Madison is the state capital, seat of the University of Wisconsin, and home to several worker cooperatives that have been in business for over 30 years.
Rebecca works at Union Cab, founded in 1979, which now boasts 228 worker members – drivers, mechanics, office staff, and dispatchers. Committed to environmental sustainability, they are replacing gas guzzling Crown Victorias with hybrid vehicles. And they designed their own computerized dispatch system to respond to calls for service with the nearest available vehicle, reducing mileage and improving service and efficiency.
Rebecca drove us around and pointed out other long standing Madison coops like Nature’s Bakery and Community Pharmacy. “Worker cooperatives are sustainable businesses, especially in hard times. They are more flexible with changes in the market and give the highest priority to people working in the business. In the U.S. few people are aware of worker cooperatives, but with the economic crisis we are finding lots of interest.”
Inspired by Mondragón’s example, Isthmus Engineering was founded 25 years ago. The cooperative designs and builds state of the art automation systems for a broad range of industries. With 50 employees, the majority worker owners, Isthmus is highly project oriented. Self-directed teams of mechanical and controls engineers, plus highly skilled electricians and machinists, collaborate to design, build, and test equipment that meets their customers’ needs.
“The core principle is one worker one vote, not each dollar one vote,” says founder John Kessler. “We’re not giving up anything by being a worker cooperative. It’s an excellent way to run a business.”
A proud workers coop, Isthmus holds weekly board meetings over a catered lunch, so members can more easily stay abreast of current projects. And finances are completely transparent, even how much each person is paid.
Engineer Lisa Thoms, Vice President of the cooperative, explained. “We vote on hourly pay rates every year, based on each member’s discipline, experience, and contributions. So we all have a say in deciding what our fellow worker/owners are paid. But no member is paid more than twice as much as anyone else.”
“We’re democratic with a small ‘d’,” says engineer Ole Olson, “Everyone can have input in a decision. It doesn’t always go your way, but you know how and why the decision is made and that’s different from a conventional company.” Ole, who sits on the Isthmus coop affairs committee, is active with the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and in MadWorCs, a budding network of Madison worker cooperatives that promotes support among coops in the area, and encourages creation of new coops.
Inspired by the experience of Mondragón, where complex support networks among individual coops developed over 50 years, similar networks exist in Western Massachusetts. [Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives], the San Francisco Bay Area [Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives] and Austin TX [Cooperation Texas]. The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland are being developed as part of a network from the outset.