By Malcom Burnley.
We’re in the midst of something of a national renaissance of worker cooperatives. They’re being established in droves since the Great Recession, and cities are increasingly catching on to their potential as a way to combat poverty and inequality. New York City, Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas, have all made moves to provide technical assistance or monetary incentives for nascent cooperatives.
Yet, until recently, Oakland — the de facto U.S. capital of worker co-ops — had not stepped up to bat. The city has the highest concentration of such organizations in the country, and a slew of nonprofits devoted to them are headquartered in the Bay Area. But on September 8th, the City Council made good with a ceremonious resolution “supporting the development of worker cooperatives in Oakland.”
Among other items, the move recognized that these sorts of businesses — estimated to number between 300 and 400 nationally — offer wages and benefits above industry averages. The resolution, too, was a tacit acknowledgement from Council that the city will look for ways to support co-ops down the road, especially given Oakland’s unenviable reputation for extreme income inequality. (Brookings ranked Oakland as having the seventh-most unequal income distribution out of the nation’s 50 largest metros in 2014, although that improved slightly this year.)
What that municipal support might look like is to be determined. But in a draft ordinance authored by the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), one of the organizing forces behind the referendum, the wish list for worker co-ops includes: getting the city to offer low-interest loans for converting traditional businesses into worker co-ops; preferential status to co-ops in the city contract procurement process; and waiving taxes and permit fees in the initial year of existence.