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Employment and Jobs

Democratizing Work: The Role, Opportunities, and Challenges of Worker Cooperatives in the US


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Worker-owned cooperatives are known to have a strong tradition and legacy in Europe, with Mondragon Corporation in Spain often stealing much of the international spotlight. Interest in worker-owned cooperatives is growing in the US, however, as people continue to look for ways to promote democracy in the workplace, create higher quality jobs, and build a more equitable economy. Alongside this interest is a growing body of research that has shown well-run cooperatives can be more resilient to economic shocks, experience less employee turnover, and achieve higher profit margins. Workers in cooperatives often benefit from better job security, equal or better pay than their peers, and more family-friendly workplaces.

Today, worker-owned cooperatives span numerous industries in the US, from home health care to manufacturing to ride-sharing. Some regions in the US have started to invest in and build supportive ecosystems for worker cooperatives in attempts to revitalize economies and offer a more inclusive approach to economic development. Efforts are also underway across the country to support retiring business owners in converting their business to employee ownership, including conversions to worker cooperatives. Despite this momentum, worker-owned cooperatives are a very small part of the US economy, and growing the model can be challenging. Financing, a lack of awareness, and the complexity of democratic management pose barriers to the worker-owned cooperative movement. How can we address these barriers to support the growth of cooperatives in the US? What role can worker cooperatives play in creating higher quality jobs and a more inclusive economy? What can we learn from successful cooperatives abroad and domestically about what works?

This event is the first in a three-part series, “Employee Ownership’s Moment: Discussions on Advancing Policy and Practice.”


Check out this @AspenJobQuality event on worker co-ops, featuring @hilaryabell @projectequity, Sara Chester @IndustCommons, @Estebantitos @USFWC, @staceyannsutton @sji_uic, and @conway_maureen.

Worker co-ops have lower turnover and greater resilience — while promoting job security, good pay, and family-friendly workplaces. What can co-ops teach us about improving jobs and business performance?

Worker co-ops are owned and managed by workers, a rare form of workplace democracy. On the heels of the election, what can we learn from co-ops about growing our democracy at large?

As people look for ways to promote #jobquality, equity, and democracy in the workplace, many are turning to #employeeownership as a solution. No wonder interest in worker co-ops is growing in the US.

Worker co-ops span many industries and play a vital role in advancing #jobquality. But they’re a small part of the economy and face many barriers to scale. How can we help #employeeownership grow?

Video: “The Role, Opportunities, and Challenges of Worker Cooperatives.” Featuring @hilaryabell @projectequity, Sara Chester @IndustCommons, @Estebantitos @USFWC, @staceyannsutton @sji_uic, and @conway_maureen.


Hilary Abell @hilaryabell
Co-Founder and Chief Policy & Impact Officer, Project Equity @projectequity

Hilary was “bit by the cooperative bug” when she was a worker-owner at Equal Exchange in the 1990s and forever changed by witnessing how Latin American farmers used coops to transform their communities. After a decade of international community empowerment work, Hilary has been advancing cooperative development and employee ownership in the U.S. since 2003. As Executive Director of WAGES (now Prospera), she led the organization in creating a network of five worker-owned green cleaning businesses that sustained 100 healthy, dignified jobs for low-income women. Worker-owners increased their family incomes by 40-80%, built assets through robust profit sharing, and gained business skills and social capital.

In co-founding Project Equity, Hilary hoped to make these profound benefits of employee ownership a reality for millions more workers all over the country. For her work with Project Equity, Hilary was awarded Presidio Graduate School’s Big Idea Prize (2013), an Echoing Green Fellowship (2014), a 2016 Local Economy Fellowship, and a 2020 Executive Fellowship with the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University.

Hilary is a passionate advocate, practitioner and thought leader and has authored or co-authored several publications, most recently The Case for Employee Ownership (2020) and California Cooperatives (2021).  She has her B.A. from Princeton University and her MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio and, in her spare time, loves to explore redwood forests, California’s coastline, and good books and movies.


Photo of Sara Chester

Sara Chester
Co-Executive Director, The Industrial Commons @IndustCommons; Job Quality Fellow, The Aspen Institute

Sara is co-executive director for The Industrial Commons. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she returned to her hometown of Morganton, North Carolina. She worked for eight years at Burke Development, Inc., focusing much of this time on place-based initiatives that grow local wealth. There she earned an IEDC award for Innovative Economic Development. She serves on the Burke County Planning Board and is part of the board of directors for the North Carolina Rural Center. She spends most of her time with her husband and two kids. She loves to hike, camp, bake, and read.


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Esteban Kelly @Estebantitos
Executive Director, U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives @USFWC

Esteban Kelly is the executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), a founder of the freelancer co-op Guilded, and a worker-owner and co-founder of AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource & Training Alliance), a worker co-op that has built capacity for hundreds of social justice projects through intersectional training and consulting. Esteban works to expand economic democracy through forms of multiracial solidarity and collective ownership. In 2018, Esteban helped get the Main Street Employee Ownership Act passed by Congress and won a Philly Social Innovation Award for Public Policy. Esteban served as a mayoral appointee and briefly as co-chair of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council. Esteban is a Ford Global Fellow, a Margaret Burroughs Fellow in the Social Justice Portals Project at University of Illinois-Chicago, an Executive Fellow of the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University, a Futures 4 Good Fellow with the Institute for the Future, and an advisor to the Platform Co-ops Consortium and the Movement for Black Lives.


Photo of Stacey Sutton

Stacey Sutton @staceyannsutton
Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Policy and Director of Applied Research and Strategic Partnerships, Social Justice Initiative, University of Illinois-Chicago @sji_uic

Stacey Sutton is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) in the department of urban planning and policy and co-director of the Solidarity Economy Research, Policy & Law Project. Prior to joining UIC, professor Sutton was on the faculty of Columbia University in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Professor Sutton’s research and teaching focus on community economic development, specifically in the areas of economic democracy and worker-owned cooperatives, solidarity economy and prefigurative projects, racial equity, and disparate effects of place-based city policies. Professor Sutton published an important article analyzing municipal support for worker cooperatives in 12 cities, and she is currently working on a book manuscript that examines solidarity economy ecosystems across the United States. Professor Sutton is a senior researcher with the Small Business Anti-Displacement Network and a fellow at the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing, and she serves on the board of the New Economy Coalition. Professor Sutton received a joint doctorate in urban planning and policy and sociology from Rutgers University, an MBA in economics and organizational behavior from New York University, and a bachelor’s degree from Loyola College in Baltimore.



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Maureen Conway @conway_maureen
Vice President, The Aspen Institute; Executive Director, Economic Opportunities Program @AspenJobQuality

Maureen Conway serves as vice president at the Aspen Institute and as executive director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP). EOP works to expand individuals’ opportunities to connect to quality work, start businesses, and build economic stability that provides the freedom to pursue opportunity. View Maureen’s full bio.

Opportunity in America

Opportunity in America, an event series hosted by the Economic Opportunities Program, considers the changing landscape of economic opportunity in the US and implications for individuals, families, and communities across the country. The series highlights the ways in which issues of race, gender, and place exacerbate our economic divides, and ideas and innovations with potential to address these challenges and broaden access to quality opportunity.

We are grateful to Prudential Financial, Walmart, the Surdna Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Bloomberg, and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth for their support of this series.

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Event information
Thu Nov 17, 2022
2:00pm - 3:15pm EDT