Berkeley City Council increases support of worker cooperatives

Tess Dufrechou/Courtesy

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On Feb. 19, Berkeley City Council embraced supportive measures in response to a 2016 referral that calls for the development of policies and programs to support worker cooperatives and was later approved by the council Feb. 26.

The report, submitted by the Office of Economic Development, or OED, calls for the provision of resources for businesses to transition to cooperative ownership structures in which each employee owns a piece of the business and has a democratic say in company decisions.

Proponents of the OED plan hope the cooperatives will have positive impacts on the local economy and that the city’s support will help set a precedent the rest of the country could follow.

Worker-cooperatives create high quality and long term jobs that keep local money in local communities,” said Stephen Switzer, a staff member at the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, in an email. “More worker cooperatives means more small businesses that support community building and keeping money in the Berkeley economy.”

Allie Wilson Plasek, a team member from Mariposa Gardening & Design, an Oakland-based cooperative, added that worker cooperatives are especially relevant in the current political climate and that “worker ownership really keeps democracy alive.”

The OED is collaborating with Project Equity, an organization that promotes worker co-ops, according to Jordan Klein, economic development manager at the OED. Project Equity will conduct a study to identify possible candidate businesses that could transition to a cooperative model.

The OED will financially assist up to four of these businesses in their transitions to the cooperative model. This number could increase in the future if the demand for worker co-ops increases, according to Klein.

“Right now, a lot of this work — it’s about preserving jobs,” Klein said. “We’re glad to be part of the forefront of this movement (to support cooperatives). … We’re definitely interested in working with other cities.”

Berkeley’s efforts to increase support of cooperatives have been in the works for several years, according to Klein and the Sustainable Economies Law Center. In 2016, Jesse Arreguín, who was then a City Council member, recommended various ways to increase support for cooperatives.

The process has been slow, according to Klein, but local cooperatives hope the February decision will encourage co-ops to gain steam both locally and nationally.

“I am hopeful that other local businesses will consider transitioning to a worker-owned structure and are happy to be in the same category as the bay area’s other great and inspiring worker-owned businesses. And I hope that the Berkeley City Council’s decision will serve as a model for the rest of the country,” said Tess Dufrechou, a worker-owner of Berkeley co-op BioFuel Oasis, in an email. “We will benefit if knowledge and information about worker-owned cooperative(s) is more widespread, especially in government.”

Contact Ben Klein at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc ‏.