Commonwealth is wholly worker owned, John Lewis department stores which have thrived inspite of the recession, and many others. I think the only way to curb the gross greed of senior management and the short term-ism of shareholders is to move to a truly democratic workplace and work towards an industrial model that is sustainable without the need for endless growth to stay solvent.

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