Going Co-op!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAby Anastasia Wilson

Think capitalism isn’t working? Several Massachusetts businesses agree and are doing something about it.

Real Pickles, Green River Ambrosia, and Katalyst Kombucha are fermenters of all kinds in Western Massachusetts, The Just Crust in Cambridge rises up by baking pizzas, and all of these businesses have transitioned into worker-owned cooperatives within the last few months.

A capitalist firm typically has a hierarchal structure of owners, bosses, and workers, with those on top enjoying a disproportionate ownership stake, and hence a disproportionate claim on the profits – at the expense of those on the bottom. A worker-owned cooperative on the other hand, is an enterprise in which all employees have an ownership stake in the business and decision-rights about the goings on in the firm. There are no bosses to be seen. The four recently-converted Massachusetts businesses have chosen to transition to worker-ownership for a number of reasons: to embody their already existing company values, for efficiency gains, and to resolve labor disputes.

Real Pickles has been fermenting pickles, ‘krauts, and all sorts of tasty bits for 11 years in Greenfield. The company made a name for itself with its sustainability initiatives and quality products. The idea to transition into a worker-owned enterprise was based on that strive for sustainability, for both workers and the community. A local newspaper writes, “The decision to convert to a worker-owned cooperative is aimed at ensuring the long-term preservation of the business’ social mission of supporting local, sustainable food systems and creating meaningful jobs.” Real Pickles will also offer the community a stake, by now providing community shares to non-workers.

For some co-ops, access to finance played a strong role in the decision to convert. Katalyst Kombocha and Green River Ambrosia made their home on Fermentation Row in Greenfield for several years, brewing up tasty libations and fermented tea drinks. As members of the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, the businesses already collaborated heavily with each other, and now have officially combined forces under the Artisan Beverage Cooperative. One incentive to cooperatize was the chance to access to capital through the Cooperative Fund of New England, which supports the development of co-ops in the region. Further, the Small Business Association (SBA) changed their outdated regulations to now allow co-ops to be recognized as small businesses. Official recognition by the SBA gives co-ops like the Artisan Beverage Cooperatives even more access to financing.

The Just Crust rises up out of the crumbs of the former Upper Crust in Cambridge, making a more dramatic story of co-op conversion out of the remnants of a serious labor dispute. Last November, Boston-area pizza chain The Upper Crust closed in bankruptcy after a successful class-action lawsuit compelled the business to pay its workers $341,000 in back wages. Now, the lawyer who won the legal battle, Shannon Liss-Riordin, is helping to construct a new business from the remnants of the Upper Crust. The plan is to reopen the Cambridge location as a partially worker-owned business named, now renamed The Just Crust. While some details are not yet resolved, the story is similar to other co-ops that came about after labor disputes, like Collective Copies in Western Massachusetts.

While each of the new co-ops has its own variant of the cooperative structure (i.e. partial worker-ownership, reliance on community shares, etc.), it’s clear that new financial incentives as well as institutional support from organizations like the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives are having a profound influence in developing new cooperatives. And the co-op movement need not be confined to a particular sector, to small-scale business, or to a particular region. Elsewhere in the world, factory occupations by workers are converting formerly capitalist industrial enterprises into full-fledged worker-owned enterprises, like the Cooper tire factory in Mexico and the Vio.Me building materials manufacturing in Greece. Perhaps this new group of worker-owned enterprises will inspire others to rise up and go co-op.

One comment

  • Thank you for this article, I wrote a piece recently for Truthout that was on the same topic (http://bit.ly/142US1U) and I wish I’d had the info about Just Crust before we published it! It was news to me about the SBA, as well. As a co-owner of a worker co-op in the Valley (and a VAWC member) the number of local conversions recently is very exciting. We’ll be sharing this article on social media today, thanks again!