The Union Co-op Experience From a Harvard Business School Intern

Hi All!

I've been getting a lot of questions about what I'm up to this summer, and now that I've been here in Cincy for a few weeks I finally feel qualified to share!

Before I go back to Boston in the fall, I'm volunteering with the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative CUCI, an organization which tries to address the question "How do we create an economy what works for all?" Whatever your worldview, increasing the number of employee-owned businesses in your area is absolutely aligned with your concerns, whether you see the problem as the disappearance of blue collar jobs due to automation and globalization or as increasing inequality due to other structural factors.

One of my most impactful classes at HBS was Rebecca Henderson's "Reimagining Capitalism" class, which was where I first learned about the Mondragon family of cooperatives operating primarily in the Basque region in Spain. The story of how workers in that region were able to band together to create truly innovative cooperative businesses which even today are some of Spain's largest and most successful businesses was truly inspiring. One of the most impressive details to me was how during the 2008 recession, management and labor were able to work together to negotiate an across-the-board pay cut (for both sides), enabling the business to maintain jobs by retraining worker-owners whose positions were eliminated. As a result, unemployment int he region was substantially less than elsewhere.

At CUCI, I've been able to work a bit with both one of the real Mondragon cooperatives in Spain and one of the cooperatives here in CUCI locally (Sustainergy, which provides energy efficiency assessments and home upgrades) and I've also been working on a cool side project. We've been working on a program for converting existing businesses into employee-owned businesses through partnerships between banks, investors, and CUCI. In a nutshell, once a financial deal is in place to purchase a business, CUCI will use its one-of-of-a-kind curriculum for training worker-owners so that after a few years the employees have the knowledge and shared history necessary to take over the day-to-day management of the business.

It might sound like a crazy dream, but through my work with the cooperatives here I've seen the active engagement of the worker-owners in CUCI's early startups and in the employees in Spain and I really believe that this model unlocks something which lets people be more than just employees. I think that this is the closest thing I've seen to something that can get our economy back in line, and bring our divided country back together