What is a worker co-op?

The store where I have gained most of my cheese knowledge is a worker-owned cooperative. Sometimes when I tell people that, they nod in understanding. Then they ask me what it means.

The basic concept is pretty simple: a consumer co-op is owned by the customers, an agricultural co-op is owned by the farmers, a housing co-op is owned by the people who live there, a worker co-op is owned by the workers.

How a particular cooperative is organized is up to the workers at that cooperative. As long as the principle of one member/one vote is maintained along with some financial investment by the workers, the cooperative is free to choose whatever management style it deems best. One of the main differences between a worker co-op and an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is that in an ESOP, different members may have uneven voting power based on their shares. By definition, members in a co-op have equal voting power.

Rainbow Grocery is the most decentralized large, worker-cooperative in the country. Basically, we run a grocery store with limited top-down management. Important decisions are made by an elected Board of Directors made up of worker-owners or by a vote of the entire membership. Everyone who works there is a member or on track to becoming one.

Most decisions are made on a department level though. It’s our way of maintaining a participatory workplace; as we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve broken down into more departments so that workers can still give meaningful input into their daily work. While departments can’t go against our cooperative’s by-laws or against decisions the whole cooperative has voted on, they are otherwise fairly autonomous. For example, being a cheese buyer is my job. I don’t need to call a meeting to bring in a new product or decide whether to buy 200 lbs. of Monterey Jack this week instead of 160 lbs. However, since our store has voted against carrying meat, I can’t decide our department should start carrying prosciutto or pate without asking the entire membership.

I have attended as many worker-cooperative conferences as cheese conferences over the last decade. I’m committed to selling quality hand-made cheese but I am just as committed to helping create more meaningful living wage jobs, rooted in their communities and based on the principles of cooperation.

For more info, click on the links under “worker cooperatives”.

2 responses to “What is a worker co-op?

  1. love this!

  2. Pingback: Sara Ryan » You really need to read Cheesemonger: a life on the wedge.

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