Worker Cooperatives

Phil Kenkel
Bill Fitzwater Cooperative Chair
Oklahoma State University

 

Worker cooperatives, or employee-owned cooperatives, are relatively rare in the United States, making up around 1 percent of all cooperatives. This form of cooperative is more common in Europe and Canada. In the United States, most worker cooperatives are located in urban areas and operate in retail operations.

To become a member, the employee/owner must make an initial investment, which is sometime financed through payroll deduction. In some cases, the investment is substantial. Isthmus Engineering, a worker cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin, requires a $10,000 investment, which must be financed by the member.

Profits are allocated on the basis of patronage, which may be calculated as hours worked, earnings or a combination. Governance is usually on a one-member, one-vote basis. Small worker cooperatives typically operate with all of the employee/members serving as a board of directors. Larger firms have a board and management structure similar to that of agricultural cooperatives. Some worker cooperatives do not allow the CEO to be a member because they believe that management is a separate role.

Worker cooperatives are formed as start-up businesses and as conversion of existing firms. Some firms have converted to a worker cooperative when they were unable to acquire traditional financing. Another common rationale for conversion is when a long-time owner/manager decides to retire and transition away from the business.

Data on employee well being at worker cooperatives relative to other comparable firms is scarce. The evidence seems to suggest that employee/members enjoy higher job satisfaction and job security, and perceive more access to training and development. On the other hand, they face additional risks because their earnings are linked to the cooperative’s profitability.

Employee-owned cooperatives are another interesting example of the cooperative model and could be a vehicle for business development in rural areas.