Members attend Jackson Rising conference to learn more about worker co-ops

Jackson Rising brought together 500 people, including Central KY chapter member Ginger Watkins and myself, in Jackson, MS. The conference gave us the opportunity for discussion and information sharing between national and regional authorities on cooperatives, cooperative owners, and others interested in exploring how cooperatives can be part of building a better economy with a better way of doing business. Presenters included US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, Southern Cooperative Association, Southern Grassroots Economics Project, Cincinnati Union-Coop Initiative, Mondragon, USA, Green Workers Cooperatives, and US Solidarity Economy Network. Participants from across the nation were introduced to the basics of forming agreements for making cooperatives work, state policy obstacles to cooperatives, ideas for seeking initial funding for cooperatives from cooperative banks and foundations as an alternative to national banks that often deny funding for cooperatives, and other details about how day-to-day cooperative business is conducted.

The conference presented cooperatives as a bottom-up way to organize business and land ownership that is an alternative to the top-down models we currently live with. Cooperative workers work for themselves since they share ownership. Cooperative ownership means democratic management of land and businesses. If the manager is not performing well, cooperative members can vote for a replacement. Increases or decreases in hours are shared by cooperative members on terms they set. Everyone has an equal share of the business, but owners cooperatively set worker pay allowing cooperative workers to make different wages. Though cooperatives seem exotic because there are relatively few examples in the US, the model is viable and representatives of successful cooperatives were eager to explain how and why it works. Cooperative entrepreneurs take great pride in their business, probably because it is their business.

The conference was hosted by Cooperate Jackson. The group is a coalition of social justice organizations operating in the Jackson area formed with the intent to build a strong association of cooperatives. The group’s strategy calls for setting up a four part infrastructure made up of a federation of cooperatives emerging in the Jackson economy, a cooperative incubator, a cooperative school and training center, and a cooperative credit union and bank. Unfortunately, the group was hosting the conference in the shadow of the untimely death of a newly elected mayor, Chokwe Lulumba, who ran on a social justice platform that promised to bring contracts to minority owned local businesses, and to conduct economic development in the city by supporting cooperatives as a way to keep money in the local economy and fairly distribute gains across a wide spectrum of the Jackson population. When Mayor Lulumba died eight months after being elected, his son ran promising to continue his father’s policies. After a very close election, however, the city elected a mayor with a more conservative agenda, and official city politics are now back to business as usual. Not to be deterred, Cooperative Jackson plans to use the conference to begin implementing plans for a more just economy.

For a great resource about cooperatives, check out Think Outside the Boss: How to Create a Worker-Owned Business.

Ryan Fenwick is a member of the Jefferson County Chapter