Skip to main content

An Emerging Solidarity: Worker Cooperatives, Unions, and the New Union Cooperative Model in the United States

The current issue of the "International Journal of Labour Research," which is published by the ILO, is concerned with the relationship of unions and worker cooperatives. It is titled, "Trade Unions and Worker Cooperatives: Where are We at?" Rob Witherell, of the United Steel Workers Union has an article in this issue, " An Emerging Solidarity: Worker Cooperatives, Unions, and the New Union Cooperative Model in the United States".


In March 2012, the United Steelworkers, Mondragon International USA, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center published a white paper detailing our union cooperative model, written by myself, Chris Cooper (OEOC), and Michael Peck (Mondragon International USA). This article seeks to expand on the need and potential for that model, with many thanks to Chris Cooper and Michael Peck for providing their insights and advice along the way.

If we were to re-imagine what work and the workplace should look like, what businesses should look like, what would that be? We might think of small businesses and people who are self-employed. We might think of work as something we are proud of and enjoy doing. We might think of compensation for work as reflecting our efforts, our talents, and our ability. We might think of work as providing us with a comfortable standard of living, with food on the table and time off to enjoy with our friends and families. If we multiply those ideas throughout our communities, what might our economy look like? Would it be more stable? More sustainable?

In October 2009, the United Steelworkers (USW) and Mondragon announced their collaboration in developing unionized, worker-owned co-operative businesses in the United States and Canada. Although progress in bringing these union cooperatives into existence has been understandably slow since "we build the road as we travel", the fruits of this collaboration have begun to emerge.

Initial interest in this collaboration was intense, as people wondered: what, exactly, could labour unions and cooperatives have in common? As it turns out, quite a lot. One might go as far as describing unions and worker- owned cooperatives as both being part of a broad-based labour movement with common roots in the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Core values and beliefs such as solidarity, dignity and fairness are not exclusive to one or the other, but have been shared principles all along.

Workers engaging in collective bargaining with their employer may appear to be drastically different from and incompatible with workers cooperating as owners, but the underlying approach is the same: workers supporting each other to improve their livelihood. The mechanisms to implement that goal may differ, but sharing that common purpose means that unions and worker-owned cooperatives could truly function as complementary elements within the same labour movement.

Separately, unions and cooperatives face enormous challenges. For unions, the ability to secure good contracts has diminished as membership continues to shrink and employers' power continues to grow. For worker- owned cooperatives, challenges include access to the investments and loans needed to grow their businesses or to start up new cooperatives, especially in capital-intensive sectors such as manufacturing, and access to broader support networks. Together, union and cooperatives have the potential to create sustainable jobs that support sustainable communities, the potential to organize workers and workplaces in whole new ways, and even the potential to fundamentally transform our economy and our society for the better.

For the rest of this article, please go to