During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has watched global supply chains break down under the strain of this once-in-a-century calamity. Perhaps as a result of this experience, among workers there is increased interest in the nitty-gritty of starting cooperatives and independently managing supply chains that could weather supply shocks of equal or even greater intensity – shocks the likes of which climate change is sure to inflict upon us in the coming decades. This realization was certainly true for us at Strange Matters. Providing hands-on, collaboratively developed, informative material about how to go about starting and running a worker cooperative is one of our immediate goals, as this promotes dual power. This article will lead you through our experience in setting up our .coop domain and becoming internationally recognized as a worker cooperative.
But before we go any further, what is a cooperative? Generally speaking, it is a type of company that is cooperatively owned and operated by the workers who comprise it or the consumers whom it serves. Often, it is the workers themselves who manage the company and its resources. Coops have been codified in various ways throughout history. In 1844, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers (a consumer-run cooperative in England during the industrial revolution) established an important set of guiding rules for worker cooperatives to abide by known as the Rochdale Principles. In 1937 they stipulated the following requirements:
Democratic control (one person, one vote).
Distribution of surplus in proportion to trade.
Payment of limited interest on capital.
Political and religious neutrality.
Cash trading (no credit extended).
Promotion of education.1The Rochdale principles were later re-ratified by the ICA in 1966 to the following quite similar set: (1) Open, voluntary membership (2) Democratic governance (3) Limited return on equity (4) Surplus belongs to members (5) Education of members and public in cooperative principles, and (6) Cooperation between cooperatives.
Worker cooperatives have been around for over two centuries – and as the political economists Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and Susan R. Nembhard detail in their up-coming Issue 1 piece, Black worker cooperatives in the US have played a critical role in organizing and meeting the material needs of workers among the most historically marginalized groups:
Though little-known and under-discussed even within radical circles, the Black cooperative movement in the US is one of the oldest and most successful examples of solidarity economy practices in the country. From the times of slavery through to Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and the present day, Black people have built up a solidarity economy in order to consolidate a base of material resources that placed real economic power directly in the hands of working-class Black people. Often, then and now, these have formed the economic backbone of the Black struggle for freedom against racial oppression.2See Jessica Gordon Nembhard & Susan R. Nembhard, “The Black Cooperative Economy” in Issue One of Strange Matters.
But how can you trust that an organization who says they are a worker cooperative, legitimately operates as one? Is there a way to verify that a worker cooperative practices what it preaches? If you are dealing with private companies (which most cooperatives are these days), there is often little visibility into their inner workings beyond what they may choose to make publicly available, in marketing material for example. Furthermore, once you’ve verified yourself as a worker cooperative, who can you turn to for help in further integrating yourself into the worker co-op ecosphere?
The functional team at DotCoop3Twitter handle: @dotcoop | Facebook page: identitydotcoop are responsible for verifying interested worker cooperatives so that they have access to the community tools, such as the cooperative Marque and .coop domain name. They are easy to work with and bring deep experience in the global worker cooperative movement to the digital marketing space.
DotCoop offers five products and services:
The .coop Domain
DotCooperation as an organization operates the .coop internet domain (which currently hosts our magazine website.) Any company wishing to gain access to the .coop domain for its website must first pass a verification process.4See the eligibility criteria document here: https://identity.coop/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Eligibility-Policy-July-2020.pdf This baseline ensures that when you see the .coop domain, it is a meaningful signifier to customers and potential business partners that the company actually practices what they espouse.
ICA Cooperative Marque
Once you’ve successfully registered and been verified as a worker cooperative by DotCooperation, you can then apply to receive the Marque, which is essentially a brand mark verifying that the meaningful requirements have been met in order for an entity to be classified as a cooperative according to the ICA and its partner organizations.
The .COOP Global Directory
This is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal as a verified cooperative. Once verified, your cooperative will be entered into the global directory so that you can be easily found by other verified cooperatives for networking purposes. There is literally a large Google-style map embedded into their website showing geographically where each cooperative is located. It is built on open-source data and is growing to incorporate more information about cooperatives in its decentralized network.
Apex and Primary Cooperative Co-Marketing Program
This program is an extensive digital consulting service geared specifically to cooperatives who are just starting out and would like to market themselves to other cooperatives and the public at large. The marketing methods include: website integration with the .coop domain registrar(s) applicable to your website and its traffic; the “Cooperative Stories” program, where you can submit stories about your co-op’s formation and members to Identity.coop which they will include on their website; and the Simply Start program, an all-in-one service which takes you through the entire process of integrating your website with the Identity.coop tools, and includes special deals on domain registration and SEO optimization advice geared towards worker cooperatives.
The Digital Empowerment Learning Hub
Embracing Cooperative Principle #5, education, Identity.coop provides online learning tools to cooperatives and their members to contribute more to the success of their organizations. Among many great tools, this section of their website includes a series of video and powerpoint presentations covering digital branding and content strategy, domain best practices, a guide to the cooperative principles, and even guides to cybersecurity.
Our DotCoop Experience
Our own DotCoop journey as a company began when we saw the .coop domain listed among other options in domain name availability searches, and we became interested in it for Strange Matters. We googled “.coop” and eventually found the identity.coop website.
The internet .coop domain can be obtained through any domain registrar that sells the .coop domains.5There are numerous such registrars. We used get.coop. Identity.coop maintains a list of approved vendors. Once we found our desired domain name, we purchased it. This may sound like the end of the process, but it is actually the beginning – although we had purchased the domain, it was not yet verified by the DotCoop team. (Remember, we needed to go through a process to prove we were actually a worker co-op!)
We then responded to the messages from the DotCoop team and began the verification process. The exact documentation your company or organization will need will depend upon several factors, such as your legal status of incorporation (are you an LLC, a C-corp, a non-profit organization, or a trust?). Have the relevant documentation ready when you are applying in order to expedite the process! The DotCoop verification team will explain which documents are required, given your situation. We are an LLC, and so we submitted our articles of organization and our operating agreement along with some basic personal information about our members through the identity.coop secure messaging system.
Within just a few days, an employee at DotCoop reached out to us to confirm our submission and to follow up regarding any last details. Once this was settled, we were given confirmation of our verification as a worker cooperative, and allowed to retain our domain and to apply for the Marque, which you can see at the bottom of our website. The Marque marked the end of the formal registration process and the beginning of our status as an internationally certified worker cooperative, becoming part of the wider cooperative community.
The representatives from DotCooperation with whom we worked demonstrated a personal commitment to the worker cooperative movement that extended well beyond their immediate roles to secure internet domains and and the services we outline above (vital though that work clearly is!). Tom Ivey, the Community Development Manager at Identity.coop, shared the following with us:
I got involved in the cooperative network as I feel that co-ops at their most fundamental, live and breathe one of the greatest attributes of humanity, that is, people coming together to solve problems together. Cooperatives are unique as they work with a set of guiding principles and values. When solutions are needed, but other forms of business are unwilling to step into the gap, often it is cooperatives that are formed to provide the answers. It is that focus, on community and their members above other factors, that in my eyes makes them a better option to work for and to work with.
A world to win, one supply chain at a time
Coops have generally been absent in media, education, our histories of global business development and our political priorities. As a result the world has been slow to understand the value of cooperatives despite what they offer: truly democratic ownership and control over production assets, and free association among workers. The core principles of worker cooperativism provide a rough guide to industrial democracy and equitable development among members. DotCooperation works to provide the cooperative tools and concrete plans of action to worker cooperatives at all stages of business development(backed up with empirical evidence of their merit). From education, to marketing, to cybersecurity and business administration, DotCooperation and its parent organizations provide actionable business solutions and opportunities to deepen your involvement in the global worker cooperative movement.
As with any business, worker cooperatives need all the help they can get. Deepening democracy in the workplace and helping it to flourish requires even more specialized knowledge and expertise – you will receive both from DotCooperation and its parent organizations. We’re continually impressed with the commitment of DotCooperation to help resolve administrative issues when they crop up and to further the growth of new worker cooperatives such as our own. If you’re reading this and thinking of starting your own worker cooperative, do it! Consult the guides for first-time registrants to the .coop domain and Marque. If you’re already in an established worker cooperative and are looking for some tools to help take your organization to the next level, you can find some at Identity.coop. Let’s all work together to help the worker cooperative movement grow strong, and build the democratically self-managed world we wish to see.