At the 2022 Labor Notes conference in Rosemont, Illinois, worker cooperators gathered with 4,000 labor union members and activists from across the country to help unite the rising cooperative and labor movements.
Founded in 1979, Labor Notes is a publication and organizing network for the “troublemakers” in the labor movement, writing stories on and training rank-and-file union members and activists as they organize for more militant and democratic labor unions. With the recent upsurge in worker-led campaigns at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Google, Delta, Uber/Lyft, REI, Target and the halls of Congress, the conference provided a unique space for understanding these as common struggles, sharing strategies and tactics and making lasting in-person connections after more than two years of remote organizing due to COVID-19.
Out of the more than 100 workshops and panels presented during the four day conference, three were focused on worker cooperatives. The first session, Union Co-ops versus Racial Capitalism: Challenges and Prospects in the COVID Era, focused on 5 models and case studies of how worker ownership and union representation advanced racial justice through the pandemic (this hybrid session was done in conjunction with the day-long virtual program with Rutgers’ Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing). The second session, Organizing Worker Cooperatives, outlined the process of how to build and launch a worker cooperative. The third session, Union Worker Co-ops as the Basis of an Economy that Works for All, explained the organizing and business development model of union co-ops.
USFWC members found the conference rich in lessons, relationships and energy:
- Denise Herandez, USFWC At-Large Board Director and Vice President of Human Resources at Cooperative Home Care Associates, spoke on both union co-ops panels and found “the energy off the hook.” She especially valued the comradery and positivity of the friendly faces in-person who had a real interest in learning about her working and advocacy experiences with 1199SEIU. Alongside worker-owner Kim Alleyne, they shared how, through its union affiliation, CHCA organized with the New York Caring Majority coalition to advocate for fair pay for home care workers and a single-payer health care system.
- Ellen Vera, co-founder and Director of Development and Co-op Organizing at Co-op Cincy, also spoke on both union co-ops panels and was “heartened to see so many labor folks interested in the power of co-ops.” Ezekiel Coleman and Ellen Vera shared how Our Harvest, a worker cooperative incubated by Co-op Cincy, provided Coleman a career alternative where he has “not once, in the last 10 years as a worker owner, faced the same racist discrimination he did when working at the chicken processing plant.” Ellen and her partner Flequer Vera, former USFWC Board Director and founding worker-owner at Sustainergy, shared their roadmap for union co-op development, outlining Co-op Cincy’s program areas: education and technical assistance, support for start-ups, lending, and business transitions, and areas for collaboration with labor unions: representation and benefits, strategic campaigns, providing staff and resources and identifying potential conversions.
- Ben Gilvar Parke, Organizer at Politics Rewired, walked away most excited about the possibility of union co-ops: “Union worker co-ops are a beautiful horizon for labor unions to think about—converting businesses into worker co-ops—and for worker co-ops to think about scaling up—using the form of a union and connecting to the broader labor movement.”
- Boaz Sender, founding principal of Bocoup, recently initiated their business’s conversion into a worker co-op and was excited to bring back the lessons of worker leadership to his new co-worker-owners.
At the heart of both the cooperative and labor movements are people; with crises abound, more than anything else, the Labor Notes conference helped re-center the people in our lives and work as our reason for continuing to show up. We’re looking forward to cultivating a similar space for learning and solidarity this September at the 2022 Worker Co-op Conference in Philadelphia.