Using Employee Ownership to Build a More Equitable Future for Work
Article of Non Profit Quarterly
When the trash collectors of the 1930s (then known as “scavengers”) formed cooperatives to organize their work, they did so to meet an immediate and pressing need for better jobs. Their intervention in the labor market was a crisis response to market gaps. But they also laid out a vision and a set of principles that pointed at a different way to organize economic activity. Cooperatives have always walked this line between practical and visionary.
Market gaps change with the times, but employee ownership is once again being used to fill them. As job creation in our economy concentrates in the service sector, Americans increasingly find themselves working contractor gigs and patching together multiple part-time jobs. They are too often put in the position of organizing their work lives through online platforms and programming their replacements. Even in small business, which employs about half of the entire private sector workforce, job numbers are shrinking and are becoming less stable.
Cooperatives, employee trusts, employee stock ownership plans (“ESOPs”), and other employee-owned business forms are being used as tools for people locked out of good jobs to create jobs that they own. Worker cooperatives in particular, which in the 1960s and 1970s had come to be used as a strategy to exit the mainstream economy, are increasingly being used as a strategy to enter the economy, a major shift from utopianism to equity and inclusion.