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Hopeful Stories of Communities Organizing

Cameron Conner compares co-ops in Spokane and Spain

Cameron Conner

By Cameron Conner – Special Column written from three months as a Watson Fellow in Barcelona, Spain. His next reports will be from Great Britain.

Many Spokane locals know the red awning and wooden windmill that greet visitors to the Great Harvest Bread Co. For decades, this haven of fresh-baked bread and family-owned farming has been a local icon of small business on the south side of the city.

Last year, Great Harvest became the latest member of the Spokane Workers Cooperative.

Joining the ranks of other local co-ops like RANGE Media, Treatment Creative and Ron Morris Heating and Air, Great Harvest is worker-owned and part of a network expanding the social and economic impact of cooperatively-owned businesses in Spokane. 

The growing cooperative movement in the U.S.—spearheaded by groups like the Spokane Workers Cooperative—represents an important opportunity for the future of community organizing.

Just like churches, schools or community-managed social centers, co-ops like Great Harvest are another way people build organized power and address challenges facing their communities—be it with fair pay, sustainable agricultural practices or healthy food.

In a recent conversation, the co-founder of the Spokane Workers Cooperative, Joel Wilkerson, recently discussed the intersection of the cooperative movement and community organizing, starting with a definition of a cooperative business.

Like any community-organizing institution, he said that a co-op is owned and run by a group of local people to meet a shared need. A co-op is usually composed of workers, customers or suppliers in a business.

Ensuring workers have a voice in decision-making means they can advocate for safe working conditions and fair pay. Customers can use their say to make sure the business is investing in the local area. Suppliers such as farmers or ranchers can come together through co-ops to compete with larger corporations. 

Because most of these member-owners are also residents in the community, co-ops are good at investing locally and responding to their community's economic or social needs. 

The Spokane Workers Cooperative pays a living wage as a minimum for all workers. It is 22 percent higher than the national median wage, said Joel, who was open about the uphill battles of building cooperatives in Eastern Washington.

"The idea of worker ownership isn't part of our culture in the U.S.," he admitted. "Teaching people how to run and manage a cooperatively owned business requires a paradigm shift about what a business can be."

While groups like the Spokane Workers Cooperative may still be fighting for full recognition in the U.S., they are a common practice in many parts of Europe and South America.

In Barcelona, Spain, consumers and employees have been using the cooperative model to improve corporate accountability and resiliency since before Spain was even a country. 

Today, there are more than 860 cooperatives in Barcelona. In Catalonia, an estimated nine percent of GDP is generated every year by cooperatives.

Their vision goes beyond "business as usual." 

Ruben Medina is a coordinator for Impuls Cooperative de Sants (Impuls), a network of 35 cooperative businesses located in the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona. These members include grocery stores, restaurants, housing developments, cleaning services, architecture firms and more.

Ruben said co-ops function as a vehicle for community power locally.

"Many cooperatives in Impuls today were created out of a community need," he explained.

L'Economat Social was developed to bring fresh produce into the community. Quesoni Co-op was founded because neighborhood events began needing technical, sound and audiovisual assistance. 

Impuls brought individual businesses together in an organized network, enabling them to build impact by identifying shared issues and tackling them collectively. The results are impressive.

"At one point, we realized that each of our businesses was paying a lot of money for cleaning services," Ruben recounted. "The businesses we were contracting to do this were often large chains, who treated workers poorly and would not reinvest money in our community." 

Impuls shared this realization with other neighborhood groups and a call went out in 2016 for community members to develop a solution. Soon, CoopNet was born: a cooperatively run, cleaning service dedicated to eco-friendly practices and with a commitment to a 1:1 salary ratio among men and women. 

A year later, CoopNet joined Impuls as a full member of the cooperative network.

Ripple effects go beyond the business world. When co-op worker-owners realized there was a shared need for better childcare, they collaborated through Impuls to form a new daycare open to all community members.

In Sants, local economic power developed through Impuls has meant businesses address local issues, keep money circulating in the community and protect worker rights. They do this not out of altruism or charity, but because they are run by the people who have a vested interest in the same things.

Ruben and Joel both believe that the future of the cooperative movement and community organizing represent mutual opportunities. Strong cooperative businesses have the potential to be powerful community institutions, like churches or schools, and an organized, energetic community is the environment co-ops thrive in. 

Hearing of the groundbreaking work in Spokane and seeing firsthand results in Barcelona made me think about the businesses in Spokane doing similar work.

Stores like Wishing Tree Books, South Perry Pizza, Meeting House and Great Harvest are small, community-focused businesses in a South Hill neighborhood that in my lifetime has seesawed between years of gentrification and drug deals.

What happens if these businesses organize? Could the South Hill be the next Sants?

The Spokane Workers Cooperative has its work cut out for it, as do its peers like the Spokane Alliance and Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance (SIMBA) They are networks at the forefront of making the city accountable to people instead of profits.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December 2023