A Cooperative Economy: The Time is Now

Authors: Carmen Llanes, Green For All Fellow, Class 4 National news and political debates today are full of reasons why the "mainstream" way of American life is in big trouble. Many people are less interested in the national picture because real solutions seem so few and far between. Where is an inspiring story of victory? As it turns out, little victories are happening now. When it comes to the economy, solutions can come locally, and they don’t always make the news. We can pull ourselves out of this mess, but we have to reach close. We must grab each other at arms length and start supporting our own communities on a business level. There, we may find more solutions than we ever expected. 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. Those still clinging to jobs in corporations and bureaucracies find themselves in smaller staffs, tasks and responsibilities stacked higher up on employees whose compensation hasn’t improved, and neither has their tolerance for top-down management. Why should so much talent go to waste? This is a perfect opportunity for a cooperative economy. There are countless skills among those who are currently unemployed and underemployed and those who have been laid off during this recession. 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's economic landscape is distinct from that of Detroit. But Detroit's lessons are for the world. 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 several worker-owned and democratically run business, among them: But in the last two years, three new organizations and businesses have emerged in Austin, and they are creating a wave of fresh energy and ideas in the movement to shift our economic and environmental landscape. Third Coast Workers for Cooperation

PHOTO: TCWC

Third Coast Workers for Cooperation is an organization helping to develop green, worker-owned business and promote awareness of the cooperative movement. They also assist businesses transition into more democratic management. TCWC offers free and low-cost assistance to emerging worker coops, and promotes existing coops. The 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. Black Star Brewery

PHOTO: Black Star Pub & Brewery

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 assists Third Coast Workers for Cooperation in fundraising and education. Red Rabbit Bakery

PHOTO: Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery

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 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. The women of Red Rabbit received training from Third Coast’s Cooperative Business Institute before completing their business plan. 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 Co-op supports the work of Third Coast Workers fundraising and sponsoring events. And Third Coast, of course, promotes everyone in Austin to support these great businesses. All three organizations strive to make every element of the work green, local, and sustainable. Black Star uses byproducts from their brewery to produce dog biscuits. They are sold at the pub and at farmers markets and stores around town—green and delicious products for people and their pets. Red Rabbit uses all-natural, vegan, locally and organically derived ingredients, and using sustainable, environmentally friendly practices to create delicious donuts now being distributed all around town. Third Coast Workers focuses outreach and education on connecting economic challenges to environmental solutions.
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 bogged down by gloom and distance of national news, we must dare to dream up a new reality at home 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.

Carmen Llanes — Austin, TX

A native Austinite, Carmen Llanes grew up in a very diverse community among neighborhood advocates and community organizers. Her passion for environmental protection and environmental justice (though she didn't know what it was called then) started at the age of 12. She attended the University of Chicago and received a BA in Environmental Studies. Read more »

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