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A Cooperative Economy: The Time Is Now

Carmen Llanes

I am impressed by the amount of knowledge in our communities. There are countless skills among those who are currently unemployed and underemployed and those who have been laid off during this recession.

In more and more businesses, the tasks and responsibilities are being piled up on smaller staffs and overworked employees, many of whom find themselves increasingly fed up with top-down management that doesn't appreciate them.

In fact, much of our recession can be attributed to the lack of input from workers and small businesses. Our economy has been at the mercy of too few hands over the last several decades. Now many folks are using whatever skill they have to get by in a world with fewer local jobs and many, many underemployed people.

Why should so much talent go to waste?

This is a perfect time for a cooperative economy. Considering the disproportionate struggles faced by women and people of color during a recession, the cooperative economy presents an opportunity for all people, to leverage more power by making themselves the bosses, sharing ownership, and taking a collective approach to good management. Many people have already been let down by a top-down corporate or non-profit model in a recession-ridden society. Now is the time to rebuild the system, and build a society founded on justice, dignity, and respect for people and the planet.

Finding Opportunity in Crisis: Inspiration From the Road Ahead

I was really inspired by the power of community in supporting local economies through a recession when I first visited Detroit in 2008 and again in 2010 for the US Social Forum. There is much more than a depressed economy in Detroit. There are pockets of vibrant community. There is food growing. There are queer-owned, women-owned, cooperatively run businesses getting together. And while there may be great stretches of empty blocks, between them, there are farmers markets, and neighbors who talk to each other. There are older communities and advocates working alongside young and aspiring activists and entrepreneurs. This is what I think of when I hear Detroiters refer to "opportunity in crisis."

Austin is doing far better, financially at least, than Detroit. But when it comes to competition in a cutthroat time of depressed profit and wages, women, immigrants, and people of color are getting the raw end of the deal left and right. Many in the city feel underemployment, under appreciation or both.

In this sense we are primed for an alternative. And the good news is, while any big, social or economic grassroots movement is a "marathon", so to speak, we are witnessing big change over the last couple of years.

Austin has already birthed more than one worker-owned cooperative business in recent years. Black Star Co-Op Pub & Brewery opened doors in the summer of 2010, with a large banner outside that reads "Community-Owned Beer." A consumer cooperative (owned by the community it serves) and also a worker-coop (run by its employees), Black Star is attracting a full house of business seven days a week. And the byproducts their brewery produces? They make great dog biscuits! Sold at the pub and at farmers markets and stores around town—green and delicious products for people and their pets.

Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery has launched this year and is making donuts with local and organic ingredients. Their donuts also happen to be vegan, but the target audience includes meat and dairy eaters, since anyone can enjoy a good donut. The founding women of Red Rabbit used to work at a major grocery store chain bakery. They decided to take their skill set elsewhere, and make decisions collectively, so as to be truly appreciated as workers and owners. They started using all-natural, vegan, locally and organically derived ingredients, and using sustainable, environmentally friendly practices to create delicious donuts now being distributed all around town. Their demand is growing, and they are in the process of opening their own storefront, a green, worker-owned bakeshop.

One of the most beautiful things about building the movement for worker-owned businesses is that cooperatives, on principle, work to support each other. While Red Rabbit started small, with donuts, they are expanding to breads and other goods, and now sell sandwich loaves to Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery as the Pub's menu expands. Black Star also collaborates with Third Coast Workers for Cooperation, an organization helping to develop green, worker-owned business and educating the community about the cooperative movement. Black Star helps the organization out in fundraising initiatives, so that TCWC can continue to offer free and low-cost assistance to emerging worker coops. All three organizations strive to make every element of the work green, local, and sustainable. And economically, a local support system offers more sustainability than the disconnected, global, corporate alternative. Much like the cradle-to-cradle ideology protects our natural resources, keeping our money in a cyclical change of hands that stays in our community and promotes justice and sustainability, is the way we will change the world, one town at a time.

The most exciting thing about discussing this work right now, is that more folks are realizing that this model can apply to their situations. Again, skilled people, underemployed, who know these businesses, are the perfect candidates to get together and organize their collective skills into local, economic power. It could be a valet company, a restaurant, a bike rental business, a car body shop, a construction team, insulation team, house-cleaning cooperative. The possibilities are endless, and in a town like Austin where the service industry employs a huge sector of our population, the possibilities stand to be lucrative.

Without getting too carried away, we must dare to dream up a new reality. Reviewing the disappointments of national news can only get us so far, but if we can immerse ourselves into transforming local business, then we can address movement building from a much more inclusive and meaningful place. When our communities are empowered by belonging to a movement that they see is growing with success, then we will be even more ready to plunge into the national dialogue. But this time, we will be empowered by our own local successes.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Carmen Llanes

Carmen Llanes is a Green For All Fellow Candidate.

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