New experiments in economic forms
As early as the late 18th and early 19th centuries, dissatisfaction with inequality and penury drove new experiments in economic forms established as alternatives to the emergent industrial capitalist order.
In 1794, a group of shoemakers established a cooperative in Baltimore. In 1806, another group of shoemakers in Philadelphia followed suit.
The new experiments in alternative economic forms in 19th century
The 19th century famously saw waves of unrest, protest, and open rebellion on the part of the emerging urban industrial working class against the elites. What is less widely-understood is that this period also saw new experiments in alternative economic forms.
New Harmony: the most noteworthy examples of a cooperative in the 19th century
One of the most noteworthy examples of a cooperative in the 19th century was the community of New Harmony, Indiana, founded by socialist theoretician and writer Robert Owen in 1825. The initial success of the community encouraged Owen to establish it as not only a cooperative, but also a commune: ownership of the means of survival would henceforth be common, and every resident would be remunerated by need rather than by work.
The experiment was short-lived. The town had attracted a heterogeneous group of very different elements, from radicals to true believers to “lazy theorists” to unprincipled grifters or sharpers, and it collapsed under the weight of infighting in 1828.
The spread of labor unions
Owen’s experiment had failed, but arguably only because it had overreached. In 1842, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Hunt that labor unions had a right to exist, and they quickly spread in the Eastern states thereafter. When a depression hit later in the decade, many of the labor unions turned to cooperativism as a solution.
Establishing organizations: the National Workers Union and the Rulers of Industry
Another great wave of cooperativism flourished in the late 19th century, after the U.S. Civil War, and organizations like the National Labor Union and the Sovereigns of Industry were founded.
Fertilizer and electric cooperatives
More cooperatives flourished in the 1930s under the aegis of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Under government patronage, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) set up fertilizer and electric cooperatives, serving as the basis for rural electrification from 1935 on.
Collaborativism decline after World War II
Cooperativism declined during and especially after the Second World War, with military and police violence against labor unions fueled by early Cold War-era concerns about Communists. A large number of plywood co-ops in Oregon and Washington State were a major exception to the general trend: founded in the 1920s, they remained strong in the 1950s and lasted down to the 2000s.
With the sea change in social attitudes in the 1970s, a new wave of worker-owned cooperatives came into being. All of the major worker cooperatives today were formed in the 1970s or 1980s, as interest in alternative economic forms was revived.
Today there are between 300 and 400 democratic workplaces in the U.S., worth over $400 million annually, and they employ about 7,000 people.