Worker Co-ops: Solving Societal Problems

Historical black and white photo of Allende supporters in Santiago, Chile

Five years ago Equal Exchange started our Citizen-Consumer work to invite our supporters more deeply into our model, to build a community that is working toward a better food system, and to further develop our democratic brand. As organizers, when we think about who represents this community we have been building, someone who makes us proud to do this work, we think about Sue. She is not only one of the founding members but she hit the ground running from the start. She has been a meaningful participant in every campaign, event, and discussion and has gone above and beyond what we even imagined when we sent out that first letter inviting people to join this initiative. She is an incredibly strong woman and there is no one stopping her when she has her mind set on something. This is just one of the many stories that Sue could tell you about her life as an activist and how her heart came to be touched by the work of Equal Exchange.

It’s 1972 and I am living in Santiago, Chile. I am one of a small group of people from the United States (Estadosunidenses translates as United Statesians) who are here to witness and support the government of President Salvador Allende. We are a tiny contingent of 12 in an endless parade of supporters. Allende stands on the steps of the library and, like an automaton, waves his hand to and fro as thousands march before him over the course of hours. Occasionally, he sees someone he knows and points to them with a smile, then resumes his metronome-like wave.

Before us is the contingent from Ex-Yarur. This area of Chile is known for its four fabric manufacturers. Yarur, named after its owner, was one of those four. The Allende government paid Yarur for his factory and gave it to the workers, as they had done for many farms, factories, banks, and mines throughout the country in their short 2 years in office. The government sent an “interventor” to the factory, a person whose job it was to teach the workers how to manage their factory. Their parade contingent was thousands strong, including the workers of Ex-Yarur.

People were singing and chanting “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” (the people united will never be defeated, which rhymes in its original Spanish).

Then, we toured the entire country, 3,000 miles north to south from the Atacama Desert to the Straits of Magellan, 400 miles from the Chilean sliver of Antarctica. There, we visited a sheep farm, bought from its owner. As guests, we dined in the center of a very long table with all 100 worker-owners who shared the work and the bounty and were so proud of their farm.

Back in Santiago, we visited the Banco Central, bought from its owners, and visited the 5th floor where worker-owners’ children played during the day and lunched with their parents. On the 2nd floor, we saw the infant nursery where parents could spend time with their babies and mothers breastfed their children, with dispensation to leave their station at any time their babies were awake.

We attended a meeting with hundreds of workers and government interventors where workers asked questions and worked to resolve issues transparently and collaboratively. We saw the pride and the empowerment workers experienced. That was my first introduction to worker-owned cooperatives.

Though Allende was only allowed to live for another year, due to a U.S.-backed military coup, his coalition of several political parties managed to uplift the workers of the nation for the 3 years of his tenure.

Fast forward 45 years and I attend a Summit of Equal Exchange, a worker-owned coop that sources goods from worker-owned farms throughout the third world and the United States. Engaging in authentic fair trade, Equal Exchange pays a higher price for goods to ensure the workers are paid appropriately for their farmwork. Then Equal Exchange sells the goods to consumers without going through major corporations in an attempt to democratize the growing of our food. The goal is to support worker-owned coops and small family farms to grow organic, healthy food and bring it to us in a way that supports workers throughout the world.

Equal Exchange has a three-pronged vision: supporting worker-owned and farmer-owned farms, supporting organic food, and supporting authentic fair trade.

A worker-owned cooperative is owned by the people who work there. Rather than focusing on profit, Equal Exchange focuses on transparency, equality in voting, free speech, and equitable distribution of income. Managers and entry-level employees own an identical share and receive an equal share of any profits or losses.

Learning from the Equal Exchange model, we converted our copyediting business into a worker-owned cooperative in 2019,  with all 6 editors making the same salary per hour of work and all having an equal voice in the management of the business.

Across my lifetime, I have learned that worker coops are the best economic model for a society and that organic, fairly traded food is the best model for people and the planet.

Photo of the author, Sue, and her cat, Sacco
Sue and Sacco

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