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To jumpstart US job market, turn workers into owners

Many Americans build wealth through their home. Why not through work?

By Melissa Hoover and Beadsie Woo / January 11, 2010

San Francisco and Baltimore

Seldom do the United Steelworkers, the United Nations, and film director Michael Moore express the same idea at the same time. But all have, in their own way, promoted the benefits of cooperative businesses in recent months.

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The Steelworkers Union, North America’s largest industrial union, has signed an agreement with a 100,000-member European co-op to help workers here gain an ownership stake in their workplace.

Just last month, the UN declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. It’s urging governments worldwide to collaborate with the co-op movement to reduce poverty and create more productive societies.

And Michael Moore sent a valentine to the co-op movement in his latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” As a form of economic democracy, he said in an interview, co-ops are “the patriotic thing to do.”

In hard times like these, the co-op model makes sense. After all, public confidence in corporations, banks, and the larger financial system is at low ebb, while unemployment is at its highest level in 25 years. Homeownership, historically a reliable way to build equity, has been rocked by foreclosures. People are looking for other ways to do business and save money.

Turning workers into investors isn’t new. We’re all familiar with dot-com employees whose vested stock options turned them into overnight millionaires. And Employee Stock Ownership Plans have long allowed workers to invest in their companies. But worker-owned co-ops are unique because employees own 100 percent of the business, so they have a voice in how it’s run.

Many people think of co-ops as the hippie-dippy grocery store that sells organic goods. In fact, a 2009 study by the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives found more than 29,000 cooperatives in the US, which make $500 billion in annual revenue, support 853,000 people, and pay $25 billion in wages and benefits. They include national firms such as credit unions, and local businesses such as the Alvarado Street Bakery in Petaluma, Calif., or the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in Cleveland. [ Editors note: the original version of this essay misstated the number of workers supported by cooperatives.]

Cleaning ladies in the San Francisco area and home-care workers in New York have banded to pool resources as worker-owners of profitable enterprises. White-collar workers are getting involved, too: One of the most successful cooperatives is Isthmus Engineering, a Wisconsin firm where engineers bought the company from its owner.