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Sick of Corporations? Co-Op Evangelists Want You on Their Side

The cooperative movement wants to win over millions disappointed by the corporate world, and it starts with explaining what exactly a co-op is.

Brian Van Slyke didn't want to be a boss‚ and he didn't want to have one either. But as his one-man record label grew to a three-person operation, they needed some type of organizational structure.

"We wanted to be our own bosses, together," Van Slyke says. In 2006, Fall of the West Records was reincorporated as a worker-owned cooperative, giving each member an ownership stake and convincing Van Slyke to tailor his college education around cooperatives.

Last week, Van Slyke was at the National Cooperative Business Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis to show off the board game he created, Co-opoly , where everybody wins or loses together and learns how a cooperative works.

With rising discontent about the economic status quo (see: Occupy Wall Street) and a United Nations resolution declaring 2012 the "International Year of the Cooperative," co-op advocates at last week's conference were optimistic about what they see as a ripe opportunity to grow their movement—if only people knew about it. They need more public education, from board games to marketing.

"There is not the on-the-street knowledge of the cooperative and its success that there ought to be," says Charles Gould, director-general of the International Cooperative Alliance and one of the conference's opening speakers. "As a result, we have people who are very frustrated who simply don't know there is a potential solution for many of them just around the corner."

A co-op is a business that's owned and governed by its customers or employees, as opposed to outside investors. Member-owners have a democratic say in how the company is run, either by direct vote or through elected representatives. Any surplus revenue comes back to them in the form of dividends. The model is associated with the food and agriculture sectors, but the 230 attendees at last week's conference included representatives from housing, health care, marketing, manufacturing, electric utilities, and financial services.

The United States is home to nearly 30,000 cooperative businesses, which generate more than $500 billion in annual revenue, according to a 2009 study by the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. Americans hold 350 million memberships in co-ops, which provide more than 2 million jobs and pay out around $79 million annually in refunds and dividends.

The modern co-op movement began in the 1840s outside Manchester, England, in response to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, Gould says. Consumers and workers felt marginalized by corporations, which had accumulated significant wealth and power. A group called the Rochdale Pioneers opened a store that let members pool their buying power to make bulk purchases, helping them avoid the higher-cost, lower-quality goods for sale elsewhere. Worldwide, the number of co-ops steadily multiplied into the early 1900s.

"There was a recognition that it was time for people to stand up for themselves and not let these systems disrupt what they valued in life, and we're seeing a similar phenomenon today," says Gould, noting not just the current Wall Street protests but also recent unrest in Europe. "We are back now at a time when there is a reaction against the excesses of capitalism. [It's] an environment that's similar in so many ways to what we saw in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when co-ops had tremendous growth around the world."

While co-ops clearly did not win out in the battle with corporations and industrialization, the model addresses many of the frustrations in our current economic system by giving workers and consumers a voice and sharing wealth more equitably. If the co-op movement can get its message in front of the right people, Gould believes that within a decade it could be the fastest-growing type of enterprise.

A recent wave of worker-owned cooperatives is emerging in the service and manufacturing industries. One of the highest profile projects is the Evergreen Cooperatives, a set of worker-owned co-ops in Cleveland that run a laundry service, a solar installation business and an urban farming operation. The United Steelworkers union has announced plans to partner with Spanish industrial co-op Mondragon on setting up worker-owned manufacturing co-ops around the United States and Canada. And workers in 10 cities have organized green cleaning cooperatives, some inspired by Wages, a nonprofit that's helped set up half a dozen green cleaning co-ops in San Francisco.

Equal Exchange, a co-op coffee, tea and chocolate distributor in Massachusetts, is attempting to encourage co-ops with a new marketing campaign meant to promote local, co-op, and small farmer-produced products on the shelves of food co-ops. "We're trying to highlight the best of the best products that exist in natural food co-ops," says project coordinator Scott Patterson.

Products that meet the criteria will be labeled and promoted as "P6" products, short for Principle Six, a reference to the International Cooperative Alliance's list of seven co-op principles. (Principle six is "cooperation among cooperatives.")

The natural and organic food trends have helped the nation's 330-plus grocery co-ops grow despite the recession. (Last year, the National Cooperative Grocers Association's members reported $1.3 billion in combined sales.)

"I've seen green cleaning co-ops just popping up around the country," says Melissa Hoover, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

Growing the co-op economy is the objective of Van Slyke's Co-Opoly board game. After college, he helped create a new cooperative called the Toolbox for Education and Social Action, which produces custom education materials. It recently raised more than $9,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to mass-produce the "game of skill and solidarity."

Van Slyke has been on the road with a handmade version of game for a few weeks, promoting it at conferences and workshops. The next stop on his agenda: his local Occupy Wall Street protest, natch.

Photo courtesy Molly McLeod

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