People with their bicycles in the city

The power of building community roots

What cooperatives can teach us in times of turmoil

The “care package,” that quintessential symbol of concern for others, didn’t start out as a goodie box for homesick college kids. As parts of Europe lay in rubble following World War II, the Cooperative Development Fund rallied cooperatives, along with government and relief agencies, to tackle the complex logistics of feeding some 60 million war-displaced Europeans.
In May 1946, a ship carrying the first fruits of the coalition’s labors docked in Le Havre, France: a shipment of 15,000 boxes—the first of many—filled with canned meats and vegetables, coffee, margarine and sweets. On each one was stenciled the acronym CARE, after the coalition that united for the cause, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (later renamed the Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere).
“Co-ops thrive in bad times,” says Melissa Hoover, executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute, an advocacy group for worker-owned co-ops. “We thrive when gaps in the system exist, when systems can't sustain humans or communities. Rural electric co-ops were born because no one was wiring rural America. Food co-ops were born because people couldn't get access to healthy food. Ag co-ops were born because there was no system for centralizing and distributing these products.”
And, yes, when a continent was struggling after a global war, co-ops were there.
The story underscores the role of care in cooperatives—for member’s voices and livelihoods, for the broader community, for the future. It also prompts a question: What promise can the cooperative model offer in today’s times of division and economic instability?

Societal challenges, cooperative solutions

The modern co-op movement goes back 175 years to Rochdale, England. As automation came to the cotton industry, many weavers and spinners found themselves unemployed and impoverished, and what food they could find was expensive and often of low quality. Intent on maximizing their meager buying power, a group of textile workers pooled their resources to open a store in 1844 to sell food staples to members, whose investment bought them both access and a share in any profits. Known as the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, they created seven principles—tenets from “voluntary and open membership” to “democratic member control”—to guide their work.
These principles also guide the work of all co-ops operating today—more than three million worldwide, serving 12% of humanity. Today, co-ops operate in nearly every sector, from appliance manufacturing to daycares, credit unions to rural electric cooperatives, retail stores to agricultural multinationals. More than 95% of them are, like the Rochdale Pioneers, buying co-ops, but there are many other types: worker-owned, producer, purchasing or shared services, and multi-stakeholder co-ops.
Since taking hold during the Industrial Revolution, interest in co-ops has trended upward during times of hardship. During Reconstruction, Black Americans formed buying, labor, and farmer cooperatives in response to a dearth of decent jobs and active racism that excluded them from many professional guilds. Farmers banded together to save on feed or, in the case of the Land O’Lakes, Inc. cooperative, to improve quality, marketing and profitability of butter. Grocery co-ops saw a resurgence in the countercultural 1960s and 1970s to provide affordable access to safer natural foods. And startups of immigrant- and BIPOC-owned co-ops spiked during the years of the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic.

Co-ops in times of adversity

The seed for what became Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing was also planted during a time of upheaval. A co-op since 1983, Isthmus counts among its founders a pair of engineers who came of age professionally in Vietnam War–era Madison, Wisconsin, an epicenter of antiwar sentiment at the time. Realizing they no longer wanted to work with military contractors, they set out to create a democratic, values-driven company.
Today, Isthmus employs 80 people, half of whom have paid around $25,000 to be worker-owners. Its annual revenue of $30 million comes from designing high-tech equipment—machines that make everything from medical equipment to automotive parts to product packaging. As its owners’ manual states, “the members of Isthmus are in business with each other, not just working for the same company.”
This kind of all-together ethos has helped Isthmus find the stability to ride out economic downturns, says Ole Olson, controls engineer and an Isthmus co-owner. To address the impacts of the Great Recession, its worker-owners decided that instead of downsizing, it’d share the pain of lost business and implement rolling layoffs for owners and employees alike.
“Some of our competitors were owned by foreign companies and weren't willing to take a loss, even for a year, so as soon as they saw loss coming they closed their businesses down,” he says. “We didn’t, so we not only stayed in business, but we were ready to go when the economy started to turn around in 2011—and we took a lot of their customers.”
The co-op structure also positioned Isthmus to care for its community during the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Because it makes equipment to manufacture swabs and other medical testing tools, Isthmus stayed open. After ensuring its workers’ safety, Isthmus’s board met to discuss its owners’ desire to pitch in and immediately established a committee to lead its COVID efforts—and named it P7, after co-op principle seven, Concern for Community.
First, they identified the desire to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the time. Olson’s son, a critical care nurse, reported that medical staff had to wear the same N95 mask two or three weeks at a time, so Isthmus set out to design, fabricate, and distribute a dozen custom-made mask sanitizers that use UV rays to zap the virus.
Next, they converted the company cafeteria—unused due to the pandemic concerns—into a clean room to make face shields, which they distributed to local clinics and home health care cooperatives nationwide—some 5,000 shields in all. (Workers who didn’t have enough work were paid at their regular rate to make PPE.)
And they joined the efforts of the Million Mask Movement, designing a 3D-printed part, open-sourced and made available online for others to use, that would help insert filtration media into masks more quickly: Instead of taking three or four minutes to assemble one mask, the device got the work done in three or four seconds.
Olson says the co-op structure was vital in these efforts: A worker-owner suggested a COVID response, fellow owners concurred, and a commitment of time, energy, and money was made. And having a 40-owner board already well-versed in consensus-based decision-making meant they had the nimbleness to respond quickly—apparently a key distinction from more traditionally structured businesses.
“We reached out to some bigger companies to invite them to help,” Olson recalls. “Many of them said, ‘It’s great what you're doing, but we don't know who to talk to or how long it will take to get approval for financing.’”

Benefits to workers and communities

The Hub, a Minneapolis worker-owned bike co-op, is located two doors down from the precinct at the center of the uprising over the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. The unrest impacted the entire block, with many businesses damaged (including the Hub) and others burned to the ground. “Our first focus was on how do we resume operating in a way that is sensitive and relevant to what our community needs,” says mechanic and Hub worker-owner Henry Slocum, who notes that bike shops were deemed essential during the pandemic due to their role in providing transportation.
But while the Hub has been deeply involved in the immediate aftermath of the uprising—it’s part of Longfellow Rising, an organization spearheading neighborhood rebuilding efforts, and it partnered with Bikes & Bites, a pedal-powered donation network helping families displaced by the uprising—it sees its role as a co-op as pivotal to the long-term health of the neighborhood as well.
“We’ve been on the same block at 27th and Minnehaha since we were founded,” says Slocum, who notes that this year, the Hub turns 20. He and 11 other owners want the Hub to continue to be an anchor for the block, an owner-occupied entity that can help attract new businesses or support old ones as they rebuild.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he says. “In 2002, we structured as a worker cooperative and wrote some pretty robust bylaws to protect that cooperative status into the future. We want this to be a cooperative—governed by the same values and principles—and we want it to be that way forever.”
That kind of long view is a badge of honor for many co-ops. “The average company doesn't make it to 100 years—and we’re in our 102nd year,” says Pete Kappelman, vice president of Government Relations and Members services at Land O’Lakes. “And I think a big part of that is that democratic member control. It doesn't allow you to stray too far from the vision, and it keeps you close to your roots and your purpose.”

It also keeps you close to your community and your workers. Olson began his engineering career at a firm in nearby Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The company changed ownership three times over his eight years there, he says, and each time the resulting sale was followed by a 10% workforce cut. “I didn't want to be just a number,” he recalls, so he applied at Isthmus, where he’s stayed for three decades. In that time, he’s witnessed changes to the local business landscape, noting that several times established companies—some 50 or 60 years old—pulled up roots and left Madison to cut costs. “You never have to worry about worker co-ops leaving the area to search for cheaper labor.”
That’s baked into the cooperative structure. “The first benefit is to a co-op’s stakeholders, to their owners and the alignment of benefit actually determines so much about the actions,” says Hoover. “The money is not flowing out of the business to a distant owner; it’s staying with owners who live in the community. And that influences how you act. You’re not going to dump waste in your own backyard.”
And that commitment to place, long-term, is what co-ops are all about. “The worker-owned co-op is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” says the Hub’s Slocum, “but it has demonstrated that it has the power to build roots and stability and economic vitality in communities. That’s what we’re here for.”