Syllabus: Worker Owned Enterprises at CUNY's Murphy Institute

A syllabus from CUNY's Immanuel Ness.

Course Description

Worker cooperatives have become a compelling alternative to traditional labor-management forms of labor relations in the 21st century and with the rise of the Global Financial Crisis.  The class examines worker control and cooperative in comparative historical and geographic perspective.  We will examine the historical experiences of worker cooperatives throughout the world, their successes, and challenges.  The class will make use of readings, film, and guest speakers with expertise in worker control and cooperatives.

The class interrogates and analyzes key questions of worker self management and worker control, including:

  1. The viability of worker control in the capitalist state.  How worker cooperatives survive under the norms and principles of capitalism?  State and government treatment of worker cooperatives compared to privately-held firms.   The evolution of worker-owned enterprises in comparative perspective.
  2. Worker interest and concrete efforts to establish cooperatives Do workers seek worker cooperatives?  What is the historical legacy and when do private/state owned enterprises transform into cooperatives?  What are the obstacles?
  3. The benefits and advantages of worker cooperatives to workers, communities, consumers, the political economy, and sustainable ecological development.  The class also examines the growing interest of workers in worker control models and the rise of experiments and concrete cases that are now underway.
  4. Worker cooperatives and labor unions.  We utilize historical and contemporary works on worker control and cooperatives to understand their relationship with labor unions to understand the possible necessity of union representation even in a collectively-owned enterprise. 

Jessica Gordon Nembhard: Cooperative Economics and Civil Rights


NYC City Council Hearing: Can Worker Co-ops Lift Families Out of Poverty?


Chris Michael: Creating Democracy in the Workplace


Tech Co-op Network

The Tech Co-op Network is a new network of twenty (and counting) U.S.-based worker coops that provide media, communications, and computer technology goods and services, including website and graphic design, web development, web & email hosting, IT consulting, computer sales & repair, social media, communications strategy, and mobile application development. Many Network members work primarily with cooperative, progressive, nonprofit, and social change organizations.

The Network hopes "to catalyze collaboration and mutual support among [its] members, while educating, encouraging, and supporting would-be cooperators and the general public."

The creation of this Network is the latest step in a decade of worker coops' emergence and steady, organic growth in the tech industry. The community began forming in 2004 around an email list, and in 2009 a group of list members created A Technology Freelancer's Guide To Starting a Worker Cooperative. Between 2011 and 2013, the email list nearly doubled in membership, tech worker coops were discussed at conference sessions all over the US, the Freelancer's Guide was downloaded hundreds of times, and lots of folks were inquiring about starting their own tech worker coops. After the Great Recession and coincident with the International Year of Coops, there was more interest in tech worker coops than ever before.

The Tech Co-op Network represents one possible growth and expansion strategy for the worker cooperative movement: making visible and strengthening the vertical and horizontal connections among worker coops within one industry, with a blend of integration, federation, and friendly co-opetition.

GEO 15: Advancing the Development of Worker Co-ops

For a second time the Grassroots Economic Organizing collective organized a one-day conversation among cooperative developers just before the Eastern Conference in July. Each year they have published a groups of reports by attendees in advance of the event in order to for the conversation to begin at a more informed level. In 2011 in Baltimore the focus was on development strategies. In 2013 in Philadelphia the focus was on financing. Notes taken at the event are available.

Grassroots Economic Organzing 15

Advancing the Development of Worker Co-ops (ADWC) 2013

by Jessica Gordon Nembhard

In 2011 GEO called together worker cooperative developers and supporters to discuss “Advancing the Development of Worker Cooperatives” (ADWC). We conducted an online forum through our website, and organized a one-day conference to kick off the 2011 Eastern Conference For workplace Democracy (ECWD) in Baltimore. Sojourner-Douglass College hosted our pre-conference on July 7, 2011.


Sign Up Today for the ADWC Pre-conference to the ECWD!

Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO), The Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy and Mariposa Food Co-op are pleased to announce the Advancing the Development of Worker Cooperatives (ADWC) 2013 pre-conference, which will focus on successful inter-cooperative approaches to self-financing and financing within the co-op movement.


Building on Self-Financing: Practices in Canada

By Eric Tusz-King

This article provides an overview of various financing models used in the Province of Quebec and in other parts of Canada.  My experience primarily comes from the worker/employee owned co-operatives, but as a co-op developer I also draw on inspiring stories from various forms of co-operatives. 


From Mondragon Networking to Franchising: the Arizmendi Association Model of Financing

By Tim Huet

The Arizmendi Association model of financing draws on elements of successful European cooperative networks we studied (specifically the Mondragon and Italian models) as well as a business model native to the United States, franchising.



From Crowd-Sourcing to Direct Investment: Coop to Coop Solutions to Grow our Democratic Businesses

By Esteban Kelly

Mariposa Food Co-op is a consumer owned and member-worker run food co-op operating in the West Philadelphia neighborhood since 1971. After 41 years of being a members-only space, we opened our doors to the community in 2012, in a space five times that of our historic location. In total, our expansion effort racked up over $2.5 million in debt.


Mariposa Food Co-op Ground-Breaking


The Cooperative Fund of New England

By Micha Josephy

In 1975, leaders of New England’s food co-op community joined with socially-oriented investors affiliated with the Haymarket People’s Fund to unlock access to debt capital for the many food co-ops that were starting and expanding.


Sam Dibble of the Artisan Beverage Co-operative and Maggie Cohn of CFNE


Co-ops Financing Co-ops

By Adam Trott

There are limited options when looking to finance a co-op, especially a worker co-op. Aside from co-operative loan funds (like the Cooperative Fund of New England {see article by Micha Josephy in this issue}, Workers Revolving Loan Fund and Northcountry Co-operative Fund) and the rare credit union that lends to businesses, financial institutions do not understand co-operatives. Most lenders are completely unfamiliar with the Co-operative Principles and how they influence our business practices.


The Working World and Financing Workplace Democracy

Annie McShiras talks with Brendan Martin and Ethan Earle

Building a Solidarity Financial System for co-operatives and democratic work places through a culture of belief. This is Part I of the SolidarityNYC interview with The Working World. It is an alternative loan fund that supports worker run co-operatives and other democratic workplaces with micro-credit loans and technical support.

Democracy At Work Network and Kiva Zip

By Jessie Myszka

In 2012, the Democracy at Work Network was approached by Kiva Zip about being a pilot trustee for its direct micro-lending program. Kiva Microfinance began in 2005, a non-profit that collects funds online from individual lenders and offers loans to individual entrepreneurs abroad. Since inception, it has made more than 1,000,000 loans. These loans rely on in-country field partners to administer the funds. Kiva launched its newer Zip program in order to loan directly to individuals, asking only that a “trustee” vet applicants and vouch for their credibility.

The Directors of Shift Change: The Case for Cooperatives


New Era Windows Cooperative Forms in Chicago

Via New Era Windows

"In 2008, the boss decided to close our windows factory on Goose Island and fire everyone. In 2012, we decided to buy the factory for ourselves and fire the boss. We now own the plant together and run it democratically. This is our story.

In 2008, after many decades of operation, Republic Windows and Doors went bankrupt and was shut down. This seemed odd as the windows business appeared profitable. Meanwhile, members of the family business opened new windows factories in Chicago, hiring workers through temp agencies. They were also investigated by authorities over irregularities in their bankruptcy and were sued by banks over outstanding debts. It seemed the reason workers were losing their jobs might not be because they weren't doing profitable work.

When the announcement to close the plant was made, the workers were told that their jobs would be terminated immediately, and that they would not be given their contractually obligated backpay or severance. While workers were being fired, banks were being bailed out for having taken on too much risk in the pursuit of profits. The workers decided to occupy the factory in protest, and the community came out in extraordinary numbers to support them. See the Michael Moore Short about it.

The workers and the community won enough of this struggle to get the money that was owed to them. A new green construction company, Serious Energy, took control of the factory and partially reopened it. Things seemed to have turned around.

Unfortunately, Serious Energy's business plan, which only involved the windows factory in a tertiary role, never functioned, and the company had to severely cut back on its operations, including closing the factory. Once again, the workers, despite their profitable work, found themselves being sacrificed in a financial game they did not control.

Everyone decided enough was enough. If we want to keep quality manufacturing jobs in our communities, perhaps we should put in charge those who have the most at stake in keeping those jobs — the workers. The plan to start a new worker owned cooperative business began.

The workers called in help in the form of the United Electrical Workers Union, whom had been with them since the beginning, The Working World, which had worked with dozens of worker controlled factories in Latin America, and the Center for Workplace Democracy, a new organization in Chicago dedicated to supporting worker control.

With tremendous support from the community, The Working World raised the investment needed for the workers to buy their factory. Unfortunately, the workers weren't being given a place at the negotiating table, and even that right had to be fought for as workers marched in front of investment banks and signatures poured in to support the workers. Finally, the workers were allowed in, and a deal was struck to allow the workers to buy what they needed to run their own factory.

Today, we are putting that new cooperative business together, and we have decided to call it New Era, as we hope it will be an inspiration for how future jobs can be created in America. Everyone can participate in building the economy we all want, and no one should be treated as temporary or just raw material for someone else's business.

We have built the highest quality windows ever made in Chicago, ones that are soundproof and extremely energy efficient, meaning they are both green and save money. Our windows will be the best on the market at prices no one can beat.

Sales aim to begin early 2013. We are striving to support our community, to keep quality jobs in America, and make our economy stronger. Please support us and check out our windows. We know you'll love them, and please recommend them to a friend if you do."

More resources on the formation of New Era Windows Cooperative

New Era Windows Cooperative is Now Open For Business


Democracy in the Workplace: All About Collectives



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