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.


Calling all new co-op directors!

If you’re on a cooperative board of directors for the first time, it may not be entirely clear what you’re expected to do, or how to do it. Never fear! The UW Center on Co-ops is here to help you up the learning curve.

Co-op Directors 101
May 14, 2019, 9:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Landmark Services Cooperative | Cottage Grove, WI

Designed for new directors, this program covers cooperative director roles and responsibilities, cooperative finance, and practical tools for developing a more efficient and effective board.


Roles and Responsibilities of Directors
This session will focus on the different functions performed by directors including fiduciary and oversight responsibilities. We will review the relationships between the board, management, and members.
Margaret Bau, Cooperative Development Specialist, USDA Rural Development

Co-op Finance 101
This session will provide an overview of cooperative finances including defining terms and how to read financial statements. We will review questions boards should ask their managers and tools for monitoring financial performance including reports and key indicators. This foundational session will help new directors begin to steer the financial make-up of the cooperative.
Michael Lensmire, CPA, Principal, CliftonLarsonAllen

Tools for an Effective Board
In this session attendees will learn about strategies for developing an efficient board including meeting agendas and facilitation, committees, and maintaining a healthy board culture. We will also review key elements of effective decision making.  
Courtney Berner, Executive Director, UW Center for Cooperatives
Kelly Maynard, Cooperative Development Specialist, UW Center for Cooperatives

Download the full agenda

Registration:  $100 through May 1 $125 after May 1. Registration cost includes program and materials, coffee break and lunch.


There is a limited number of scholarships to attend this program. Please contact Kristin Olson for more information.


Mike Krause, Madison cooperator, presents his “Journey through Argentina” – from fly-fishing to worker co-ops

Mike Krause in Buenos Aires with tour guide, interpreter, and co-op activist Gabi Buffa.

Argentina has a lot of worker co-ops, notably the scrappy and resilient recovered businesses. Mike Krause of Isthmus Engineering, went to Argentina originally to go fly-fishing, but was captivated by the co-op community. Come hear about their struggles and their successes — and their relevance to us!

“A Journey through Argentina” – from fly-fishing to worker co-ops.

A presentation and discussion.

April 22nd, from 7 to 9 PM, Social Justice Center, 1202 Williamson, Madison

Snacks provided.

Sponsored by MadWorC and MCDC.


Ed Whitfield visits Madison to help us make sure we’re making a difference

Ed Whitfield speaking in the Mutual Aid Workspace in the Social Justice Center. Photo by Charity Schmidt.

MCDC was very pleased to be among the organizations that collaborated to bring social activist Ed Whitfield to town. Ed has a long history in activism dating back to his participation in the Black Power Movement, and today, he works in non-extractive finance.

Evelyn Wright, also a visitor to Madison, was in the audience and has written about both MCDC and Ed’s talk at the Social Justice Center. His main point was central to MCDC’s mission:

The night’s topic was “Making Sure We Make a Difference.” Ed urged the coop movement to be clear about the sources of inequality and the urgency of redressing it. “We have slipped into language and thinking that miss how we got to where we are,” Ed said, “as if inequality were the result of chance, bad luck, or character defect.” We need to be clear that it came about because of specific historical processes.

“If a community has zero wealth, zero assets, it’s because someone else has them, someone else has taken them. It’s not about the color of your skin. It’s the history. Something happened. People ask me, ‘Ed, when are you going to stop talking about that old stuff?’ When I don’t see the impacts of it all around me anymore.”

Ed also has views that Madison activists need to hear and consider. For example, he’s opposed to universal basic income, because it would reinforce the existing power dynamic in our society, when we need to working to change it. That same reasoning leads to two other perspectives the audience may not have expected:

Photo by Charity Schmidt.

Ed said that he doesn’t favor expressing calls for social justice, for housing or health care, in the language of human rights. “Who would enforce housing as a human right,” he asked. “The UN?” He prefers to talk about human needs, the power to meet those needs, and where that power currently resides.

“When we talk about power imbalances,” he said, “we are talking about access to tools, and the skills to use those tools. Capital is a tool. Markets are tools. Like any tool, they are good for some things, but not others. Potatoes yes, health care and justice, no.” Access to those tools and skills is fundamental to controlling our own labor, and ultimately our lives. That’s why, he says, when he talks about reparations, he doesn’t talk about giving people money. “They’ll just spend it. We need to give people productive capability, so they have the tools to meet their own needs.”

In other words, the most important thing we can do to make a difference is empower people to take care of themselves, not debate who’s going to take care of them.


The Power of Worker Cooperatives in Building a Democratic Economy

Alderperson Rebecca Kemble recently hosted WORT’s A Public Affair show with a panel of guests discussing the power of worker cooperatives. Rebecca has been a cab driver at Union Cab Cooperative for nineteen years and is a fierce promoter of worker co-ops here in Madison, across the country, and abroad, including in her former role as President of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. She now sits on the Common Council and advocates for the City’s initiative to form worker co-ops that address income inequalities and racial disparities, the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition (MCDC). She was joined by Ruth Rohlich of the City’s Office of Business Resources, who oversees that initiative, and Charity Schmidt, Cooperative Developer with MCDC and the UW Center for Cooperatives.

Rebecca was also joined by Georgia Allen, Josezette Bridges, and Geraldine Perry of the newly incorporated home-care agency, Soaring Independent Cooperative. Additionally, Mariela Quesada Centeno of Centro Hispano called in to talk about the Roots 4 Change Cooperative, a co-op of community wellness workers. They shared their inspiring experiences building worker co-ops that serve the needs of their communities and put ownership, control, and decision-making into the hands of workers. Listen here to hear how worker ownership can improve the working lives of these women and their coworkers.

They were joined at the end by Ed Whitfield, who works to help communities build self-reliant economies to meet their needs and elevate their quality of life. Ed is co-founder and co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC). He serves on the board of The Working World (TWW) and the New Economy Coalition (NEC) and chairs the board of Southern Reparations Loan Fund (SRLF)

While Ed was in Madison, hosted by the Havens Wright Center for Social Justice, MCDC, and MadWorC, he dropped by the WORT studio to talk with A Public Affair host Allen Ruff. He stressed the importance of an alternative freedom narrative and provided informative insights from the co-op movement and the world of democratic non-extractive finance. The full interview is here.


Dreaming and Building Freedom — two talks by visiting scholar Ed Whitfield

“Making Sure We Make a Difference”

Tuesday, March 26, Social Justice Center, 1202 Williamson St.

“Three Paths for the Academy in the Freedom Struggle”

Wednesday, March 27, 12 noon, 6191 Helen C. White

ED WHITFIELD is originally from Little Rock, Arkansas and was a long time social justice activist from the Black Student Movement and the Black Power Movement before becoming involved in cooperative development and philanthropy. He now spends most of his time trying to help communities build self-reliant economies to meet their needs and elevate the quality of life. Ed is Co-Founder and Co-Managing Director of the Fund for Democratic Communities.

Presented by the Havens Center, and co-sponsored by the Madison Co-op Development Coalition and MadWorC.


MCDC celebrates its first worker co-op!

Members from Common Good Bookkeeping with technical assistance team.The Madison Cooperative Development Coalition (MCDC) recently celebrated the incorporation of its first co-op, Common Good Bookkeeping! The new worker co-op was recognized at a February event at the Madison Labor Temple. MCDC is a collaborative of co-op developers, unions, and community organizations – including UWCC – implementing the City of Madison’s initiative to strengthen the local worker co-op ecosystem. At the event, MCDC also welcomed Dennis Olson of the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI) and UFCW International, as well as the local UFCW (1473) that Common Good Bookkeeping Cooperative unionized with. Many people from the Madison co-op and labor communities also joined.

This is just the first of many MCDC events – keep an eye on the UWCC website for events to come. Future events will provide education on worker co-ops, the City of Madison’s Co-op Initiative, and will bring our community together to address Madison’s racial and income inequalities through living wage jobs and democratic workplaces.

If you are a service provider, worker-cooperator, or a community organization, we want to work with you! This initiative provides and funds technical assistance to worker co-ops and can connect them to start-up financing. Learn more on UWCC’s website, or write to info@mcdcmadison.org.