Cooperative Enterprises: An Economic Solution for Michigan?

Alma students are producing educational materials about worker-owned cooperatives. They recently presented their project at an international research conference in Croatia.

Five Alma College students and their professor are working to promote cooperative enterprises in distressed communities — alternative business models that might be a key to solving the economic crisis in Michigan.

“Many people don’t know that cooperative enterprises are an option,” says Ed Lorenz, a professor of history and political science and the director of Alma’s Public Affairs Institute.

What is a worker-owned cooperative? It’s a business in which there is no outside owner; instead, people band together to run it.

“The people who work at the business own the business,” says Lorenz.

Presenting in Croatia were, from left: Tracy Oberle, Lauren Engels, Michelle Jerezano, Aleia McKessy and Will Donahue.Presenting in Croatia were, from left: Tracy Oberle, Lauren Engels, Michelle Jerezano, Aleia McKessy and Will Donahue.

The Alma group is producing educational materials about worker-owned cooperatives that professors can use in their classrooms. The students presented their project at the International Co-operative Alliance Research Conference in Croatia on June 26. They spent two weeks in Europe, where they met with various co-op organizations. The trip was funded by a grant from the Regional Economic Innovation (REI) Center at Michigan State University.

On July 16 at 2 p.m., the Alma students will present a webinar hosted by the REI on “Promotion of Cooperative Enterprises in Distressed Urban and Rural Communities.”

Lorenz’s team also will present their educational modules at the Innovate Michigan! Summit in East Lansing on Sept. 4.

This was the second trip for Alma’s Public Affairs students. Last year, Lorenz and his students visited the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s had left the area impoverished, and during one particularly cold winter, a local priest gathered together a number of youth to make stoves. The community pooled together their money to send the young people to technical school.

Soon they started making other products, and today Mondragon includes nearly 300 cooperatives that produce a variety of goods and services in the areas of finance, industry, retail and knowledge. More than 80,000 employee-owners are a part of the cooperative. Mondragon even includes a supermarket and a university that teaches students about how to start their own cooperatives.

“The Alma students were amazed at how it seemed to work,” says Lorenz.

As an alternative to depending on large corporations to create jobs, local people — especially those in impoverished urban and rural areas where outside companies seldom invest — could create their own business and economy by starting a worker-owned cooperative, says Lorenz.

Co-ops aren’t new to the United States. There is a chain of bakeries in San Francisco that are modeled after the Mondragon Cooperatives. There are cooperatively run supermarkets, gas stations and agricultural producers. Many rural areas are serviced by electric co-ops, and credit unions are essentially co-ops. Housing co-ops exist, too.

The team hopes that professors of economics, political science, history, sociology and other areas could educate their students about co-ops. Students with entrepreneurial interests might even start their own co-ops.

Story published on July 11, 2014