Worker cooperatives stand with Wisconsin!

Why do worker cooperatives support labor? One simple reason: we are labor. Photo by Gabrielle Fine, as are most of the ones below.

Multiple times in February and March, Union Cabs paraded down State Street to the Capitol Square to enthusiastic cheers from other protesters.

Community Pharmacy supports the workers and unions of Wisconsin. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Gabrielle Fine of Community Pharmacy, who took all the photos except this one and the last one.

Casting a vote every few years for corporate-sponsored candidates is not what democracy looks like. Nor is taking orders from a boss. If you want democracy, go co-op!

Seen here: two representatives of Isthmus Engineering, one from the UW Center on Co-ops, and many union members.

Worker co-ops are businesses, but we oppose corporate control of our society. Is that a contradiction? Not for businesses that are run democratically.

Worker-owners from Community Pharmacy decided that a copy of WorCPlace News makes a good protest poster.

Your humble editor, from the Interpreters’ Co-op, un­char­acteristically takes the mic to tell the crowd that not only should they support co-ops, but they can form worker co-ops them­selves. Photo: Carlos Miranda.

MadWorC steps up its outreach to prospective worker cooperatives

Madison Worker Cooperatives (MadWorC) exists both to support existing worker co-ops and to encourage new ones. We feel like we’re doing a reasonably good job on the first part, and now it’s time to turn our attention to the second part.

With that in mind, an Outreach Committee has formed. It began as a loose network that emerged from a Union Cab Solidarity Committee meeting attended by members of other co-ops. Over the next couple of weeks, volunteers met to sketch out out a direction for the committee. At the following MadWorC meeting, its charter was accepted, and its work began in earnest.

As its first and most visible activity, the Outreach Committee has had a table at the last several Farmers Markets on the Capitol Square. We talk to the public, hand out buttons and fliers about worker cooperativism, and gratefully accept donations of any size. We plan to continue this indefinitely.

The Committee is also actively pursuing any leads on people who want to form a worker co-op. We’ve heard from three nascent projects already, and are very interested in finding more. As we come across them, we will guide them to our Development Committee, which is so new it hasn’t even been fully formed yet. That’s the Outreach Committee’s next activity.

The general public can follow our discussions on our website, However, only committee members can actually participate in the discussion. Our face-to-face meetings are being organized on an ad hoc basis at this point — usually via the website. New folks are welcome to attend, but please be respectful of our meeting agenda.

If you’re someone who has a serious interest in forming a worker cooperative, and you meet the requirements listed to the right, contact committee member Steve Herrick at The Outreach Committee is here for your benefit, so don’t be shy about talking to us.

What does it take to start a worker co-op?

There are many steps to getting a worker co-op up and running. MadWorC, especially its Out­reach and Development Committees, can help you with most of them. What you need is three things:

  • An understanding that a worker co-op is a small business. You need to be strongly committed to the product or service you plan to provide.
  • An understanding that worker co-ops are profoundly democratic. Worker-owners do not give or take orders. We vote.
  • Four other people who understand these points.

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.

Worker cooperatives stand in solidarity with labor

We who are members of worker cooperatives take the “worker” part very seriously. We identify strongly with the labor movement, whether we are actually union members or not. Both unions and worker cooperatives exist to empower the people on the shop floor. Unions do this by providing workers with a counter­weight against the financial might of the owning class and its proxies, the managing class. Worker co-ops have done away with the owning class entirely by transfering ownership, and all decision-making power, to the workers.

Union Cab, the Interpreters’ Cooperative, MadWorC itself, and the US Federation of Worker Co-ops all published statements (prior to the passage of SB 11) supporting labor’s right to defend its dignity, and to bargain collectively specifically. These statements can easily be found on the organizations’ respective websites.

Upcoming national (and international) events

Hello from the USFWC, your national worker cooperative federation!

There are several exciting things afoot right now at the national and international level in worker cooperative organizing.

2012: Year of the Cooperative

2012 is the UN International Year of Coopera­tives! The United Nations announcement notes that “cooperatives impact poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration… In general, they contribute to socio-economic development.” The National Cooperative Business Association worked hard to press for this recognition, and we applaud their efforts. USFWC is participating in planning awareness-raising for the year, including cooperative tours and educational materials. To get involved with this planning, contact Melissa at or (415) 379-9201. Find the full text of the U.N. resolution here:

First-ever CICOPA North American Worker Co-op Conference in Quebec in October

The first-ever North American Worker Coopera­tive Conference will be held, in two parts, in Quebec City, in October of 2011. This event launches the North American sub-region of the international worker co-operative federation, known by its acronym, CICOPA; and in our region as CICOPA-Americas. The Canadian Worker Co-op Federation is the main organizer; the US Federation of Worker Co-ops and le Réseau de la Coopération du Travail are co-organizers with the participation of the Quebec Forestry Co-op Federation. Leadership from the Italian and Spanish worker co-op movements will be in attendance, to inspire and guide attendees, along with CICOPA international leadership, and cooperative leaders from Latin America. The first part of the conference will focus on conversions of conventional businesses to cooperatives, and the second part will be a more general cooperative conference.

Worker Cooperative Federal Credit Union

The Worker Cooperative Federal Credit Union project is moving forward! Despite a nearly year-long review process partly due to the financial crisis and partly due to the field of membership complications regarding democratic institutions, the first step in the chartering process is now complete. The field of membership (the common bond for people to be members of the credit union) was approved by NCUA; it includes the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), Networks of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC), and North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). To top it off, the approval includes individual members of member cooperatives of each association! This was a huge success, as the credit union is not required to include each individual member cooperative (as a business) in the field of membership in order to allow individual members of those co-ops to join the credit union. It would have been at least an additional year of work to get over a hundred cooperatives to agree to join the credit union and provide the necessary documentation. The inclusion of individual co-op members was highly uncertain, and resulted in extensive dialogue with the National Credit Union Administration about democracy and representation. Thanks to everyone who has contributed thus far in making this happen. Your generous support, time, and effort is greatly appreciated. A special thanks to those involved with regional and national organizing efforts which made this possible in the first place.

Worker Cooperative Representation on the NCBA Board

Congratulations to USFWC Board Member Esteban Kelly of Mariposa Food Cooperative in Philadelphia, who has been appointed to the NCBA Board. His appointment comes via his relationship with NASCO (North American Students of Cooperation), the student housing cooperative organization. Esteban joins Erbin Crowell, formerly of Equal Exchange, as a strong worker-cooperative advocate on the NCBA Board.

Co-op Spotlight: Nature’s Bakery

Nature’s Bakery Cooperative is located in the historic Wil-Mar neighborhood on the near east side of Madison. It has been organized as a worker’s collective since it was founded in 1970. Even now, we remain a beacon of both the food movement and alternative business models in Madison.

At the bakery, we use organic whole grains, because we are committed to providing our customers with healthy, nutritious baked goods at a reasonable price. The grains we use contain no harmful pesticides or herbicides and none of the bleaches or chemical additives that are in many conventional grains. For sweeteners, we use pure honey, barley malt, real maple syrup, and blackstrap molasses – all natural, unprocessed, and in full possession of their nutritive benefits. All of our products are vegetarian- or vegan-friendly, and are made on site, by hand. The bakery’s staple products are sliced bread loaves, Vegetarian and Tofu-Walnut burgers, and our granolas. We also make Essene bread, made of 100% organic sprouted wheat berries, four varieties of cookies, and a spinach- and cheese-filled calzone.

Meg, the Personnel Manager, and Becca, the Production Manager. All photos by Nature’s Bakery.

As celebrated our 40th anni­ver­sary last year, it has been exciting to look back at our own history. In September, 1970, three women rented 1101 Williamson Street (presently Mother Fools) and founded Nature’s Own Bakery. The women began baking in a large oven donated by Edgewood College and Whole Earth, the bakery’s in-home predecessor, and the bakery became certified thanks in part to donations from the Sunflower Kitchen and Mifflin Street Co-op. The business changed to a partner­ship in 1974, and in 1975 was incorporated as Nature’s Bakery, Ltd. The bakery’s current facility at 1019 Williamson Street was purchased about this time.  In 1978, Nature’s Bakery took part in the first collective bakery conference, held in Ann Arbor, MI. In the early 1980s, Nature’s was re-incorporated in its present form as a workers’ cooper­ative.  The 1990s saw Nature’s up­dating equipment and our space at 1019 Williamson Street, and plan­ning for the bakery’s long-term economic health.

Nate, the author, and Marketing Coodinator of Nature’s Bakery.

Presently, Nature’s is managed by seven full-time member-owners, each of whom is responsible for one area of business management. We operate on a consensus model, meaning no major decisions are made without the approval of every full-time member. Each of us also spends the majority of our week in the production facility, baking and mixing, and cleaning and packaging, using the remainder of the week to do work in our management area. We also deliver our own products. We believe that Nature’s is more sustainable than a traditional top-down business model because we collaborate on big projects, and are able to collectively work for the betterment of the bakery, ourselves, and our customers at once.

The front door of Nature’s Bakery, at 1019 Williamson Street.

Nature’s Bakery Cooperative is proud to be celebrating its 40th year in business, and we look forward to serving the Williamson Street, greater Madison and Midwest communities for many years to come.  As Madison’s local, organic whole grain bakery, we continue to lovingly serve and provide our customers and communities with affordable, nutritious baked goods.