A worker-owned cooperative is both a radically unique and simultaneously plainly obvious kind of business: it is the embodiment of true democracy, taking shape in the workplace. In a worker co-op, each person who works at the company owns one equal share of the company and has one democratic voice in how it’s governed. Worker co-ops exist all across the world, with hundreds in the United States, and thousands globally. There are also many different types and sizes of worker co-ops, with some co-ops having only a few members and governing by consensus (like the The Compost Co-op), while others have a hundred or more worker-owners, and operate by having the workers elect members to a governing board (like Equal Exchange). The fascinating and powerful thing about this is that worker-owned cooperatives aren’t just far off theories about how we can implement change sometime in the future; it’s a model that offers practical solutions that can be implemented for many people and in many communities right now.
Yet, on a larger level, worker co-ops do have the potential to fundamentally alter local and regional economies for the better. In some places, such as the Mondragon region of Spain, this is already happening. To us, this is just one of many reasons we think the co-op model—and specifically the worker co-op model—has the potential to make both immediate and long lasting changes on scales ranging from local to global.
The TESA Collective—yours truly—is even legally incorporated in Massachusetts as a worker-owned cooperative. When we first started out 12 years ago (oh wow… that’s a long time…), forming as a worker-owned cooperative was harder to do than it is today. This positive shift is thanks to the ingenuity and inroads made by the worker cooperative movement, which has created regional networks of cooperatives, built the strength of a national federation of worker co-ops, cultivated structures for sourcing capital for cooperatives, developed powerful resources to help people understand worker co-ops, advocated for laws that make it easier to found worker co-ops, and much more.
So that’s why we’ve put together a curated list of materials for those who want to start their very own worker-owned co-op. Check it out below.
1) Watch A Free, 20-Minute Documentary on Starting a Worker Cooperative
Own the Change is a short and free documentary about what worker cooperatives are and how to start them, which TESA created alongside the Laura Flanders Show. It surveys people from across the country who have started their own worker cooperatives as well as those who are generally helping to build the worker co-op movement. The interviewees discuss the real world benefits and challenges of running a cooperative as well as launching one. It’s 20 minutes and completely free, making it a great primer for getting basic ideas down and helping you figure out how to get started.
2) Take the Free “Zero to Co-op” Course
We created the Zero to Co-op program in partnership with the Carolina Common Enterprise (CCE). It is a self-directed co-op curriculum, which is completely free if you sign up for CCE’s newsletter. (Which itself is very useful!). The Zero to Co-op program is primarily designed for people starting new co-ops, though it can also be used by existing co-ops who want to strengthen their operations. Presented over three phases, the self-administered curriculum has topics ranging from “Initial Co-op Organizing Meeting” to “Developing a Meeting.” This is a great crash course resource that we’re proud to have played a part in creating!
3) Read This Worker Co-op Start-Up Guide
“Think Outside the Boss: How to Create a Worker Owned Enterprise” is a great and free manual, revised in 2016, by the Sustainable Economies Law Center. It’s a 136 page PDF, so it really goes in depth! Get your beverage of choice and favorite highlighter, because this guide excels in getting into the detail on a number of important nitty gritty topics.
4) Connect with Co-op Peers Through The Worker Co-op Clinic
Run by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (of which we are a member), the Co-op Clinic brings together a network of peer advisors—people who are members of worker-owned cooperatives—to help others launch and run worker co-ops of their own. This is an amazing resource, because it helps people who are starting a worker co-op connect directly with experts in what they are going through.
According to the USFWC Co-op Clinic:
Though we can support you in all-around small business areas, we specialize in technical assistance that cooperatives need specifically: decision-making, co-op finances, boards, bylaws and more.
Our staff and peer advisors can help you…
-Create a roadmap for starting or converting to a cooperative.
-Find the right structure and governance for your democratic workplace.
-Get training in cooperative finances.
-Become loan ready.
-Finish your business plan.
-Create policies that work for your team.
The Co-op Clinic also has many informative and free online webinar recordings covering a wide range of topics for starting and running a worker co-op.
5) Play Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives
Of course, we think the best way to learn is by doing! Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives is a game we first published in 2011, and since then it has become the game of the cooperative movement. Co-opoly is both a fun, family-friendly board game as well as a way to practice cooperation. At the beginning of each game, players come up with a cooperative they want to start. It can be serious, like a worker-owned cafe bookstore, or it can be silly, like an art store for dragons. Whatever they choose, the game will tease out the story of their cooperative, and players will have to find ways to balance the interests of the cooperative as whole while also taking care of the needs of each individual. Co-opoly is full of laughs, high-fives, and moments for reflection as well as conversation.