Seattle is a vibrant place for cooperative businesses. The city is home to large and successful co-ops such as REI, PCC Natural Markets, and Group Health, plus credit unions such as BECU and SMCU. The fact that the UW, the largest organization in the city, doesn’t address this at all shows a great disconnect between the institution and the city it serves.
During these difficult economic times, cooperatives can provide stable jobs with a livable wage for their employees. Employees at worker-owned cooperatives are more than labor; they have a stake in the company’s future.
Research at Kent State’s Ohio Employee Ownership Center shows that cooperative businesses outperform traditional businesses in many ways. Officials have partnered with the city of Cleveland to start the Evergreen Cooperative Development Project, to build cooperative businesses in impoverished areas of Cleveland.
Since starting two years ago, Evergreen has opened a laundry service, a solar power company, a bimonthly newspaper, and a hydroponic greenhouse. Employee-owners at these businesses make significantly higher wages than others working similar jobs, and they receive benefits.
Many in Seattle might love to see something similar here. This past weekend was the second annual SLICE conference. Standing for Strengthening Local Independent Cooperatives Everywhere, SLICE brought many to Seattle to discuss the growing cooperative movement and what should be done to strengthen existing co-ops and incubate new ones. City Council President Richard Conlin spoke briefly about Seattle’s co-op scene and voiced his support for the movement.
Students at the UW are forming a cooperative cafe to provide healthy food at an affordable price for students. They will be working with local farmers and other co-ops in the area to supply the café. The co-op will also provide an educational opportunity for its members about cooperative business models and sustainable food systems.
The United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives in recognition of their value for socio-economic development across the globe.
"Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on the organization’s website.
The UW could get behind this movement and offer classes in cooperative economics and cooperative business. The opportunities for students to find internships and develop relationships with co-ops in Seattle is tremendous. The university should take the initiative and become a leader in fostering cooperatives in Seattle and beyond.