A worker cooperative is a cooperative owned and operated by its "worker-owners". There are no outside or consumer owners in a worker cooperative -- only the workers own shares of the business. Only one membership share may be issued to a member. One membership share is the equivalent of one vote. Membership is not compulsory for employees, but only employees can become members.[1][2]

One of the world's best known example of worker co-operation is the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC) in the Basque Country.[3]

History of worker cooperatives Edit

Since there is no coherent legislation across the United States, much less Federal laws, most worker cooperatives make use of traditional consumer cooperative law and try to fine-tune it for their purposes. In some cases the members (workers) of the cooperative in fact "own" the enterprise by buying a share that represents a fraction of the market value of the cooperative. But this is seldom the case in most modern day worker cooperatives. This system of "buying-in" has proven unworkable because as the value of the cooperative increases, new members cannot afford to buy a share and are reduced to purchasing over a long-term, which means going into debt to the cooperative, maybe for years. Worker cooperatives organized this way mostly became traditional businesses with the original coop members hiring employees.

When the current cooperative movement resurfaced in the 1960s it developed mostly on a new system of "collective ownership" where par value shares were issued as symbolic of egalitarian voting rights. Once brought in as a member, after a period of time on probation usually so the new candidate can be evaluated, he or she was given power to manage the coop, without "ownership" in the traditional sense. In the UK this system is known as common ownership.

Some of these early cooperatives still exist and most new worker cooperatives follow their lead and develop a relationship to capital that is more radical than the previous system of equity share ownership.

In Britain this type of cooperative was traditionally known as a producer cooperative, and, while it was overshadowed by the consumer and agricultural types, made up a small section of its own within the national apex body, the Cooperative Union. The 'new wave' of worker cooperatives that took off in Britain in the mid-1970s created the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) as a separate federation. Buoyed up by the alternative and ecological movements and by the political drive to create jobs, the sector peaked at around 2,000 enterprises. However the growth rate slowed, the sector contracted, and in 2001 ICOM merged with the Co-operative Union (which was the federal body for consumer cooperatives) to create Co-operatives UK, thus reunifying the cooperative sector.

Trade UnionsEdit

Unions are often unnecessary in worker cooperatives because the workers have direct control over the management and ownership of the business - they are negotiating with themselves. Some worker cooperatives still choose to become members of local unions to demonstrate their support for the labor movement and to working conditions that have resulted from years of struggle. While an unusual situation, there is no contradiction in doing so. Worker cooperatives that join unions often benefit from the trade that comes their way from the community of union members and those who support unions for political reasons. The labor contract negotiated becomes the baseline of benefits due to the membership and guarantees to the community that the working conditions are not those of a "sweatshop". Union membership also guarantees that the worker cooperative will not operate on the basis of typical small business sacrifice, where the owner (s) sometimes work day and night to keep their business afloat and expect similar sacrifices of their workers. Union membership for worker cooperatives gives the enterprise a legitimate standard of operations.[4]

Internal StructureEdit

Worker cooperatives can have a wide variety of internal structures. Probably the majority of co-ops use a hierarchical structure based on that of a conventional business, with the exception that the board of directors is elected. Some co-ops, however, use a structure based on left-wing activist collectives, with all members allowed and expected to play a managerial role - and sometimes using consensus decision-making. Such unconventional structures tend to be associated with more radical political aims such as anarchism and parecon. [5][6][7]

Worker co-operatives in EuropeEdit

Worker co-operation is well established in most countries in Europe, with the largest movements being in Italy, Spain and France.

The European Cooperative Statute, which has been in force since 2006, permits worker cooperatives to be created by individuals or corporate bodies in different EU countries. It is a loose framework which devolves much detail to the national legislation of the country in which the European Cooperative Society (ECS) is registered. It permits a minority of shares to be held by 'investor members' which are not employees.

In North AmericaEdit


The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives is the only organization in the U.S. representing worker cooperative interests nationally. There are local networks and federations throughout the U.S. in the San Francisco Bay area, the Twin Cities, Portland, Oregon, and Boston, Massachusetts, and Asheville, North Carolina.[8]


Worker co-ops in Canada are represented by the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation(CWCF). Members of the CWCF are found throughout English Canada[9]. Quebec has a distinct worker co-operative history, and is presently organised into a number of regional federations.

South AmericaEdit


The Chavez government in Venezuela has a policy of financing worker cooperatives, resulting in a growing number in that country. [10]


In response to the economic crisis in Argentina, many Argentinian workers occupied the premises of bankrupt businesses and began to run them as worker-owned cooperatives. As of 2005, there were roughly 200 worker-owned businesses in Argentina, most of which were started in response to this crisis. [11] The documentary film The Take is the best-known document in English about this phenomenon.

See also recovered factory.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


  1. Ontario Worker Co-op Federation "What is a Worker Co-op?"
  2. Canadian Worker Co-op Federation "What is a Worker Co-op?"
  3. Smith, Julia. BC Institute for Co-operative Studies "The Most Famous Worker Co-operative of All…Mondragon"
  4. Bell, Dan "Worker-Owners and Unions --Why Can't We Just Get Along?"
  5. National Cooperative Business Association
  6. South End Press
  7. Haymarket Cafe
  8. Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo "The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives Has Issued a Call for Membership"
  9. Canadian Worker Co-op Federation "Members"
  10. Michael Parenti, 'Good Things Happening in Venezuela', Z Magazine.
  11. Benjamin Dangl, 'Occupy, Resist, Produce: Worker Cooperatives in Argentina'

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