From Brooklyn to Brattleboro, I just drove four and a half hours to go from co-op to co-op.
In Brooklyn, it’s the Park Slope Food Co-op—one of the nation’s, and the world’s, largest. A history-making experiment in pooling resources and worker hours to access high quality food at affordable prices. Now the place has more workers than it can use and produces more revenue per square foot than the fancy grocery store Whole Foods. That’s not my research; it was conducted by Forbes.
Here in Vermont, the Putney Food Co-op is another bustling place where members work their shifts, purchase in bulk, and enjoy low member prices, making decisions together. Even non-members can enjoy extraordinarily low prices on local blueberries, bulk teas, and just about everything and anything made out of maple syrup.
Co-operatives, as they say, are a thing. This May, I visited the Toad Lane co-operative in Rochdale, the founders of the modern worker co-operative movement. There, workers in textile mills and fields were pulled in and out of work during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, and, in the 1840s, got together and started their own business. Initially, as purchasers in a co-op, they bought from farmers they knew and sold to families in need. No credit, no debt. They were wise to the perils of the loan shark. They also made decisions together, and that came in handy. One member, one vote.
By the time the civil war in the US broke out, the Rochdale Pioneers were in a quandary. Like all of the textile producers in Lancashire, they depended on raw cotton from America’s South. While most of the aristocracy was rooting for the slave states and attempting to break the blockade imposed by the North, Rochdale’s Pioneers, in loud fiery meetings, decided at last that they shared more with the slaves than the slave owners, and they stood by the North. Instead of closing their mill and laying people off for lack of cotton, they just reorganized and kept the place open for just a few shifts each week and kept all the workers employed.
There’s more to that story too, more significantly, what happened after. Today, the co-operative stores that pepper most British shopping streets trace their origins back to Rochdale. Across the world, a billion people—one-seventh of the population—are either users or members of some sort of co-op, and the Labour Party, which stands an odds-on chance of forming the next national government in the UK, includes support for co-ops in its platform, or manifesto.
When I talked to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn this spring, he said that if Labour were in office and somebody decided to asset-strip their business to make a profit, shut down, and move out, they’d say, “Hang on, you can’t do that. You’ve got to offer it to the workers that have run it first.” Worker-owned co-ops are part of Labour’s larger plan to put national investment into locally-determined development through spending locally, owning locally, and making local decisions. Sounds socialist? Strange? Foreign? Think again. Socialism like this is as here and now and close as your closest co-op.