A union co-op is a hybrid business with elements of both the democratic worker ownership of a single cooperative business and solidarity among workers everywhere. As in a worker cooperative, worker-owners in a union co-op own and democratically govern their business according to the principle of one worker, one vote. As in a unionized business, union co-op worker-owners are members of a union and elect a union committee to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement on their behalf. The union also promotes and instills solidarity between workers in different businesses, industries and countries.

The Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI) is a nonprofit union co-op incubator founded in 2009. We believe that bringing these two elements together is a powerful tool to generate family-sustaining jobs that are the foundation of an economy that works for all. This primer offers a brief overview of the union co-op model, our story, CUCI union co-op initiatives, and resources to learn more.

Origins of the Union Co-op Model

Unions and cooperatives have a long history of working together in the United States. The most active period of union-led cooperative development was after the Civil War when unions like the Knights of Labor embraced cooperatives as a strategy to empower workers. According to historian Steve Leikin, the Knights of Labor represented over 750,000 members and 185-200 worker, consumer, and producer cooperatives at their peak in 1886. More recently, unions in the U.S. have looked to Mondragon for inspiration and innovative strategies to empower their members through democratic worker ownership.

Mondragon is a federated network of 120 worker cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain that employs over 70,000 worker-owners in family-sustaining jobs. All Mondragon cooperatives espouse values of self-help, responsibility, democracy, equity, and solidarity as well as the ten Mondragon principles. In the 1950s, Mondragon began to encourage worker cooperatives with more than 50 worker-owners to create social councils that help address worker-management issues that arise on a day-to-day basis.

In 2009, Mondragon and the United Steelworkers (USW), the largest industrial union in North America, came together to announce a collaboration agreement. In 2012, USW, Mondragon, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC) hosted a “Worker Ownership for the 99%” press conference to introduce their jointly crafted template for the development of union co-ops in the U.S. The USW-Mondragon union co-op template replaces Mondragon’s social council with a union committee that is empowered to engage in collective bargaining. The idea is that the union committee both improves working conditions for all employees and helps improve communication within the business when a union co-op grows in size. The union also draws workers into mutual assistance and understanding of worker's struggles around the world.

The Union Co-op Template

“Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model” By Rob Witherell, Chris Cooper and Michael Peck (2012)

“Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model” By Rob Witherell, Chris Cooper and Michael Peck (2012)

As in all cooperatives, bylaws serve as the key operating agreement of a union co-op. The City University of New York (CUNY) Law School’s Community Economic Development Clinic partnered with Mondragon in 2013 to provide legal support for union co-ops, including the development of a model set of bylaws. Bylaws define mission and values, allocation of shares, rights and responsibilities of members, and organizational structure.

The USW-Mondragon template recommends that large union co-ops establish four primary bodies: the general assembly, the board of directors, management, and the union committee. No worker-owner can serve simultaneously on the board, management, and union committee, although an individual may serve multiple roles in consecutive terms.

  • The general assembly is the primary oversight body of the cooperative. It meets annually and all members have an equal voice according to the principle of one member, one vote.
  • The board of directors is the primary governance body responsible for the strategic objectives of the cooperative. The union co-op template recommends a representational structure in which worker-owners elect directors at large from the membership to serve four-year terms.
  • The primary operations body is management, which the board appoints to serve four-year terms. Managers with the direct power to hire and fire (e.g. CEO or CFO) are not represented by the collective bargaining agreement.

The union committee, a parallel body to Mondragon’s social council, is the primary communications infrastructure between workers and management. The membership elects union committee members on a representational basis (by worker category). These representatives are responsible for negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with management and facilitating communication between worker-owners and management about issues that arise on a day-to-day basis.

Our Story

CUCI Founders (Kristen Barker, Ellen Vera and Flequer Vera) visiting Armin Isasti and Isabel Uribe, workers of Saiolan, Mondragon's co-op incubator, during one of their early visits to Mondragon, Spain. 

CUCI Founders (Kristen Barker, Ellen Vera and Flequer Vera) visiting Armin Isasti and Isabel Uribe, workers of Saiolan, Mondragon's co-op incubator, during one of their early visits to Mondragon, Spain. 

CUCI is rooted in local relationships with Mondragon dating back to the 1980s, when a Cincinnati nonprofit called the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) began sending delegations of local civic leaders to the Basque region of Spain. The trip inspired future CUCI board member Jerry Monahan, union leader of the Greater Cincinnati Building and Construction Trades Council to share the idea of creating worker cooperatives in Cincinnati with colleagues at the AFL-CIO Labor Council – including future CUCI co-founder Phil Amadon.

Phil devoted much of his 32-year career as a railroad mechanic to the labor movement. When he read media reports about the 2009 USW-Mondragon partnership agreement announcement, he decided to convene a study group of local organizers to explore the idea of creating unionized worker cooperatives in Cincinnati. Kristen Barker of the IJPC, Ellen Vera of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 75, and Flequer Vera of Amos, began to meet regularly with Phil in early 2010. After months of studying the Mondragon principles, the Knights of Labor vision for a cooperative commonwealth, and the Evergreen model in Cleveland, a consensus emerged that union co-ops could help address the decline of family-sustaining union jobs in Cincinnati. Phil, Kristen, Ellen and Flequer founded CUCI in late 2010 and began to reach out to potential partners including the OEOC, Evergreen, USW, Building and Construction Trades Council, UFCW, and Mondragon.

CUCI founders hosted our first public event in February 2011, attracting 80 to 90 community members. Out of this group a steering committee was formed that began to meet biweekly to explore the idea of developing union co-ops in Cincinnati. In April 2011, CUCI sent eight delegates to an OEOC workshop where we met Michael Peck, Mondragon’s North American Delegate who had collaborated with Rob Witherell of USW to orchestrate the Mondragon-USW partnership agreement. In the following months, CUCI engaged Michael, the OEOC, and The Ohio State University Ohio Cooperative Development Center (OCDC) in discussions about potential union co-op business ideas.

The OCDC agreed to conduct a feasibility study for a food hub in October 2011. Weeks later, CUCI filed nonprofit incorporation papers and established a fourteen-member board of directors. The board replaced the steering committee and formed working groups to identify next steps, establish key relationships, and fundraise for feasibility studies. CUCI received a $22,000 zero-interest loan from USW in December 2011 to hire the OEOC to conduct a market analysis for a railcar wheel manufacturing union co-op in partnership with Danobat, a Mondragon cooperative. CUCI also provided input on the union co-op template in preparation for the March 2012 press conference.

CUCI launched our first union co-op, Our Harvest food hub, in April 2012. In June we received a $15,000 grant and $10,000 from UFCW to fund a market study with the OCDC. Since mid 2012 we have continued to incubate Our Harvest, fundraise for new union co-op feasibility and market studies, build relationships with labor leaders, and engage the Cincinnati civic community in our efforts.

In early 2013, UFCW agreed to subsidize the development of Our Harvest by allowing Ellen to work full-time as CEO during the start-up’s incubation stage. A CUCI delegation visited Mondragon in the summer of 2013 and Mondragon hired Kristen shortly thereafter to lead the development of the Mondragon USA union co-op federation. CUCI launched our second union co-op, Sustainergy energy retrofitting, in November 2013. In July 2014 we received the unfortunate news that Danobat decided not to move forward with establishing a railcar wheel manufacturing union co-op in Cincinnati. CUCI recently added staff to explore how cooperative models can lift up the childcared sector in Cincinnati. We plan to launch Apple Street Market, a multi-stakeholder union co-op grocery, in 2019. CUCI currently works with dozens of partners, a thirteen-member board of directors, hundreds of volunteers, and five union co-op businesses in various phases of development.

Our Union Co-op Family

Several worker cooperatives in the U.S. were unionized before the USW-Mondragon collaboration agreement and do not explicitly follow the USW-Mondragon union co-op template. For instance, Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx is by far the largest worker cooperative in the U.S. with 1,100 worker-owners who voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199 in 2003. The SEIU provides crucial help to CHCA when they lobby New York state authorities on home care issues. The Union Co-ops Council of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives features case studies of several others on its website (http://unioncoops.org).

An exciting new generation of union co-op development initiatives has also launched in the wake of the 2009 USW-Mondragon collaboration agreement and explicitly taken up the template CUCI follows in its development efforts. To date, union co-op development is underway in multiple U.S. cities including Cincinnati, OH; Dayton, OH; New York, NY; Denver, CO; Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; Madison, WI and St. Louis, MO, as well as the state of Maine. CUCI Executive Director Kristen Barker also works as an organizer at Mondragon USA, which supports the development of these union co-op initiatives across the country. Mondragon USA has also launched a foundation arm called 1worker1vote.org.

Learn More

This primer was adapted from research by Laura Hanson Schlachter, a PhD student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Sociology, lhanson4@wisc.edu.

  • References and recommended reading include:
    “Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model” by Rob Witherell, Chris Cooper, and Michael Peck (2012). A white paper introducing the USW-Mondragon union co-op template.
  • The Practical Utopians by Steve Leikin (2005). An informative history of cooperative development in the Knights of Labor.
  • Making Mondragon by William & Kathleen Whyte (1991). An in-depth study of the Mondragon federation of worker cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.
  •  “Improving the Quality of Home Health Aide Jobs: A Collaboration between Organized Labor and a Worker Cooperative” by Daphne Berry and Stu Schneider (2011). A chapter in Employee Ownership and Shared Capitalism: New Directions in Research (ed. E. J. Carberry) that examines the role of SEIU 1199 in Cooperative Home Care Associates.
  • Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Nembhard Gordon (2014). A fascinating study of the role cooperatives can play in creating jobs for marginalized groups.

For general questions, contact Kristen Barker, Executive Director, kristen@cincinnatiunioncoop.org