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The Basics of Worker Cooperatives

Cooperatives are business entities that operate on the principle of democratic worker control. But what exactly does this mean?

Democratic worker control puts into practice the idea that every contributing member of a business should have a voice in the decision-making process. Worker-owners, as they are often called, meet in regularly scheduled assemblies where business decisions are made based on the principle of one worker-one vote. This same democratic model is also used to elect worker-owners to the various positions of management in the cooperative. All well and good you might say, but the question is: does it really work?

The answer is a resounding YES. Cooperative assemblies have proven time and time again to be an effective forum for making strategic business decisions and resolving internal problems before they have the chance to fester. This democratic working climate is aided by, and in turn encourages, a sense of pride, equality, and responsibility that together constitute an intrinsic part of the cooperative experience. The result is a business where every voice is heard and all workers are valued and, what's more, truly value themselves and the work they do.

And perhaps most importantly, these warm and fuzzy descriptions of democratic worker control add up to more than just a feel-good story: they appear in the bottom lines of the businesses they define. Despite their historic lack of access to capital (a problem we here at The Working World:La Base are working to overcome), comprehensive studies consistently show cooperatives measuring up to, and sometimes even surpassing, traditional businesses in terms of internal efficiency and overall profit margin1.

This is the experience we have lived, serving the cooperative community here in Argentina. And it has been the experience of cooperatives around the world: from the many lumberyards of the United States´ Pacific Northwest to the vast network of small coops in Northern Italy, and of the nearly 12,000 compañeros of the Mondragón worker federation in Spain. For all of us, and for many more around the world, democratically-run worker cooperatives represent a sustainable, equitable, and successful business model for the world today and for a better world tomorrow.

To find out more about democratically-controlled worker cooperatives:

Or to learn more about the broader international cooperative movement:

1To check the facts out for yourself, see: Vanek (1977) on working collectives; Bonin and Putterman (1987) for an extensive survey; Dreze (1989, p. 25) for a general-equilibrium analysis; or Schweikart (1996, Chapter 3) on comparative economic efficiencies.

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