Arizmendi - Building co-ops through replication


The Bay Area of northern California is home to five worker co-op bakeries, all collectively managed, all paying an equal (living) wage, all serving up amazing quality bread, pizza, cakes and cookies. And it's no accident. They all feature, somewhere in their name, the word Arizmendi. Although they're all autonomous co-ops, each run by their members, they are all based on the model of a sixth, long-established bakery co-op in Berkeley, and were incubated by a unique organisation, the Arizmendi Association of Co-operatives, with whom I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last few days.

Named after a priest who helped form the Mondragon co-operatives in Spain’s Basque country, the Association has made it its mission to create the largest number of worker co-op jobs possible by replicating a successful business model multiple times. It was established in 1995 in partnership with the Cheese Board Collective, a wildly successful pizzeria and bakery co-operative who've been generous enough to share their recipes, business model and reputation with a new generation of co-operators.

For me, the family of Arizmendi co-ops pretty much embodies the spirit of ‘solidarity in co-operation’ (Principle Six of the international co-op principles), both in what they do here and in their willingness to share their model with fellow co-operators. During my time here they’ve shared policy and governance documents, welcomed me to observe meetings and given time for interviews with multiple co-op members. It’s been amazing to see in practice how the generosity of the original 'mother' co-op, along with the passion, skills and commitment of a small group of coop-minded people, has allowed a successful worker co-op model to be replicated over and over again, creating over one hundred new worker co-op jobs in a sector dominated by low wage, insecure, and often thoroughly exploitative employment.

As a member of a co-op in a similar position to the Cheese Board ‘mothership’ which lies at the heart of the Arizmendi story, it’s one of the most inspiring initiatives I’ve ever discovered. As co-operators, it’s easy to forget just how lucky we are…. to own our work, be our own bosses, democratically and collectively control our own working environments so that we can look after ourselves and each other…. These aren’t things we should take for granted, or forget just how much our working lives contrast with others in our sector. A long-time member at the Cheese Board nearly made me cry when she described the significance of co-operative working for their members, and the knowledge that they have helped recreate that for so many other people, ‘making a difference in a world where change often feels impossible to achieve’.

We know that Unicorn and our Grow a Grocery guide have certainly lent a helping hand in the establishment of various like-minded co-ops in the UK, but a direct replication has yet to be attempted. Maybe the time has come for that to change.  

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