Michael Peel

A new Tucson Cooperative Network has formed recently in Southern Arizona and Local First Arizona is a partner in these important efforts to develop more worker cooperatives in the region and throughout Arizona in which workers share in management and ownership. 

Our mission is an Arizona economy that is sustainable, resilient and celebratory of diverse cultures. We focus on a wide range of strategic initiatives that target systems of inequity and build prosperity for all Arizonans. Employee cooperatives fit squarely within our community equity goals. It is our belief that such an economy that we are seeking to build through our programs and collaborations cannot be fully realized if people are excluded from full and fair participation as a result of racism, poverty, discrimination, cultural ignorance, bias or other conditions of exclusion. Employee ownership is key to our mission. 

The economic potential of employee ownership is significant. A recent analysis of worker-owned cooperatives shows that these companies can be a viable and even superior way of doing business. A study through Leeds University Business School synthesized research on “labor-managed firms” in Western Europe, the United States and Latin America, and found that giving workers a direct stake in managing production leads to businesses operating more effectively in addition to the holistic social benefits of worker autonomy. 

The study concludes that “worker cooperatives are more productive than conventional businesses, with staff working ‘better and smarter’ and production organized more efficiently.” One highlight of this analysis is that co-ops generally preserve more jobs and plan longer-term adjustments to the firm’s operations, such as slowing down expansion to maintain current assets. 

According to the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), there are an estimated 300 to 400 U.S. worker cooperatives “employing around 7,000 people and generating over $400 million in annual revenues.” These cooperatives are creating local jobs and reinvesting capital locally rather than being outsourced to corporate chains without local ownership and decision-making. USFWC focuses on incubating new co-ops and promoting policies that foster grassroots worker ownership through advocacy and training programs. 

“We don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t be the way that businesses are preserved as the owner retires, or the way that startups happen,” said Melissa Hoover, executive director of USFWC’s Democracy at Work Institute. 

In addition, USFWC’s Democracy at Work Institute advances the worker cooperative field by bringing on-the-ground experience with cooperative businesses by developing standards and leaders, gathering models and best practices, coordinating existing resources, and advocating for worker cooperatives as a community economic development strategy. The Institute was created to expand worker ownership and reach new communities most directly affected by inequality. 

Technicians for Sustainability (TFS) is an excellent example of a local business setting the best practice standard for the region and the state on employee ownership. They are a leader in solar installation for the past 15 years in Tucson and have committed to shared governance as a priority. TFS became an employee-owned cooperative last year as a natural extension of their work to advance sustainability in the southwest while providing a positive work environment where employees are respected, fulfilled and connecting with customers at a deeper level. TFS has been a certified B Corp since 2014, which meets the rigorous B Lab standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. These certified organizations create value for non-shareholding stakeholders, including their employees, the local community and the environment.

Local First Arizona commits to supporting worker cooperatives here in Southern Arizona by connecting with national groups and their trainings and resources such as the Democracy at Work Institute, researching funding opportunities, and participating in advocacy efforts to advance policies in support of more worker cooperatives forming in Arizona. The expansion of worker cooperatives is one of the most important efforts that we can be supporting to address inequality and inequity issues in the community.  

This is a regular series of columns from Local First Arizona on local sustainable economy issues. Get involved as a member or volunteer of LFA by signing up at www.localfirstaz.com.  Contact Michael Peel, Southern Arizona Director, mike@localfirstaz.com, or at 975-0145.