This is a crosspost from Generocity.org. View the original post here. It’s part of a series by Philly cooperator (and PACA member) Caitlin Quigley.
As Philadelphia’s labor history shows, worker co-ops can be used as tools for transformation and liberation. Worker co-ops are businesses that are owned and democratically controlled by their workers on a one worker, one vote basis. Right now, we only have four worker co-ops in the city of Philadelphia, but our city’s history is full of interesting examples of both worker ownership and worker control.
In 1806 in Philadelphia, a labor union of shoemakers went on strike for higher wages. Their employer sued eight of the union’s leaders and won the suit, and the defendants were fined and made to pay court costs. Instead of “slink[ing] back to a boss,” these shoemakers then went on to open a cooperative boot and shoe factory, according to historian John Curl.
Early Philadelphia labor history is peppered with worker co-ops. In 1791, carpenters in Philadelphia formed a co-op during a strike to support themselves. In 1834, the cabinetmakers union opened a cooperative warehouse. In 1849, the seamstresses union formed a co-op. Often, these co-ops formed because workers needed to create an alternative to the poor wages and working conditions offered by employers.
Other co-ops were formed as part of a grander political vision. The Knights of Labor, a union that was founded in 1869 in Philadelphia, was kept completely secret for nine years. When its secret got out, it announced its goals, one of which was to “establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a cooperative industrial system.” The Knights of Labor was among the first unions to organize black and white workers together. It also recognized women’s work in the home as economic labor and had over 30,000 women as members.