Although we think of ourselves as living in a democratic society, we actually practice democracy very rarely in our everyday lives. Democracy is something that most people actually do only once every four years at a voting booth. (Maybe every two, if you’re really ambitious and vote in mid-terms.) We spend most of our waking lives working in environments that are anything but democratic. Workers take orders from their bosses, have little input in how the work gets done, and reap little reward if the work is done well.
That’s why many would-be entrepreneurs are choosing to create worker cooperatives. Worker co-ops are democratically owned and governed by the people who work there, the worker-owners. The number of worker co-ops in the U.S. has doubled since 2000, and cities are investing in them. But despite their growing popularity, few people know what a worker cooperative is or how to start one. Own the Change, a short 20-minute documentary produced by GritTV and the Toolbox for Education and Social Action, gives a succinct overview of the benefits of worker co-ops as well practical tips for starting and running one.
The film gives a tour of worker co-ops around the country, ranging in size from three worker-owners to over a thousand. If one thing is clear from Own the Change, it’s that virtually any business can be turned into a worker co-op. A cafe, a cab company, a home healthcare provider, educators, a construction company, and more are featured in the film.
Here are some tips about worker co-ops taken from the film:
- Some co-ops pay their workers all the same amount, while others have pay scales. Union Cab in Madison, Wisconsin has a 1 to 2.2 pay disparity.
- New employees of worker co-ops typically buy-in to the co-op, which is equivalent to buying a single share of the company. Unlike traditional companies, only workers can own stake in worker co-ops.
- By-laws are the “constitution” of a worker co-op and set rules for how decisions are made. Some co-ops use consensus decision making, where any one worker can block a proposal they disagree with. Others use simple majority votes and some larger worker co-ops elect a board of directors.
- Getting the startup capital for a new worker co-op can be tricky because banks often aren’t comfortable giving business loans to co-ops. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that specifically finance cooperative business such as the Cooperative Fund of New England, The Working World, and the Common Wealth Revolving Loan Fund.
You can watch the whole film to learn more:
Toolbox for Education and Social Action is offering educational resources to complement community screenings of Own the Change. If you’re interested in starting your own worker cooperative, organizations like the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Democracy at Work Network offer free training and resources to help you get off the ground.