Originally published September, 2014 by the Shepherd Express.
Cities all over the U.S. are beginning to take the cooperative business structure seriously. Cooperatives are owned and controlled by the people who use them, and they can provide housing, jobs, education, food, banking, energy, and more. The most familiar iterations of the co-op model are credit unions and cooperative grocery stores like the Riverwest Co-op and Outpost. Cities like Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Madison are forming cooperative business associations to raise the profile and the impact of local cooperatives. Jackson, Mississippi, the capitol of the poorest state in the Union, is looking to cooperatives to produce lasting wealth and economic equality.
Municipal support of employee and community ownership is the key to success. In New York City, strong municipal support and a $1.2 million grant has led to worker-owned enterprises and massive educational outreach. In Cleveland, an inspiring collaboration between universities, hospitals and nonprofits through a project called Evergreen has created three worker-owned cooperatives, including the country’s largest urban greenhouse.
The people of Austin, Texas are pressuring the city council to reallocate some of the funds from global business recruitment toward starting up cooperative ventures and marketing the cooperative business model. It’s a sound investment. In the grocery industry alone, for every $1 million in sales, co-ops create 9.3 jobs, compared with conventional businesses who produce only 5.8. 18% more employees are full time, and 12% more employees receive benefits. According to the Center for Democratic Workplaces, cooperatives outlast their traditionally structured counterparts by a rate of 20%. And besides being successful in the long term, they don’t outsource or leave the cities in which they operate. Why would they? They’re owned and controlled by the very people who work and shop there every day. In case after case, community- and worker-owned cooperatives have proven more economically sustainable for jobs growth and anchoring community wealth. A cooperative economy is a strong and stable local economy.
Over the past decade, the Riverwest neighborhood has incubated a handful of small but exemplary cooperatives. People’s Books (804 E. Center St.) converted from a sole proprietorship to a consumer-owned cooperative in 2007. In addition to selling books, it is home to an after-school program for neighborhood kids. The Riverwest Co-op & Cafe (801 E. Clarke St.) sells groceries and hot vegan and vegetarian meals and also has a volunteer team numbering over 100, including low-income teens and former prisoners who gain valuable skills running a grocery with annual revenues in the millions. The Riverwest Public House (815 E. Locust St.) is a tavern but it’s also at the front of some of the most exciting movements in Milwaukee. The solar group purchasing programs that Mayor Barrett recently announced the expansion of began there in 2013, out of the Public House’s popular “Night School” series. Milwaukee River Advocates Cooperative is perhaps the only cooperatively-run advocacy group in the U.S. Right now the first cooperatively structured homeless drop-in center is being organized by the Step By Step Collective at the intersection of Holton and Center.
Milwaukee is doing a fair job at developing co-ops on a small scale, like the ones listed above, but it still lags behind other U.S. cities. We have both theresources, human power and the economic impetus to do so much more. The purchasing power of anchor institutions like Froedert and Columbia St. Mary’s could foster the foundation and growth of dozens of local worker-owned businesses. The same goes for the local colleges and universities, not to mention their capacity to educate students on the co-op structure.
Milwaukee could take a lesson from Jackson, Mississippi’sbook. We have seen massive disinvestment over the past handful of decades. The unemployment rate for black males hovers around 50%. Yet we still keep courting businesses like Wal-Mart, Palermo’s, McDonald’s and Dollar General instead of investing in resources that could make real lasting change for the local economy and the people who work here every day.
Milwaukee needs jobs. But not just any old job will do: we need meaningful work, and we need to enjoy the benefits and responsibilities of ownership. The city could start modestly with a city resolution to support cooperatives worker and community ownership with investment, education and outreach. The result will be improved communities, improved workforces, and a thriving, truly local economy.