In a Violent Economy, People of Faith Try Cooperatives | Sojourners

In a Violent Economy, People of Faith Try Cooperatives

A customer picks up a bag of free pastries from the worker-owned Arizmendi bakery in the morning. in San Francisco, Calif., March 17, 2020. Arizmendi, a worker-owned cooperative, is named after Fr. José María Arizmendiarrieta, the father of modern cooperatives. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Cooperatives are all around us. You may recognize the names of these cooperatives: Land O’Lakes butter, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Blue Diamond Growers, and REI.

Cooperatives, according to the International Cooperative Alliance, are businesses that are democratically run by the owners – one person, one vote. There are no majority owners. There are no outside shareholders. There are no hostile takeovers.

And many people of faith are turning to cooperatives as an alternative to the dehumanizing economics of capitalism.

“I’ve realized that the current state of economics is violence, since it violates human dignity,” said Dani Bodette, senior coordinator of Catholic Campaign for Human Development in Chicago. “But cooperatives are a form of nonviolence — they’re a nonviolent economics.”

Cooperative principles

In 1995, the International Cooperative Alliance adopted the current seven principles that guide cooperatives: voluntary and open membership, democratic governance, member participation in the cooperative’s capital, autonomy, education, cooperation among cooperatives, and communal concern.

Some cooperatives, like Land O’Lakes or Ocean Spray, are cooperatives of farmers who band together to sell a product. Some, like REI, are consumer-owned cooperatives, where people can pay $30 for a lifetime membership fee, receive discounts on products, and vote for the company’s board of directors.

A growing number of cooperatives are worker-owned, meaning the laborers own the company collectively, rather than a single owner, a family or outside shareholders controlling the company.

There are over 600 worker-owned cooperatives in the United States, with nearly 6,000 workers, according to a 2021 report by the Democracy at Work Institute and the US Federation of Worker-Owned cooperatives. The number of cooperatives has grown by over 30 percent in the past three years, according to Fifty by Fifty, a cooperative advocacy organization.

Co-ops’ internal structure push them toward the equity that is lacking in U.S. businesses. Worker-owned cooperatives on average have a top-to-bottom pay ratio of 2:1, according to the Democracy at Work report. Meanwhile, the average CEO in a non-cooperative business in the U.S. makes 351 times what a typical worker makes, according to the report. And the report found that, unlike shareholder-owned businesses, worker-owned cooperatives prioritized retaining workers during the pandemic, even as revenues dropped.

In contrast to the nature of the United States’ capitalist economic system, cooperatives put capital in the hands of the workers, consumers, and community, rather than owners who compete. And many faith communities are supporting this alternative economy. Bodette, who runs the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s programs for the Archdiocese of Chicago, attended a talk at St. Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood about the Chicago Market, a consumer-owned grocery co-op opening around the corner from the church next December.

At the meeting, the roughly 20 participants learned about the food co-op, the history of cooperatives, and Catholicism’s role in fostering cooperative principles. It was on trend with a focus on cooperatives in the broader Catholic church. Pope Francis has championed cooperatives and alternative economies.

In the appeal at the beginning of his Economy of Francesco initiative, Pope Francis called on young people, “to set in place a new economic model, the fruit of a culture of communion based on fraternity and equality.”

Like Pope Francis, Dan Arnett, Chicago Market’s general manager, told Sojourners that he finds inspiration in cooperatives because they honor the human dignity of the worker. And they promote a new kind of economic life.

Instead of an exploitative economy, based on maximizing profits for a small number of owners by extracting as much labor and giving as little as possible to the worker in return, cooperatives show the practicality and sustainability of giving a worker ownership of their labor.

Cooperatives demonstrate the financial wisdom of a reciprocal economy: the wisdom of sharing, giving, and building together. And faith groups see the pastoral and spiritual necessity of organizing a more humane economy.

Faith-based partnerships

Christian and interfaith communities across the country are turning to cooperatives in order to apply the fundamental beliefs of their faith to economic life. Many are seeing a theological mandate in Christian scripture to build what Southeast Center for Cooperative Development calls the “solidarity economy.”

“We have the need to collaborate with others, not compete, and find win-win solutions,” said Benny Overton, co-executive director of the Southeast Center for Cooperative Development, a nonprofit dedicated to building a cooperative economy in the Southeastern United States.

Benny Overton, a longtime union worker and former union president said the center sprung out of the work of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, an interdenominational coalition of churches and labor nonprofits. In 2015, the coalition hosted a conference on cooperative economics and how a solidarity economy could reverse rising wealth inequality in the region.

“We have seen gentrification uproot families and cultures,” said Overton. “Those with money and power get the land. And the speculative market has placed housing out of the reach of most people.”

Over 150 community members attended the conference in 2015. Overton and his co-founder Rosemarie Rieger saw this interest as a mandate to do more. “We decided that we needed to create the Southeast Center for Cooperative Development to support people who have been left out of the economy,” Rieger said in an email.

The Southeast Center for Cooperative Development offers education opportunities about cooperative principles and Bible studies about cooperatives for church communities. The center serves as a cooperative incubator, offering microfinancing loans for cooperatives in their region. They also work with local churches to help turn unused church buildings into affordable housing co-ops.

“Churches have a renewed sense of mission post-COVID, and they’re looking for ways to use their land to make a difference,” Overton said.

The history of faith and co-ops

Marjorie Kelly is a senior fellow at The Democracy Collaborative, a research institute for a more sustainable and equitable society. Kelly sees investing in cooperatives as a powerful means to transform capitalism into something less rapid and more productive. She said faith groups have been integral to the ideas of co-ops.

“Faith-based organizations were the players who started the idea of socially responsible investing,” Kelly told Sojourners. Religious organizations, especially of women, still carry on the tradition in investing in a sustainable economy and in employee-owned companies, Kelly said.

One of the most famous of these worker-owned cooperatives, Mondragón, was founded in 1956 by Fr. Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, a Catholic priest from Basque, Spain. Known as “Arizmendi,” the priest founded a school for workers who were denied jobs at a local factory and formed a trade school to launch their own business. Now, Mondragón is the largest cooperative of worker-owned cooperatives in the world, with 95 cooperatives, roughly 80,000 workers, and, in 2021, 12 billion Euro ($12.7 billion) in sales.

Future work

Earlier this year, Vanderbilt’s Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice began partnering with Southeast Center for Cooperative Development to host “solidarity circles.” Their inaugural five-month program in the spring of 2022 featured two Zoom communities, each community comprised of 10 faith leaders and organizers.

Now, during 2022-2023 academic year, there are three solidarity circles, each comprised of a dozen faith communities and community organizers who meet once a month. Faith communities share project ideas to promote the solidarity economy in their community. A Lutheran pastor in Memphis, for example, started a childcare cooperative for parishioners and their neighbors.

The members of the solidarity circles read literature on cooperatives and the solidarity economy, listen to lectures from cooperative experts, and get training in community organizing. But Aaron Stauffer, who coordinates the solidarity circle program for Wendland-Cook, said that building relationships is by far and away the most important thing they do.

“People are over-resourced but under-connected, especially when it comes to critiques of capitalism in the church,” Stauffer told Sojourners.

Even when pastors can see the economy is not set up for working people to succeed, they may not know who to talk to or how to build something different, he said. But relationships, to Stauffer, create a space to gather, organize, and begin something new. Relationships provide hope, he said. Stauffer described the work of the solidarity circles as a "tilling of the ground”

“We build relationships of solidarity and support that build a collective vision for how we can be together. And that imagination takes time,” he said.

Rev. Larissa Romero, interim pastor of Presbyterian Downtown Church in Nashville, and current solidarity circle participant, said she is participating to “keep up with our [economic] reality.”

“All of our lives have been touched by the ravages of capitalism,” she told Sojourners. “And with the climate crisis looming, we can see the way capitalism hurts communities already on the margins — the communities I’m serving.”

Romero said that the solidarity circle has been a way to meet with likeminded pastors and organizers, learn community-organizing tactics, and provide hope for creating “the kingdom of God on earth.”

Joerg Rieger, the director of the Wendland-Cook program at Vanderbilt, sees democratic workplaces and worker-owned cooperatives as deeply in tune with how God created humanity. To Rieger, cooperatives show the imago dei in each person.

“We talk about people being created in God’s image,” he told Sojourners, and he finds human agency and creativity reveals the image of a creative God in the human person.

“For me, imago dei has a lot to do with how we think about God as a creator and humans as co-creators,” he said. And the cooperative economy is the economic life that best reveals that creative image — “How we work together and how, together, we shape the world.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 3 to clarify that 12 billion Euro is equivalent to $12.7 billion.

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