Month: April 2014

Co-ops in Massachusetts

Living in Massachusetts, I’m excited by what is happening with co-operative businesses. Yet the co-operative movement in the state is indicative of the wider movement: a conglomeration of disparate businesses and resources that can be difficult to navigate and understand. Below is an informal sampling of what is happening with co-ops in Massachusetts. Could there be a way to promote them? Europe has figured out one way to do it. Maybe we could learn something from this.

Co-operative businesses
My search of Massachusetts co-ops started with MA co-op members of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC). 22 Massachusetts businesses appear in their member directory that are co-ops, worker-owned businesses, or organizations that assist with worker ownership. Some coops from this list are the Valley Green Feast, a farmer’s market in North Hampton; Agaric, a website development co-op in Natick; Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater; the Community Builders Cooperative in Somerville; and the Red Sun Press in Jamaica Plain, Boston, started in 1974. WORC’N, the Worker-Owned Cooperative Network of Greater Boston lists 15 co-ops in MA — some overlap with USFWC — including the new CERO recycling coop. The Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (VAWC) includes 11 co-ops in western MA and southern Vermont. Further searching found other Massachusetts co-ops like the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange in Greenfield started in 1918, the Freedom Credit Union serving western Massachusetts, and the River Valley Market in Northampton.

Organizations that Assist with Co-ops
Serving Massachusetts, like US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, are organizations to assist with co-op development. In the greater Boston area is WORC’N, mentioned above, providing support and resources for co-operative development. Also in Boston is the Boston Center for Community Ownership (BCCO). A community support coop in Boston to develop permanent and affordable communities is Boston Community Cooperatives (BCC). Serving Northeastern US, is the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) in Shelburne Falls. The Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives, mentioned above, serves western Massachusetts and southern Vermont co-operatives. In Brookline is the ICA Group, started in 1978, (not to be confused with the International Cooperative Alliance, ICA) a nationwide consultancy for worker-owned business development. A major financier for regional co-ops, based in Massachusetts, is the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE).

Building Co-op Cohesion
Promoting the value of these co-ops for community building and sustainability is a message that could benefit the co-ops, the state, and the population. In Europe, the promotion of co-ops can also bring tourism. The ICA recently reported in February on an idea to promote co-operative history and heritage in Europe, put on by the European Confederation of Co-operatives and Worker-Owned Enterprises CECOP. It’s a tour of co-ops that includes 17 countries. Part of the tour will include the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, considered the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement.  The coops to be involved are still being determined, but as the “cooproute” develops, the goal of the project is to build sustainable tourism. As the article states, the value of co-ops draws interest:

Due to their strong emphasis on environment and sustainability, co-operatives play an important role in the development of sustainable and responsible tourism in Europe. Worker, social and artisans’ cooperatives help create and maintain jobs within the local communities where they operate.

At present there appears to be some great effort and success with the coop movement in Massachusetts. But awareness could be much improved. The tourism approach created by CECOP builds an effective celebration of co-ops. In the U.S., the co-op Co-Cycle came up with the innovative idea to tour American co-ops by bike. Maybe it’s time for a co-op-touring co-op in Massachusetts.

Co-operatives and Capitalism

A friend commented that this blog is anti-capitalist. I can understand this perception, but want to prove that co-ops are not anti-capitalist. It should be noted that co-ops are, generally speaking, profit generating enterprises. What is unique about them is sharing wealth. As Stacey Cordeiro from the Boston Center for Community Ownership phrases it, co-ops subordinate capital.

Here is capitalism defined by Wikipedia: an economic system in which trade, industry and the means of production are controlled by private owners with the goal of making profits in a market economy.

Thought has been given to co-ops functioning within capitalism. Going back to 2011, author and economist Noreena Hertz wrote a report called Co-op Capitalism. Written as a response to what she terms as “Gucci Capitalism” marked by an unregulated period of greed, the report outlines co-ops as a solution. She describes four benefits of co-ops: community preservation; quality and power of relationships affecting performance; the economic and social connection; and the value of sharing resources with collaboration.

It might seem counter-productive to start an enterprise that distributes wealth. Co-ops can also be challenging to manage with broad input on decision-making. But the benefits Hertz describes can create practical sustainability. In response to skeptics, Hertz presents co-ops as thriving businesses and points out major co-op enterprises in Switzerland, Italy, the UK, and Africa. And given the health of worldwide co-operatives today, their impact has only increased since this report was written. See the ICA’s reporting on co-ops worldwide: The World Co-operative Monitor Project.

Maybe it’s the definition of capitalism that is to be redefined by co-ops. I still like the concept of a generative economy coined by Marjorie Kelly. Maybe generative capitalism sums up what is transformative about co-ops.