The Sovereignty of Labor: Why Worker and Community Ownership for Common Share Food Coop Matters

By Patrick Burke | October 25, 2019

There are many kinds of cooperative businesses, from producer to housing to financial coops. Different sorts of membership or types of members define how the business is owned. Most food cooperatives are consumer coops, those purchasing their goods and services are the class of member owners. Their Boards of Directors and management are democratically accountable to people shopping at their stores.  

Many food coops originally required their members to volunteer labor in order to be able to shop at the store. Several recurring business issues have caused the model to become rare. For one, if only people who can volunteer their labor are able to shop at the store that shrinks the number of community members that can shop there. For another, volunteer labor restricts the professionalism, consistency, and specialization of work possible for a store. These two issues made many food coops uncompetitive compared to other grocery businesses. Most food coops are now entirely run by paid staff supervised by General Manager who is hired by the Board Directors elected by consumer owners. 

One unfortunate consequence of this general change has been making day to day member owner involvement no longer necessary for operations. The member owners are several steps removed from experiencing the work and decisions required to enable a food coop to run. The emphasis is on consumer in “consumer owned”. And in this model, the workers at a food coop have no particular role in decision-making different from any other capitalist firm. The food coop management hires, fires, and disciplines workers like any other grocery store. Many food coop workers have organized with labor unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers and the United Electrical Workers to redress this imbalance of power in the structure of consumer owned food coops. Wages, hours, and working conditions must be negotiated with labor and management as equals, and workers have democratic rights in their labor union to decide what to negotiate for. 

Along with growing unionization, many are also looking to worker cooperatives for a different model of governance for food coops. In a worker cooperative it is those who labor who have ownership and democratic rights to control the business. Mondragon, a large organization of worker cooperative businesses in Spain, has two core principles in particular that underline the preeminent role of workers in decision making in this model. These are  the “Sovereignty of Labor” and “Instrumental and Subordinate Nature of Capital”. These principles acknowledge that labor creates all wealth, capital is a tool for meeting people’s needs, and the surpluses from the cooperatives are distributed by the democratic decisions of workers.

Common Share Food Coop is a multi-stakeholder cooperative. Our by-laws give not only community members, but also workers, equal votes and voice in our decision making and governance. Mondragon’s grocery cooperative, Eroski, is set up similarly and other cooperatives call this a hybrid or solidarity model. The needs of actual people, both in their role as community members and as workers, are balanced to ensure capital is a means and not an end in itself.

When Common Share opens, four of the nine seats on our Board of Directors will be reserved for worker-owners to give a direct voice in governance. Even before opening, our first employee is also a board member and helping to actualize our commitment to worker ownership. Worker ownership goes beyond just valuing living wages, good benefits, and worker voice, it means workers are co-authors and co-creators of a thriving, resilient food system in our community. Join us!


Written by Patrick Burke, CSFC board member and Labor Union Organizer