Worker Co-ops and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives

By John Zippert, Federation of Souther Cooperatives

From August 16-18, 2007, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund will celebrate its fortieth (40th) anniversary and Annual Meeting. Growing from 22 cooperatives and credit unions organized by SNCC, CORE, SCLC and other civil rights organizations in the South in the 1960's, the Federation has worked with thousands of Black farmers and other low income rural folks over the past four decades.

The Federation currently serves 75 active cooperatives and credit unions from the Carolinas to Texas, involving more than 20,000 families most of whom could accurately be described as among "the working poor." The Federation is the foremost organization representing and assisting the dwindling number of Black farmers and landowners in the South. In 1985, the Federation merged with the Emergency Land Fund and made the retention of Black landownership a major focus of our work.

About half of our membership consists of Black farmers and their agricultural marketing and purchasing co-ops; another third are members of rural community development credit unions; and the remaining sixth of our membership are housing, consumer, fishing and producer cooperatives.

From its beginnings, the Federation had a membership of handicraft producer cooperatives, among them the Freedom Quilting Bee of Alberta (Gee's Bend)

Alabama; Freedom House Handicrafts which was a loose network of Mississippi craft producers who had a central warehouse in Jackson; and various handicraft groups in Appalachia. These co-ops provided rural women with supplementary income to bolster their families' standard of living.

Over the years the Federation has provided information, support and training to groups that were interested in starting worker-owned or producer cooperatives. We have given assistance to groups that wanted to start construction, car repair and other kinds of worker owned enterprises. We have assisted and advised groups of workers facing plant closings in rural communities across the South on the possibilities, feasibility and viability of worker ownership.

In June 2005, the Federation sponsored a major conference at our Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama, to explore worker cooperatives. This conference, "Community Economic Development: The Worker Ownership Option," was attended by over fifty people. Topics covered included African Americans and Cooperative Economics, Organizing and Educating the Community and Workers for Worker Ownership, Economic and Social Underdevelopment in the South, Entrepreneurship and Worker Ownership, Steps to Starting a Worker's Cooperative, Managing and Governing the Worker Cooperative, and Financing Worker Owned Businesses in the South.

Because of the difficulties in organizing and sustaining worker owned businesses, more particularly the problems of credit and financing, internal rule setting and the competitive marketplace which imposes harsh conditions on start-ups and new small businesses, the Federation has not been able to develop many new producer cooperatives.

As an example in 2005 and 2006, we tried to develop a worker owned catering cooperative to provide food services for the Federation's training facilities and other markets in the area. We assisted a group of women to initiate this project, provided support, training and a portion of the guaranteed market. The group, which consisted of three existing smaller groups that had done catering in the past and some additional women seeking employment, was never able to really come together and work as a cooperative. At the Federation, we continue to use a remnant of this group to provide cooking services at our center but the cooperative never gelled and took on the task of finding other larger markets to sustain the employment potentials of the venture.

The destruction from Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region has provided a new opportunity for the Federation to introduce cooperative development, including worker co-ops, to people as a collective strategy for disaster relief and recovery. Since the storms in August of 2005, Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the Federation has worked with hundreds of hurricane survivors on immediate relief efforts and more long term recovery solutions. The Federation distributed over $500,000 in food, cash, livestock feed, ethanol fuel and other supplies, much of it donated by the wider cooperative movement in the U. S., to families in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

In Plaquemine Parish, south of New Orleans, the Federation is working with a multi-racial group of fishers, including people who catch shrimp, crabs, oysters and ocean fish, to develop a marketing and processing cooperative. The co-op which embraces Black, Native American, Vietnamese, Hmong and white fishers, will help to revitalize the economy of this fragile coastal community in Louisiana. This effort involves helping people to rebuild their fishing boats, homes and lives. The co-op organizing effort which is supported by the Federation, Oxfam, the Cooperative Development Foundation, USDA Rural Business Cooperative Service and many others has united the community around a hope for a brighter and more egalitarian future.

The Federation has been providing training and working with other groups to introduce and promote cooperative development as an alternative and effective means for addressing some of the intractable problems caused by the disaster. The Federation has assisted groups of goat producers, dairy farmers, and vegetable growers in the hurricane impact area to explore and develop cooperatives. We are also working with groups in the impact area on developing housing cooperatives, self-help housing and other collective housing strategies. We hope to hold a series of housing workshops in the coming months to assist more groups to utilize cooperative housing concepts to solve the lingering problems of housing in the hurricane impacted area.

Continuing clean-up, mold removal, gutting and construction challenges in the hurricane impacted area offer the potential for worker cooperative development to train area residents and organize co-ops to provide these services. We have been in contact with Common Ground in New Orleans to discuss these ideas. The Federation has recently been contacted by a group of Black contractors in Louisiana who are interested in a building supply cooperative. There are many possibilities and potentials for cooperative development in the future - we look forward to the challenges!

John Zippert is Director of Program Operations of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund; to contact the author, John, or write the Federation's Rural Training and Research Center at P. O. Box 95; Epes, Alabama 35460.

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