What Happened to Worker Co-op Federalism?

19th century American worker co-ops practiced co-operative federalism – they put portions of their surplus towards creating new co-operatives, and they belonged to federations that participated in creating and managing new co-op firms.

“In 1885, the Solidarity Watch-Case Co-operative, was organized in Brooklyn, New York, by the Knights of Labor (KOL) after a strike against the Brooklyn Watch Company for a shorter work week.  It became a thriving business, growing from eight to a hundred and ten workers, and was the first in the industry to give themselves a paid half-holiday on Saturday.  The members were part of a group called the Solidarity Co-operative Association, run by a committee appointed by KOL District Assembly 49 (Manhattan and Brooklyn).  This umbrella association raised funds to start new cooperatives and participated in their management.”

This breaks the mould of consumer=cooperative federalism and producer cooperation=cooperative individualism, which was believed as absolute truth by many members of the CWS/Co-operative Union movement in the UK, as well as by early CLUSA leaders.

Today, however, I’m struggling to find examples of cooperative federalism amongst producer or worker co-operatives outside the Mondragon system. Everyone I meet doing cooperative development is seeking grant funding, or government funding. And every worker co-op I learn about is a paradigm of cooperative individualism. Some of the only coops I’ve been able to find that are strongly committed to federalism are some of the large student housing co-ops, specifically the investing members of NASCO Development Services.

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