The Worker Cooperative Life Cycle

TitleThe Worker Cooperative Life Cycle
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsWhitman JR

While every cooperative is different, most face a similar series of start-up steps
and common challenges that correspond to successive stages of development as the
cooperative moves through its life cycle. According to Cook and Burress (2009), the
cooperative life cycle consists of five phases: 1) economic justification; 2) organizational
design; 3) growth, glory, and heterogeneity; 4) recognition and introspection; and 5)
choice. Cook and Burress based their life cycle framework on agricultural cooperatives.
Can their framework also apply to other types of cooperatives, such as worker
cooperatives? While this question requires further research, a preliminary analysis of the
early life cycle of Equal Exchange, a fair trade worker cooperative, suggests that the
Cook and Burress model generally applies to this type of cooperative as well, but with
some important differences. Let’s examine the Equal Exchange experience, as recounted
by two of its three co-founders. These co-founders had left the cooperative by 2000 and
thus their reflections do not include the evolution of the organization over the past
decade. Nevertheless, we will examine how the life cycle framework applies in the early
years based on their recollections, and later on publicly available information on the
cooperative. (Note that the personal tone of some of the excerpts from interviews should
not detract from the important substance of the issues being addressed.)