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What is a worker cooperative, and why should we care?

Pivot – the word no business owner ever wants to hear again. 2020 and 2021 have arguably been the most difficult years that small business owners have had to face on a global scale in decades. As we continue to forge our way into the “new normal” (another phrase we’d all like to throw into the garbage), some are putting forward the question – is doing things as we’ve always done the right way to rebuild?

The folks at Cooperation Buffalo in Buffalo, NY believe there is a better way. Their mission is to mobilize workers to achieve financial security through cooperative business ownership.

What exactly is a worker-owned cooperative? Well, just as it sounds, it’s a business that is owned, operated, and managed together by its workers – giving all folks involved an equal stake in their company, its profits, and oversight. This model is especially beneficial for historically marginalized folks because it makes wealth, professional growth and business ownership more accessible.

Cooperation Buffalo’s Director, Andrew Delmonte. Photo by Cooperation Buffalo.

“Buffalo has a rich history of cooperative businesses and movements, especially in the Black community”, said Michael Heubusch, Cooperation Buffalo’s Cooperative Development Specialist.  He explained that the earliest known co-op in Buffalo began in 1928, specifically to address the ongoing social and economic struggle for Black Americans. There was a consumer-owned grocery store, a credit union, and an education campaign, all housed under this co-op. 

“The positives of worker-owned cooperatives for the employees are the better pay, better benefits, they gain an asset by becoming an owner, and a voice in the company. But it’s also great for the business as a whole. Co-ops have lower turnover rates, greater productivity, and improved longevity. Ultimately, we know this is good for all of us because every dollar you spend at a co-op will multiply in your own local community. Plus you’ll have happier, more secure neighbors!”

Cooperation Buffalo’s Cooperative Academy – an intensive 13-week training program that helps teams of cooperative entrepreneurs develop worker-owned cooperative businesses. Photo by Cooperation Buffalo.

In Western New York, you can find several worker-owned and consumer-owned cooperatives, and even a housing cooperative! When you spend at or support any of these co-ops, you can be sure your money is going directly into the hands of local folks, who will also spend locally. That’s something we can all get behind!

Tap each photo below to visit their Yelp page directly.

Worker Cooperatives: businesses owned by its workers

“When I think about the breakfast sandwich I ordered here…words don’t do it justice. A handful of sandwiches on the menu are named after famous female singers (I had the Aaliyah, but there was a Britney & Shania that looked equally as enticing). This menu cleverness was already a plus. But the star of the show was the presentation of this sandwich *chef’s kiss*. And I ordered it as takeout! The combination of sausage, egg & maple syrup paired with a cold brew coffee was the perfect start to a lazy Sunday morning.” – Yelper Morgan S.

“A place of respite for parents and children where tender seedlings can grow strong roots” – The Rose Garden Early Childhood Center

“Gro-op is an aquaponic vertical farm in Buffalo, NY. We grow fresh food year-round in a controlled environment and operate on a closed loop system. We grow with sustainable food practices that have a low impact on our environment. We also offer education and job training opportunities in partnership with local schools to help keep jobs local.” – Gro-op

WNY Tech Collab is an IT services provider that focuses on providing great and transparent customer service.

Consumer Cooperatives: consumer owned businesses

“It’s the healthy feeling of a Whole Foods, with real local street cred. There are sooo many vegan options, and the prepared food section provides so many choices for food I didn’t even know I was hungry for. Shop here and feel good about where your money is going, the quality of the food you are buying, and how happy you will be when an unexpected quiche craving hits, and look! It’s right there!” – Yelp Elite Jessica N.

“Great store in the community set up to make a difference in the lives of the local neighborhood. Affordable fruits and vegetables and soon, meats. Definitely worth checking out and joining the cooperative if you’re interested in that as well.” – Yelp Elite Daviyion J.

“There always seems to be samples of snack foods and/or produce to try throughout the store. On our last visit, a staff member, was so friendly and welcoming!  He even give my kids little cups of veggie straws when he overheard them talking about ‘free samples.’  Too kind! Some of my favorite finds at the co-op are: card selection (super cute, funny), co-op shirts, bulk spices, African Peanut soup from the hot bar, and ready-made seasonal salads. Their housemade baked goods are also so tempting.” – Yelp Elite Laura G.

“I’ve been visiting Urban Roots for years and always a fan of their incredible selection and wide variety. Whether you’re looking for annuals, perennials, indoor foliage, supples – Urban Roots has you completely covered! It’s obvious the employees are passionate about what they do. Their knowledge is from years of experience, not basic google searches. That is so important to me when I’m purchasing something unfamiliar. Employees are super nice! If you have newbie questions, don’t feel shy around them.” – Yelp Elite Jen S.

Housing Cooperative

There are two houses a part of this cooperative: Ol’ Wondermoth at 208 North Street, and pictured above, Plankton House at 126 Fargo Avenue.