Co-ops in the Time of COVID-19
The “shell of the old” is rotten, but can co-ops endure to prefigure a socialist world together?
I have a dream job. At least, for me it is. I sleep in most mornings and walk dogs all day. Sometimes we struggle in the rain, trying to keep dry and calm as we rush from house to house. Sometimes we spend a temperate afternoon in a quiet park, sniffing around the grass or sitting with our eyes closed sharing the pleasure of the sun.
As a co-owner of Brighter Days, a worker co-op in DC, I don’t have a boss. I have coworkers whom I care about and who care about me. We don’t make much money, but we keep all of it (that is, until tax season). We divide tasks and resources “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” to borrow a phrase Marx used. We make decisions by consensus.
It’s not how I thought I’d make my living, but after working in various corporate settings, I felt fried from overwork and constant surveillance. Deciding to join the co-op was not merely an escape from soul-crushing work environments. It continues to be a way to prefigure a world in which I own my labor and am part of a collective that cares about me as a person—rather than my productive capacity as “human capital.” Picking up poop all day is one price I gladly pay for that freedom and connection.
But with the current pandemic halting our work and making our future uncertain, I wonder if the groundwork co-ops continue to lay for a socialist economy—through collectively owning the means of production, exercising self-determination and autonomy, and creating community—is enough to prevent our livelihoods from falling through the fault lines of the failed capitalist state.
What “Owning the Means” Means Right Now
When you own the means, it’s a bit easier to keep your job in a downturn. Unlike in capitalist workplaces, where layoffs might allow the C-suite and shareholders to pay off debts or even get paid themselves, the top priority of co-ops when times are tough is to secure a paycheck for everyone. Eliminating the employee-employer relationship empowers workers to decide how to achieve that goal. I asked Cinar Akcin, co-founder of Democracy At Work DC and co-host of the podcast All Things Co-op, how he thinks this aspect of worker ownership plays out in times of crisis.
“[Co-ops] tend to be much more resilient models than typical corporate and capitalist organizations,” he said, noting that research from as far back as 2009 has confirmed this. “When they’re doing well, they can share the benefit among the worker-owners. In hard times, we see that worker co-ops equitably share the burden.”
By no means do worker co-ops follow one blueprint. Our businesses might choose to adopt hierarchies or embrace a horizontal structure. Some co-ops might have buy-in structures for potential owners, managerial tiers, and boards with elected representatives to make decisions for the collective, while others (like my own) might operate via the ideas of mutual aid and consensus decision-making.
Whatever their approach to empowering members, all worker co-ops value democratic member control, at least according to the Rochdale Principles for the operation of cooperatives. In the best of times, we think about how we distribute power and resources a great deal, and that commitment to solidarity during a pandemic can buoy the collective boat.
“Instead of seeing mass layoffs, the owners will work together to find solutions,” Cinar said.
“It’s not great, obviously, but they might take voluntary pay cuts so no one loses their jobs, or [they might] find new markets to expand into.”
Construction co-op Appalachian Field Services (AFS, one of several portfolio companies owned by the “cooperative conglomerate corporation” Obran), has seized chances to make money in new ways. When outdoor dining resumed in the DC area, building picnic tables and adirondack chairs for restaurants was one solution to the co-op’s then-trickling income stream.
“We feel more powerful because we have a larger team,” AFS member Brian Aleshire told me. “I’m new to the co-op idea, and I was skeptical when I first found out about it, and now we’re starting to reap the benefits of having a larger team to brainstorm and help us out.”
At Brighter Days, where our pay is usually split equally among the 10 of us, instituting a sliding pay scale is one way we’ve stretched funds while we limit our services due to COVID-19. Our wages still aren’t livable, but the new scale pads paychecks a bit for the more than half of us who had an unemployment claim delayed or denied.
At Earth-Bound Building in southern Maryland, business has “plummeted” during the pandemic, according to Lead Builder, Designer and Worker-Owner Blain Snipstal. Going from a 5-day workweek to a 3-day workweek in order to care for their children has cost Earth-Bound’s builders income as well as time to grow their business. But it has also given them space to focus on a fundraising campaign to buy essential equipment that will enable them to make more money in the future.
“There was a bunch of money flowing around in this political moment, and we’ve seen an opportunity for us to sort of step into a space and be supported in doing so,” Blain said.
The ability to limit our services was also critical for our collective well-being at Brighter Days, as some of us have health concerns or live with folks who are at-risk. Maintaining this kind of autonomy and advocating for our health is only possible because we are business owners — service workers toiling at capitalist workplaces may not be so lucky.
Collectivism: a Lifeline to Co-ops in Crisis
To socialists, it’s obvious that our survival depends on cooperation. But living under a prevalent neoliberal ideology can make one question whether sticking together in societal collapse—despite conditioning that tells us to fend for ourselves—really is the answer. For myself and other co-op members, the pandemic clarifies how interdependence can be the best survival strategy when times are most precarious and we need the greatest care.
At throneless tech, a three-person worker co-op in DC, burnout during COVID-19 is a real risk. Because throneless specializes in tech development for nonprofits and activist-led organizations, their workload has ballooned as the pandemic, the impending election, and the uprisings against police brutality have brought in new projects and accelerated timelines for others.
“We pretty much check in every day and see how we’re all doing, what things we have the capacity to work on, if anyone needs to take some time or take a less intense sort of day. Just being present and there for each other,” member Josh King told me. “It helps to have that as kind of a support network.” Checking in and sharing the workload has also allowed throneless’ members to step away from work to do mutual aid in their communities, Josh said.
At Brighter Days, being able to check in with coworkers once a week about our personal relationships, financial stressors, mental health, passion projects, pets, and whatever else helps us connect and offer each other support—from covering part of a pet-sitting job to picking up someone’s prescriptions. The pandemic has also foregrounded a desire to connect with the community at large for some co-op members.
“COVID has been an adjustment for many reasons, but it has also been a really bright spot for us because it has given us more time to think beyond the nature of slinging a hammer and think more critically about our role to society and our relationship to power,” Blain from Earth-Bound told me.
Prior to the pandemic, Earth-Bound already had strong community roots. Members teach sustainable agriculture and spearhead “solidarity brigades”—two- or three-week periods where they help communities build needed structures in exchange for “love and community and food and shelter,” Blain explained. Now, with Earth-Bound’s fundraising campaign underway, the co-op will be able to finance more solidarity brigades, as well as raise funds for land on which to host more workshops.
Working together to be autonomous and self-reliant is something co-op members value. When COVID-19 cases first spiked in DC, and Brighter Days agreed to stop walks, we knew we would have to figure out a way to make money without dipping too much into our rainy-day funds. We started to investigate different options for federal and local small business aid when Beloved Community Incubator (BCI), a nonprofit that supports co-ops, emailed us and asked how they could help. They offered to help us fundraise, connect us with technical support, answer questions about grant applications and the unemployment process, and start conversations about strengthening the co-op ecosystem in DC. And we weren’t the only co-op they connected with.
“BCI is—I would do anything for them,” said Blain. “It is literally because of them that we are even doing a capital campaign. They have been a tremendous space of support.”
Through a fundraiser in April, BCI raised money for Brighter Days, two other DC co-ops, and street vendors, which eased some of our financial stress when we knew very little about how the crisis would impact us. At a time when some folks were still hoarding essentials like toilet paper, seeing the community (including throneless tech) contribute to the fund also gave us hope in cooperation.
When We Can’t Trust the State, We Must Trust Ourselves
Although groups like BCI and the DC Cooperative Stakeholders Group are helping DC co-ops right now, the government, which wields the most power and has the most resources, is failing to care for workers.
The lack of PPE, an antiquated and seemingly booby-trapped unemployment application process, and the brutality of reopening businesses despite the health risks, betray an overall lack of care for workers—especially service workers, health care workers, and grocery workers. Small businesses (co-op and capitalist) have struggled to access governmental support initiatives, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which are supposedly designed specifically to help them during the pandemic.
Certain quirks of co-op businesses can also exclude us from qualifying for this aid. For example, throneless qualified for very little money through the PPP, explained Josh, because of their LLC structure and because they are taxed as an S corp and do not pay payroll taxes. With help from BCI and from a former co-op member who fixed errors in our bookkeeping, Brighter Days got around $4,000 from a DC micro-grant program; but the funds for federal aid programs were dry before we even finished reading the application instructions. Blain noted that Earth-Bound had a similar experience with applying for federal aid.
These issues confirm a lack of consideration for co-ops on the part of the government. But even when we’re not enduring a pandemic, Cinar said that co-ops need municipal power to provide technical support, advocate for policy that’s pro co-op, and help fledgling co-ops secure capital.
“That’s something that’s really missing here in DC,” he said. “[Employee ownership support] never really took off as a fixture like in Madison, Philly, and Vermont, where you have stand-alone centers that have supporting employee ownership as its mandate and provide all the wrap-around services that co-ops require.”
It’s unclear if we could ever truly depend on the current government—even at a local level—to advocate for worker ownership. The state is beholden to capitalists and presided over by capitalists. How can we expect it to champion business models that challenge the capitalist status quo by putting power in the very capable hands of the workers themselves?
“Co-ops are at a massive disadvantage because a lot of policies and laws are geared toward those entities and those that dominate the marketplace,” Cinar said. “Unfortunately you’ll probably see a bit more of that consolidation of the economy, but that doesn’t mean that work co-ops as an idea and their viability won’t emerge.”
According to the U.S.Federation of Worker Co-ops, the number of co-op businesses in the U.S. shot from 350 to about 600 in the decade following the Great Recession of 2008. Cinar said he envisions a similar boom could occur in the aftermath of this pandemic, as more workers look for ways to exit an economy that continues to fail them.
“The system as it stands right now in the wake of COVID shows how rotten it is to its core,” he said. “It doesn’t provide for the needs of working people.”
One of the myths that allows capitalism to endure is the notion that workers somehow need to be managed, controlled, overseen by a boss—a visionary who will take us all to Mars or “disrupt” their industry if we workers will only comply with their vision. As DSA members, we understand this to be a lie. The capitalist owner of the means of production is not a visionary. The capitalist is a thief who oppresses their workers in order to keep pace with other capitalists in a cutthroat market.
However, popularizing worker co-ops may show the unconverted how truly unnecessary capitalists are. Once workers have steered the ship, they know that they are capable. Once going to work means being your own boss, taking home all the money you bring in, and forging social relations with coworkers that feel mutual and compassionate, it’s hard to imagine returning to the meat grinder of traditional, capitalistic employment. Even more encouragingly, working cooperatively can show that the workplace is not the only area of our society that needs to be democratized.
This is not to say that worker co-ops are a panacea for the ills of capitalist society. Collective work can be rife with conflict because it’s hard to be interdependent and generous with coworkers when capitalism deprives you of your individual material needs. Accessing resources and funds as a start-up co-op in a capitalist economy is also incredibly challenging, and in some cases, too challenging to be viable. But organizing toward the goal of sustainable worker ownership starts with talking to comrades. If you’re interested in co-ops, join or start a co-op working group with your DSA chapter. Reach out to co-op businesses and ask for advice. If you work at a small business (and feel safe doing so), talk to your coworkers about how and when to push for a co-op conversion. Read as much about co-ops as you can (the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops has a reading list).
Here in DC, BCI and the co-ops I chatted with are enthusiastic about forming a local alliance of co-ops in the future, in which we could share ideas, support, and chip in for needed services like bookkeeping and tax preparation. Forming these kinds of federations could encourage more workers to start co-op businesses by reassuring them that they will have a network of support. The future is not predictable, but if we come out of this current crisis of capitalism with our lives and livelihoods intact, it will be because we worked together.