Worker Cooperatives and Intentional Communities

Worker Cooperatives are an important sister movement to intentional communities. Depending on how you define things they are intentional communities, and whereas traditional IC’s have focused on the residential aspects of community living, worker co-ops have focused on the commercial. But if you use a broader definition of economy, one that incorporates all the productive human activities, they are two sides of the same coin.

coop conf crowd shot

A couple weekends ago I had the pleasure of attending the Worker Cooperative National Conference, hosted by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. The event was held in Chicago and attended by about 450 cooperative enthusiasts. More people would have participated if they had not hit the venue’s capacity and had to turn people away.

The Federation has been around 10 years now. I attended their first national conference in NYC in 2004, with maybe 200 participants. Since then they’ve created the Democracy At Work Network, a peer-to-peer advisory group for new cooperative ventures, and they’ve recently created the Democracy At Work Institute, a non-profit organization that can accept grants for research, education, and movement building.

coop conf fri night solo

Not only was the conference expertly organized, the quality of content was very high. Friday night was a showcase of local initiatives, including an amazing spoken word performance by a collective of young men working on restorative justice and part of forming group called Grassroots Ecology. The evening was catered by a new startup catering and restaurant cooperative in Chicago. I attended an amazing workshop on project management by members of the Isthmus Engineering Cooperative. Equal Exchange, a cooperative and forerunner of the fair trade movement, co-hosted a great workshop on Boards and cooperative governance. Tours were organized to look at cooperative endeavors and movements, both present and historical, in Chicago. There were a number of keynotes, including a presentation on the cooperative movement in the Emilia Romanga region of Italy, which rivals the more well-known Mondragon cooperatives in Spain in size and scope.

There were also people at the conference from housing cooperatives and collectives, as well as other kinds of cooperative projects and community organizations. I was at the conference to a large degree as a representative of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Many FEC communities incorporate businesses and residences, along with many other resource sharing systems. Part of why I live at Twin Oaks is because I see this as a model for what a full-featured, integrated cooperative economy could look like. Of course, I also realize that not everyone is going to live like we do at Twin Oaks, nor could they. We need a multi-faceted approach in transforming the social and economic aspects of society, as well as the infrastructure, to a basis of cooperation, justice, and sustainability.

What I found very gratifying is that while the focus of the event was on worker cooperatives, there was a keen understanding of the need to address all aspects of life and society in developing a cooperative culture. This is what we’ve been trying to do with the Communities Conference as well, focus on this particular branch of the movement, but keep in mind the larger picture of the cooperative movement that we’re all part of.