Employment and Jobs

Creating Employee-Owned Businesses That Provide Good Jobs and Succeed

October 21, 2022  • Economic Opportunities Program & Sara Chester

Sara Chester, Co-Executive Director, The Industrial Commons

Photo of Sara Chester

“Our work grew from a desire to reverse the struggle of immigrant workers and working-class industrial workers of all ethnicities that have shouldered the economic burden of a growing economy at their own expense,” says Sara Chester, co-executive director and co-founder of The Industrial Commons (TIC). The Industrial Commons has a mission to found and scale employee-owned enterprises and industrial cooperatives to build a new Southern working class that erases the inequities of generational poverty and builds an economy and future for all. “All of our work at The Industrial Commons is focused on job quality,” Sara says.

The Industrial Commons’ history traces back to the creation of Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned textile plant, in 2008. Opportunity Threads’ success and the subsequent founding and success of Caroline Textile District, a network of textile manufacturers committed to creating quality products and good jobs, led to The Industrial Commons’ ability to catalyze a coalition to create a new manufacturing economy in rural North Carolina.

Sara grew up in the region so she has “a deep love for and understanding of the place I’m working.” One in five workers are employed in manufacturing in the region, a strong foundation of expertise and skill from which to build. “Our movement is driven by a new generation of workers who stay in our region out of inspiration as opposed to despair and find agency in a new vision of meaningful work that provides security and stability for their families,” Sara remarks. The region has challenges too. Households have median income that is 23% lower than the national average and a poverty rate 20% higher.

In changing these dynamics by founding and scaling employee-owned cooperatives, Sara draws inspiration from the large-scale use of cooperatives in the Emilia Romagna region in Italy, the Mondragon Corporation’s use of cooperatives in Mondragon, Spain, and Cooperative Home Care Associates in the US. Sara’s inspiration also comes from her background in economic development with the local county, as well as experience in workforce development and place-based initiatives, which has helped her think differently about economic development in ways that go beyond just business recruitment and retention.

The Industrial Commons employs a range of organizing, workforce development, and business strategies to improve job quality. That work begins, in part, with making sure the region’s workforce has the right skills to help the manufacturing sector succeed. Both Work in Burke and TOSS, two youth focused initiatives of TIC, educate the next generation on job and education opportunities in the area and engage them in building the future of work in the rural South. The Industrial Commons offers training in areas such as industrial sewing and partners with others to train workers for other high-demand jobs. The focus on job quality is not lost, though. Sara says, “We partner deeply with our school system, community college, local governments, local development districts, workforce development board, and others to ensure traditional workforce development partners are being encouraged around job quality and we are able to steer valuable resources toward a greater focus on job quality.”

Building a Movement to Support Job Quality and Community Transformation

Worker organizing and building a collective movement rooted in equity is the core of The Industrial Commons’ job quality strategy. North Carolina, however, has the second lowest unionization rate in the US with only 2.6% of workers in a labor union. Leaders at The Industrial Commons knew from the beginning that they would need to use different ways of organizing outside of the structure of labor unions if their efforts, which also include strong goals to promote equity and environmental sustainability, were going to succeed.

The Industrial Commons’ organizing approach is broad-based, engaging workers, businesses, and the community. Every touch point the organization has with people is an opportunity to organize around the organization’s vision. This begins with organizing workers into employee-owned cooperatives created directly by the organization or through a conversion of an existing business.

The Industrial Commons partners with businesses to bring democratic practices to other workplaces too. TIC teaches the Great Game of Business, an approach to Open Book Management, to workers of partnering businesses. The curriculum covers human resources, management, and financial training so workers are empowered to help drive the firm’s success. TIC also helps firms create worker committees to elevate workers’ voices in the workplace and offer companies a way to tap into the expertise of their staff. This work is complemented by coaching supervisors on strategies to better engage their workers in problem solving.

The Industrial Commons’ efforts to organize for job quality and other positive change does not stop with workers or engagement with individual firms. The organization also organizes companies with shared values into federated networks such as the Caroline Textile District. TIC helps these networks develop job quality standards and examine ways of sharing costs of providing employees benefits, allowing good jobs to be scaled across a number of companies.

The Industrial Commons has a long-term vision for job quality, so engaging youth and as many members in the community as possible is critical. The TOSS program engages youth in shaping the future of work, racial and environmental justice, and community development through the arts. The Industrial Commons also provides tours of Morganton focused on exposing tour participants to the organization’s work and the region’s history of diversity and inclusiveness. All of this direct and indirect organizing is helping build the ecosystem the organization knows it needs to achieve that vision.

Creating employee-owned businesses that both provide good jobs and succeed is a focal point of the organization. “We have living wages for all employees, open books and transparent pay scales, pathways to advancement, excellent benefits, flexibility, cross training, mentorship, education and technology stipends,” Sara says. Those cooperatives are a “proof of concept” of what can be achieved through the cooperative model and provide the foundation from which the organization can engage other businesses. The Industrial Commons offers a suite of consulting services to businesses around worker ownership and other services to help them engage workers and improve their jobs and firm success. A capital loan fund is also being developed to help support business financing.

According to Sara, The Industrial Commons has grown to 25 employees in a relatively short amount of time, has started five employee-owned businesses employing over 100 workers, worked with over 100 companies, and the Carolina Textile District includes 30 mills representing nearly 2,500 workers. More opportunity for converting businesses to employee-ownership is on the horizon as the organization seeks to capitalize on a growing number of businesses whose owners are approaching retirement. “We believe our position and various career experiences allows us a unique perspective to this work because our hearts are in community and worker organizing, so we have a true passion to increase job quality to create better livelihoods for the individuals in our community,” Sara says.


Creating Employee-Owned Businesses That Provide Good Jobs and Succeed: A Profile of @AspenJobQuality Fellow Sara Chester, Co-Executive Director of @IndustCommons.

#EmployeeOwnership can help to create an economy and future for all. See how @IndustCommons — led by @AspenJobQuality Fellow Sara Chester — is building a new Southern working class that erases the inequities of generational poverty.

Worker cooperatives like @IndustCommons are a “proof of concept” in #jobquality, offering living wages, good benefits, pathways to advancement, training, mentorship, and more. Read more in this profile of TIC’s Sara Chester, an @AspenJobQuality Fellow.

“Our work grew from a desire to reverse the struggle of immigrant workers and working-class industrial workers of all ethnicities that have shouldered the economic burden of a growing economy at their own expense.” -Sara Chester @IndustCommons

“We partner deeply with our school system, community college, local governments, local development districts, workforce development board, and others [to] steer valuable resources toward a greater focus on #jobquality.” -Sara Chester @IndustCommons

Learn more

Sara Chester is a member of the Aspen Institute’s Job Quality Fellowship, Class of 2022-23. The Job Quality Fellowship is convened by the Economic Opportunities Program.

The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.

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