Kristen Barker Depicts Worker-Cooperatives as Part of the Solution in Part IV...

Kristen Barker Depicts Worker-Cooperatives as Part of the Solution in Part IV of a Series of Community Forums

by Bill Woods
Downtown Cincinnati from Devou Park, seen from across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky.

Factors that continually arise in deliberations about reducing poverty are the loss of traditional industrial jobs and the large number of employees now working at jobs that do not pay a living wage.  Innovative efforts are emerging in communities across the country to create alternative employment in an economy now dominated by large corporations and global markets. Part IV of the Community Issues Forum series on reducing poverty in Greater Cincinnati focused on one promising initiative that is currently underway locally.

Kristen Barker, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative, discussed progress to date in launching worker-owned coops in this region. She began by explaining that cooperatives of various kinds have been part of our national development, and that approximately 29,000 coops exist in the U.S. today. One of the big success stories for cooperatives came when people banded together to bring electrification to many isolated rural areas of our country.

Worker-owned coops, however, are a different story. Barker estimated that only about 350 worker-owned businesses now operate in the U.S., and they provide work for approximately 7,000 people. However, despite Mark Twain’s joke about the backwardness of Cincinnati, quipped Barker, this area is currently considered to be a leader in worker-owned enterprises.

Although worker-ownership had interested Barker for a number of years, it was not until her visit to Mondragon, Spain that she became committed to developing this work model in Cincinnati. Located in the Basque region of Spain, the Mondragon area was in dire economic depression when the coop movement took hold in the mid-1950s.  Coops soon developed into Mondragon’s economic base, and produced a thriving economy and workforce in the region. Currently, the Mondragon Corporation, a collection of 257 companies, employs 74,117 workers and represents assets of 24,726-million Euros. It is the tenth largest Spanish company in terms of asset turnover and the leading corporation in the Basque Country.

Barker described developments to date in Greater Cincinnati. “Our Harvest” represents an initial successful initiative. It constitutes several worker-owned farms in the Cincinnati area that produce and sell fresh natural produce. Bahr Farm is a thirty acre farm in the neighborhood of College Hill, while White Oak Farm is located on the periphery of Morrow Ohio.

The goal, declared, Barker, is to create family sustaining jobs that are open to anyone who agrees to the coop employment practices. Our Harvest currently employs a workforce of eighteen that includes women, men, new immigrants, and workers who were formerly incarcerated. Educating people to think as owners as well as workers, she noted, is necessary as well as challenging. A workbook entitled, “The Great Game of Business,” has proved to be an effective educational tool.

Our Harvest Coop experienced a break-even year in 2015, and took in approximately $500,000 in revenue. Meanwhile, Barker said that at least thirteen different groups are interested in establishing worker-coops in Greater Cincinnati. Already underway is the Apple Street Market, a worker and community owned cooperative, and a local housing cooperative.

Barker pointed to the fact that unions are beginning to get involved in the coop movement, and in nearby Dayton, unions have launched the Greater Dayton Union Coop. Although she realizes that years of hard work lie ahead in establishing coops as an integral force in the country’s economy, Barker brings enthusiasm, energy, and talent to this mission. “We,” she challenged, “could transform Cincinnati!”