Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives, Western Massachusetts
VAWC is a co-operative of eight co-ops, dedicated to building a more cooperative local economy in their region. It acts to provide support and mutual aid for its members, “strengthening the efforts of their individual efforts to develop their businesses, serve their members, and contribute to the wider co-operative economy”. It also helps incubate new worker co-ops, and has supported six co-op conversions of conventionally owned businesses in the past eight years.
VAWC also brings co-ops together to collectively reverse the ‘invisibility’ of co-operatives in the wider capitalist economy, illuminating the existence, power and viability of worker co-ops in the marketplace and in educational establishments. I was most excited to learn about their Certificate in Co-operative Enterprise, a taught module for students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It’s run in collaboration with the nearby Neighboring Food Co-ops Association and those taking its most advanced level actually intern in member co-ops, working alongside staff as well as carrying out specialist projects.
Through the Certificate, well over 250 economics students have now studied in some depth a model of doing business that places ‘people before profit’ as its core principle. That’s so exciting! It frustrates me enormously that our education system basically turns 100% of our entrepreneurs into capitalists without ever offering them a single glimpse of an alternative. The co-op programme offered at UMass hugely enriches a discipline that badly needs to consider some alternative models.
VAWC has kindly agreed to share course outlines and materials with us, so as Unicorn embarks on some much smaller partnerships with one or two universities in the North West it’s going to be incredibly helpful to learn from their experience of teaching co-operative economics to young people.
While in the Valley I was also able to sit in on the monthly VAWC members meeting, which numbered amongst others a holistic health centre, a bike delivery service and a solar company and was hosted by a reusable nappy co-op. Observing the meeting, it was clear that VAWC has helped build an unusual level of trust and respect between these co-ops. It was a great reminder of how much co-ops in very different sectors can learn from one another - recruiting, developing and retaining worker owners was the topic of the evening – with some very familiar issues raised!
It was also really great to learn about our hosts Simple Diaper & Linen, who are a wonderful co-op offering ‘real nappy’ purchase, rental and laundering as well as an eco nappy composting service, all in all diverting thousands of nappies from landfill. They even have a partnership with a local non-profit that provides real nappies to low income families.
VAWC’s unique model is now attracting attention States-wide, with interest from as far away as Texas! Thanks SO much to Adam and the other VAWC members for sharing their time and resources with me.