Project Equity: worker coops as economic security strategy

After a long dry spell, we seem to be living in a flood of wage increase discussions, whether they’re through executive order to federal contractors, legislative action, or grassroots organizing and initiatives. In the Bay Area, labor-community coalitions are moving increases in Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond, following a thunderous win in San Jose and a small increase at the state level.

Workers who have waited many years welcome these increases, as will their landlords, grocers, and school districts, but we should all take note of the long road necessary to secure them. One contributor is the living wage movement, which started in Baltimore in the early 1990s as a way to hold public contractors accountable for poverty wages. In Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, small groups of workers won increases and educated a generation of elected officials about the connection between corporate responsibility, above-poverty wages and thriving local economies.

What will be the next innovation to improve economic security for workers? An Oakland-based non-profit says it may be worker cooperatives. Hilary Abell, co-founder of Project Equity, has written Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale, a detailed analysis of worker cooperatives, their divergent models and structures, in the context of a wealth building strategy for working families.

“The cooperative movement has a lot of momentum and opportunity right now, spurred in part by growing support from important allies like unions, community organizing groups, non-profits, progressive businesses and local governments…Project Equity’s goal is to bring the benefits of worker coops to more workers who are currently working poor by developing larger-scale worker-owned businesses and catalyzing this ecosystem of support,” she says.

Abell finds a vibrant, growing sector of 30,000 U.S. cooperatives, with $3 trillion in assets, $652 billion in revenue, and more than 1 million employees. You’re familiar with producer and consumer cooperatives like Ocean Spray, Mutual of Omaha, Associated Press, and REI. Worker coops are less common, but impressive in their staying power and room for growth. 31% have been in existence over 20 years. Of the 55% that started after 2000, the most common industries are cleaning, food service and processing, and tech.

In the Bay Area, Arizmendi operates six local bakeries, employs 160 people, and manages a support organization for other coops. WAGES, which Abell led for eight years, developed cleaning services that increased members’ incomes by 150%. Nationally, worker coops deliver home health care (Cooperative Home Care Association, Bronx, NY, 2,300 employees); install solar panels (Namaste Solar, Colorado’s largest installer, 85 employees); and supply commercial laundry (Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, Cleveland, OH, part of Evergreen Coops, 77 employees.) In addition to developing talent and entrepreneurial skills, worker coops offer better pay, benefits, and wealth building opportunities.

Worker coops re-invest in communities underserved by big banks and private capital. They can support resilient, self-sufficient sectors that create quality employment, offer job training, and bridge the racial wealth gap at a time when traditional employment fails to offer more than part-time hours and poverty wages.

Abell’s analysis finds that worker coops with access to management training, operational support and networks of peer organizations scale faster and grow stronger – much like other start-ups. Some worker cooperatives are self-managed collectives, but many are hiring professional management. Coops need access to capital and improved legal structures, like those proposed by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown, and by state and local governments in California, Massachusetts, and New York.

We’ll be watching to see how this movement grows and connects with initiatives to improve economic security. Learn more about this community development strategy at with Project Equity.