Can good values be good business, too? For generations, the cooperative movement has been answering with a resounding “Yes!”

After a surge of entrepreneurial fervor following the 2007 economic collapse, cooperative ventures are even getting a nod from our divided government: In August, Congress passed the Main Street Employee Ownership Act. The measure aims to help launch the next crop of worker-ownership ventures by directing the Small Business Administration to take proactive steps to increase technical and financial assistance for budding worker-owned cooperatives. Although the law does not provide major new funding, advocates hope it broadens avenues for securing seed financing, and for conducting community-outreach programs through local SBA offices.

Although the law offers just a small boost to the sector, according to Melissa Hoover, executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute, “It’s a start. It’s the very first time that anyone ever said worker coops matter in federal legislation.”

Often the main barrier to launching a coop is simply lack of knowledge—worker cooperatives aren’t just a fluffy hippie social experiment, they’re viable businesses with a track record of promoting civic-minded sustainable enterprises. What worker-owned cooperatives offer is simply this: a stake for each worker in the future. Based on a structure centered on shared equity and worker autonomy, the business model, which hews to a principle of “one-member-one-vote” workplace governance, intrinsically guarantees that each worker profits in tandem with their labor. The key difference from the conventional corporate model is that workers share in the equity and direct how funds are reinvested, be it in pay raises and pensions, new hires, or investing in tech upgrades and staff training.

According to surveys of the roughly 300 to 400 cooperatives nationwide, more than a third were launched since 2000. Their trades range from craft breweries to cab companies. The median coop workforce has nine to 10 people (that’s basically the equivalent number of co-owners), and a total workforce of more than 6,800. Far from the penurious, tree-hugging stereotype, coops run on average a yearly profit margin of some 3 percent, yielding about $150,000 in profits. Compared to the precarious, low-wage jobs that are driving the fastest-growing industries, coop workers earn considerably more, about $15.80 per hour, and work just over 30 hours per week. Median tenure for employee-owners is also about 50 percent higher.

The foundation of the cooperative is an idea for a business that produces material and social good together, which in turn also does good for workers’ communities. This principle, reflecting an ethical framework known as the “solidarity economy,” is put to practice in ventures like the Queens-based eco-friendly cleaning company Pa’lante, which is cooperatively run by a group of housekeepers who merge environmental concern with labor empowerment. Or the driver-led Union Taxi coop of Denver, which also mobilizes against the expansion of exploitative ride-sharing apps.

Though worker-ownership doesn’t necessarily mesh with the traditional unionization model, the Oakland-based Design Action Collective has joined a unique cadre of unionized coops, represented by Pacific Media Guild, in order to fully embody the movement culture that the enterprise serves. On a larger scale, Cooperative Home Care Association has established a 2,000-strong presence in New York City’s home health-care sector, with a fully unionized staff of care workers, who also mobilize with labor-led campaigns for health-care funding.


  1. Na Na says:

    The (real) co-op system is the best candidate i’ve found so far to replace intrinsically corrupt Capitalism. It has the advantage of already being widely in service in the U.S. and elsewhere — whether or not most of us are fully aware of just how much so.



  2. Timothy Bardell says:

    Join your local food co-op and credit union – keep your wages in your community.


  3. George Trudeau says:

    Ms. Chen, another of your wonderful articles, thank you for deciding to be a writer. I think Co-ops are a wonderful idea, it removes the Slave labor factor and enables people to take some pride in their work. Just think if that was to happen to Amazon, G.E., G.M.C.,Ford, etc…Maybe find yourself a copy of The Experience, A Celebration of Being; Sirio Esteve Random House 1974, available on used book stores. Best description of modern slavery ever.….