Co-op Spotlight: Ithsmus Engineering and Manufacturing

Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing was found­ed as a partnership in 1980, and has always been located in the city of Madison. Our organiza­tion became a worker cooperative in 1983 after searching for a better structure and seizing on the model of the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain.

The origin of the name “Isthmus” was similar to many other companies in Madison, and was derived from our first location between lakes Monona and Mendota. Through the years, we have called several locations home in Madison, including leasing space on East Washington Avenue, and then owning a building on Progress Road. In 2005, we moved into our current 60,000 square-foot facility, which is located on the southeast side of Madison on Owl Creek Drive.

We are an organization of 50 people, and our membership includes engineers, electricians, machinists, mechanics, and administrative personnel. We are 100% owned, operated, and democratically managed by our workers, with each member having one vote. Our structure differs significantly from many other worker co-ops in that all of our members sit on the Board of Directors instead of having a small elected Board.

Workers at Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing hard at work on something or other. Photo by IEM.

Our worker cooperative serves the manufacturing sector of the economy. This differentiates us from most other worker co-ops in the U.S., but makes us similar to many located across Europe. We design and build automated equipment that is used by our customers to make everything from toothbrushes and water filters to solar panels and automobiles.

Throughout the years, the worker coopera­tive model has served us well. Using this structure began as an experiment, and to this day, it continues to evolve and change. We will never say that it has been easy — at times it is a testament to our perseverance — but it would be difficult for any of us to work under a different structure.

Starting in 2009, we made an aggressive effort to pursue work in the alternative energy market. That effort paid dividends in 2010, when we received several orders to build equipment for the solar electric market. We continue to search for work in this industry and we hope that our country will maintain an effort to reduce carbon emissions and stop using fossil fuels.

We are active participants in MadWorC (Madison Worker Cooperatives), the USFWC (US Federation of Worker Cooperatives), and the NCBA (National Cooperative Business Administration). We hope to learn from, and help strengthen, other organizations that have taken on the worker-cooperative model.

Our business today is strong, and we are optimistic about the upcoming year.

We invite you to learn more about us.

The staff of Isthmus Engineering and Manufaturing. Photo by IEM.

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