Two ideas — one quite specific, the other, not so much

Both this week’s co-op ideas are very local, but the similarity ends there.

Source. CC BY-SA 3.0

The first, as the picture above has probably already revealed, is hops. Hops are one of the primary ingredients in beer, and (as I happen to know from personal experience) are not particularly difficult to grow. There’s a bit more to growing them and marketing them at scale than there is to growing a plant or two in the backyard, but it’s nothing a co-op couldn’t handle. And there’s pretty clearly a market.

The second idea requires a bit more context. If you’ve read through the co-op ideas, you’ve probably noticed that many of them focus on environmental sustainability, and even regeneration. This idea falls squarely into that category, but it doesn’t have a convenient title, beyond “sustainable energy storage.” Most of us are familiar with sustainable energy generation, such as the ever-increasing number of homes, businesses, and other buildings with solar panels on them. That’s good news… sort of. There’s a dark side to the current state of renewables that isn’t as renewable as it sounds, such as mining materials like cobalt and lithium (for rechargeable batteries) under conditions that are socially and/or environmentally deplorable. Additionally, there are other obscure but important materials that are simply too rare to keep up with demand.

So, the idea is a research and development co-op to seek out forms of energy storage that could store renewably-generated energy at scale, using cheap, common, local materials.

This sort of challenge isn’t for everyone, but if it’s for you, write to steve@social.coop and say so. If you have a challenge that’s a better fit for you, write in and say that. Either way, we look forward to hearing from you.


Solstice (almost)

Friday is the longest day of the year. Of course, if the rain continues, it might be hard to tell.


It might also be hard to tell what’s happening at MCDC, because we don’t talk a lot about what’s happening behind the scenes. Without delving too far into the details, I can say that we’re talking with nearly a dozen co-ops in development, some of which are still at the idea stage. We’re also investigating new funding sources for both our co-ops and for MCDC itself. Additionally, we’ve had discussions with people from Baltimore and Chicago looking to draw ideas from our model to use in their own settings.

And, of course, we’re actively maintaining the co-op ideas page. Just in the last week, we’ve added two new ideas. The first is a 3D printing co-op, which could also tie in with the Precious Plastic model of retrieving plastic from the wastestream.

The second is a bit of a departure for us, but in a good way. We’ve been talking with a group of programmers who go by the name Rootstock. They are proposing an alternative to the venture-capitalist-driven model of software development. In this model, VCs invest large sums of money in various projects in return for equity, hoping that one will be a big enough success to cover their losses on the rest. What Rootstock proposes is to invest labor, in the form of coding, rather than capital, so we’re calling this model “venture cooperativism.”

If this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of — or if you have a completely different idea you want to share — write us at steve@social.coop and let us know.


Co-ops 101 is now at the South Madison Library

Worker Cooperatives 101: Equitable Economic Development

Join us at the Goodman South Madison Library – 2222 S Park St.
Tuesday, June 18 at 12-1:30 pm

Light lunch will be provided. RSVP helpful but not necessary.

Worker Cooperatives 101 is a program of the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition and Madison Public Library to promote awareness for equitable economic development through worker cooperatives in Madison.

The Madison Cooperative Development Coalition and Madison Public Library continue our monthly Co-op 101 events. This monthly series provides essential education about worker co-ops and available resources provided by MCDC, such as technical assistance, connections to local and national experts, and support grants.

We will be joined by Georgia Allen, co-founder of Soaring Independent Cooperative. SIC is a worker-owned business led by women of color who are experienced caregivers  As they see it, empowering themselves and taking better care of their clients go hand in hand.

  • Worker cooperatives create meaningful change for communities affected by inequality
  • Worker co-ops are designed to improve low-wage jobs and build wealth in communities.
  • Worker co-ops help build skills, earning potential, household income, and assets.

Even if you’ve attended MCDC events before, I encourage you to join us!

More information about starting a worker cooperative at www.mcdcmadison.org



ACEIRECUSCASC conference 2019

Longueuil, Quebec (a suburb of Montreal)

I consider this conference a big success. Every session was good, and a number were outstanding. Two of them were so useful that I wrote them up in detail: converting businesses to worker co-ops and addressing power dynamics. Additionally, we made many new contacts and renewed some old friendships. (If you don’t see the captions on the photos, click here.)

At the end of the conference, the organizers took participants on tours of the solidarity economy in Montreal. This building, known simply as Building 7, houses a print shop, a darkroom, a space with two 3D printers, a woodworking shop, a metalworking shop, a pottery workshop, a silkscreening workshop, a small grocery store, a coffeehouse/brewpub (brewing is done on site), a bike workshop, a car workshop, an assortment of meeting rooms, dedicated space for teens, dedicated space for very young children, and a storage area. And all that only takes up about a quarter of the building.
Photo by the author.

Common themes across presentations:

  • Research on co-ops needs to continue, and increase. Research needs to be applied by cooperators and policy-makers.
  • Ongoing education of cooperators (and the general public) is very important. The co-op model is applicable across academic fields, not just business studies.
  • The co-op principles are not just an ethical standard, but a comparative advantage, as well.
  • Revenue is not the only indicator of success. There’s also embodying the co-op principles — however, this is difficult to measure. Multiple groups are experimenting with ways to do so.
  • Co-ops that address a need will succeed. Those that do not will struggle.
  • Clear, thoughtful, effective communication is a vital co-op skill.
  • Individual co-ops need to scale up, but if we cooperate between co-ops, scale is already there.
  • Growth is an important goal, to the extent it means meeting more needs, not for its own sake.

We talked with a representative of the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops (the equivalent of MadWorC in western Massachusetts) about their internal loan fund, and the Co-Executive Director of the Vermont Worker Ownership Center about the co-op investment club in his area. These talks are also written up in a separate document.

Another stop on my tour was a cooperative funeral home. There are 18 funeral-home co-ops in the province of Quebec, and this one has six locations in and around Montreal.
Photo by the author.

Extensive notes on the presentations are available on request.



Every city has pigeons, but Montreal has Pigeons of Unusual Size.
Photo by the author.

If you noticed that you didn’t get a newsletter from MCDC last week, you’re very perceptive! And there’s a good reason for it. We were at the conference of the Association of Cooperative Educators in Montreal for the entire week. It was outstanding, and we plan to give you a report on it soon. It’s not ready yet, because there’s so much information to sort through.

In the meantime, there are some small but potentially important updates on the Coop Ideas page. First, there are two new ideas on the list, and both have already been tested out in other cities, so we already know they work. Second, two people have told us they want to actively pursue ideas on the page. As it turns out, they had each thought of their idea long ago, but hadn’t been able to find anyone else interested — and of course, that’s what the page is for! So, maybe you’re the person that one of them is looking for. Or maybe you know someone else who is.

Here are the updates, in an accessible and easy-to-forward format.

New ideas

  • FairBnB: Fairbnb is a transparent, democratic, and cooperative alternative to Airbnb.
  • Commercial Real Estate Co-op: A co-op that deals in commercial real estate sounds like an ambitious idea — and it is — but there are multiple success stories from around the US and Canada, so it can be done.

Ideas that need more cooperators (write to steve@social.coop to be connected):

  • Restaurant
  • Aquaculture

You might notice that these ideas are considerably more capital-intensive than the co-ops we’ve started so far. That means that we’ll have to have discussions about financing. But, that’s a newsletter article for another day.

The only thing currently missing from our Co-op Ideas page is ideas that come from you, our readers. If you see a need a worker co-op could fill, let us know! It doesn’t (necessarily) mean you’re volunteering to organize the co-op, because if you see the need, it’s likely others have seen it, too. Maybe you think Madison needs a co-op funeral home, or a co-op of sheep farmers, or a co-op of truck drivers. Maybe your dream is to manufacture medical equipment, or bowling balls, or musical instruments. Whatever it is, write to steve@social.coop and tell us.


Cooperators wanted!

Twin pines, the symbol of cooperatives everywhere.
Photo by Christian Collins, under CC-BY-SA.

This week’s newsletter is a follow-up to a post from a couple of weeks ago, where I listed off a number of ideas for future co-ops in Madison. We’ve gotten good feedback on that list, and a solid lead for one of them. So, I’ve taken the next step to create a page on our site where anyone and everyone can peruse the list, and then get in touch with me to be connected with other people interested in that idea — or one of their own!

Here it is: http://www.mcdcmadison.org/co-op-ideas

The newsletter article was a snapshot in time, but this list will be actively maintained and updated. As ideas come in, I’ll add them (with permission, of course). There are six possibilities on it currently, and I expect it to grow over time. If you have an idea you’d like me to add, please email me at steve@social.coop, and I’ll do so right away.

I look forward to hearing from you!


Starting a cooperative business with the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition

Thinking of starting a business?
Interested in a business model that uplifts your community?

  • Worker cooperatives create meaningful change for communities affected by inequality.
  • Worker co-ops are designed to improve low-wage jobs and build wealth in communities.
  • Worker co-ops help build skills, earning potential, household income, and assets.

Tuesday, May 21st at 6:00 pm
Tuesday, June 18th at noon
Tuesday, July 16th at noon
Goodman South Madison Library

Interpretation into Spanish will be provided.
Childcare can be arranged by contacting Martin Alvarado a week before
the event at 608-266-6350 or malvarado@madisonpubliclibrary.org.
Light refreshments will be provided.

Learn more about opportunities at mcdcmadison.org
Presented by a partnership of the UW Center for Cooperatives, Madison
Cooperative Development Coalition and the Madison Public Library.
With funding from the Madison Public Library Foundation.


Co-op spotlight: Soaring Independent Cooperative

This week, we begin an occasional series of interviews that will provide a look into our co-ops in development. We’ve had a number of successes already, and we want you to hear about them! First up is Georgia Allen, the founder and president of Soaring Independent Cooperative, a new home health care agency led by women of color who are experienced in taking care of anyone who needs assistance to remain at home.

Geraldine Perry and Josezette Bridges of Soaring Independent announce that the co-op is up and running and ready to accept clients. Photo provided by Soaring Independent.

What was the need you saw that you felt you could address?

As the founders, we all share experience as working, impoverished individuals with aging/disabled loved ones. We wanted to find ways to improve the quality of life for both direct care workers and our aging/disabled communities. We identified the importance of ecosystems of support, resources, and connections outside of traditional systems.

How did you recruit others to join you?

We held individual and group listening/info sessions about people’s ideas within our field. During these sessions to listen to concerns/frustrations and ideas for improvements, we helped identify skills and talents from lived experiences and employment. We provided cooperative education and made the concerns and frustrations an agenda for our members to address. This demonstrated that Soaring Independent Cooperative values the voices of our members, and provides opportunities for support and increased transferable skill development to promote a solidarity economy.

How did you decide to create a worker co-op?

During the conception of the idea, the founders all shared the vision of a worker-owned business. We struggled with developing our operating agreement for our LLC. When we learned about the cooperative business model, it was the perfect model for our business.

Have you connected with the established worker co-ops in town?

During Soaring Independent’s development, MCDC introduced us to MadWorC, which made it easier to connect to local co-ops. MadWorC has been a great resource and support network for co-ops at any stage.

SIC’s worker-owners (experienced direct care workers and healthcare professionals).
Top row: Katie, Regina, Josezette, and Geraldine. Bottom row: Marcy, Georgia, and Levona. Photo provided by SIC.

What difference has MCDC made in starting your co-op?

MCDC has been a great resource for cooperative education, connections to industry-specific networks, technical assistance grants, and support during the co-op development stages.

What advice would you give to others considering starting their own co-op?

Utilize MCDC and MadWorC’s resources and networks for all stages of co-op development and operation. Learning about how other industry-specific business models operate will also help develop a sustainable business.


Ideas for future co-ops

This week’s article will be a bit more abstract than other weeks’, because it discusses what might be, as opposed to what is. In fact, I’ve deliberately chosen to talk about things no one in Madison is doing — yet.

Sara DeHaan [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What sort of business can be run as a worker co-op? Well, here are some examples: a bakery (there are many), restaurant, engineering firm, medical clinic, construction supplier, wood shop, metal shop, house cleaner (there are many), pizzeria, clothing manufacturer, bike manufacturer, rifle manufacturer, programming, farming, delivery service, landscaping, home health care, taxis, magazine, newspaper, web host, day-care, higher education, even a strip club, and the list goes on. In other words, almost any business at all can be a worker co-op. And the few things that might not be practical as a worker co-op could still be a consumer co-op, worker-consumer hybrid, housing co-op, or credit union, each of which is a whole other subject, with its own interesting examples.

So, what kinds of things could folks in Madison cooperate on? We’ve already seen some great ideas, but there’s always room for more. Here are some thoughts.

Marketing. If there’s one thing every worker co-op in Madison could use some help with, it’s marketing. Naturally, a marketing co-op wouldn’t limit itself to working for co-ops, but it might specialize in them.

Child care. MCDC is in talks with a group of people who want to start a child-care co-op, but this is the kind of service no city will ever have enough of.

Home/business cleaning. This is a proven model in other states (see above). Workers here in Madison would have little difficulty organizing as a cooperative.

Home/business remodeling and retrofitting. This is another sector where skills are largely concentrated in the workers. It wouldn’t be that hard for them to learn self-management, and become worker-owned and operated.

Auto repair. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep cars running as long as they can, and as efficiently as they can.

Sustainability. There is a huge amount of potential here.

  • Precious plastics. This is a tested model to pull plastics of all kinds from the wastestream and make something useful out of them. I recommend putting the focus on products that will last for many years (as opposed to high-turnover products like cell phone accessories.) One potential product could be 3D printing material.
  • “Unbreakable” glassware. A co-op might start by making Mason jars, but be prepared for a wide variety of uses (glasses, cups, mugs, bottles, plates, bowls, silverware, cookware, jars, windows, solar panels, so on and so forth). It could use existing glass as raw material. It might set up cleaning facilities for bottles and jars, to encourage reuse over recycling. There may be industrial uses where glass could replace plastic, especially in packaging. (Strictly speaking, all glass will break if enough force applied to it, but tempered glass is break-resistant.)
  • Aquaculture. Milwaukee is making this work. There’s every reason to think Madison could, too.
  • Industrial hemp. Hemp (not marijuana) is an incredibly useful material that can be made into paper, cloth, rope/string/yarn, bio-plastics, drywall, bio-cement, assorted foods, assorted health and beauty products, a replacement for fiberglass, and the list goes on. Hemp is a highly productive plant that requires relatively little water and no pesticides. It can also purify contaminated soil. Hemp products are highly durable, but still biodegradable. The possibilities for worker co-ops here are endless.

Bar. Madison’s worker-cooperators have long wanted a worker-owned and operated bar to gather in.

Coffeehouse. This is a close second to a bar.

Restaurants. Restaurants are well positioned for worker management. Food carts are as well.

Even more ambitious ideas

  • Land trusts. This would control multiple pieces of land long-term. It might overlap with housing co-ops.
  • Hotel. Workers could own and operate their own hotel. Services will be local, goods as well.
  • Commercial real estate. A co-op could own and operate workspaces in desirable areas of Madison. This may have to be a second-tier co-op. It might or might not include the hotel(s) and/or land trusts.
  • Web hosting. This would offer web and email services, and other online services focused on privacy and productivity.
  • R&D on energy storage that uses cheap, local materials exclusively. Conventional batteries require rare, exotic materials that do extensive ecological damage. We can do better.

MCDC is very interested in connecting people who have ideas (or maybe like one of mine), but haven’t found anyone else to work with. If that describes you, write me at steve@social.coop, or leave us a message on Facebook.


For worker co-ops in Argentina, the struggle goes on

The co-ops of Argentina are fascinating, although they’d probably prefer not to be.

Mike presenting to an attentive audience. Photo by Charity Schmidt.

There are over 20,000 cooperatives in Argentina, and the most colorful ones are the 300+ that are known as “recovered businesses.” These are companies that went bankrupt and closed, but the workers re-entered the buildings and re-opened the businesses, now converted to worker co-ops. They’re found largely, though not exclusively, in Buenos Aires.

A scene Mike captured at COOPERTEI, one of the co-ops he visited. It does mechanical maintenance for industry.

Mike Krause of Isthmus Engineering gave a presentation Monday night on his visits to some of these co-ops. One of his main points was that the government of Argentina dislikes co-ops in general and recovered business in particular… because they work. As the Argentine economy goes through rather predictable boom-and-bust cycles on a ten-year schedule, co-ops are one of the main ways people survive the bust years. But working-class people surviving — and presenting a viable alternative to neoliberal policies — does not serve the interests of the wealthy or the current right-wing government.

As Mike explained, this means that co-ops have to seek support elsewhere. The first place they find it is in each other. Co-ops don’t see each other as competitors, even when they provide the same goods or services. On the contrary, they join together into second and even third-tier federations to purchase in volume, to lobby the government (or hold street protests against it), to improve their internal processes, and even to find ecologically responsible ways to dispose of their waste products. Additionally, co-ops go out of their way to include each other in their supply chains.

Another co-op Mike visited was COGTAL, a printing press.

The other main place co-ops find support is in their local communities. For example, all three co-ops Mike visited encourage children and other family members of current members to become members as well. One has an internship program and sponsors a local soccer team. Another is about to open a vocational school on its property, which is not limited to the products the co-op makes. In fact, education is a recurring theme among co-ops across Argentina — job training, co-op education, and general education are all considered important, both for members and for the broader community. The success of the co-ops and improvements in the quality of life of their communities are tightly correlated.

Co-ops in Argentina do find support in other places, as well. All the co-ops are on very good terms with labor unions, for example. Also, in spite of the conservative domination of the national government, the more progressive parties are long-time advocates for co-ops and recovered businesses.

The third co-op Mike visited was Galaxia, which makes an assortment of products out of metal. They operate production right from smelting the ore, as shown by the furnace in the center of the picture. The woman is Gaby Buffa, a tireless co-op activist and Mike’s tour guide and interpreter.

All this support is crucial to the survival of co-ops, especially the recovered businesses. They face hostility from the President of the country, conservative media outlets, and often from courts as well. Ownership of the businesses and their assets is frequently contested. New co-ops commonly come into existence saddled with the debts of the old businesses. The cost of utilities skyrocketed recently for households and small businesses generally, and local authorities are known to be hyper-vigilant about health and safety regulations with recovered businesses. And all this is layered on top of the difficult economic position the country as a whole is in, plus the lingering effects of decades of dictatorship and corruption.

The fascinating thing about the co-ops of Argentina is that they are doing as well as they are. As Mike observed at the end of his talk, all the co-ops he visited had court dates or similarly important events in the immediate future. When they say la lucha sigue, the struggle goes on, they really mean it. There’s no shortage of people who want to see cooperativism fail, and economic power even more concentrated in the hands of big businesses and their wealthy owners. No co-op could stand up to that alone, but they’re not alone. With cooperation among co-ops and concern for their communities, they’re not only surviving, they’re setting an amazing and important example.