Cooperatives are a form of business structure: they are associations of people who voluntarily work towards a common social, economic, or cultural goals. There are different types of cooperatives including consumer cooperatives, worker cooperatives, housing cooperatives and multi-stakeholder cooperatives.
In the business world, worker cooperatives are the most common. These are companies in which workers manage the running of the business – either directly or indirectly – rather than dedicated managers. The democratic nature may function in different ways: the workers may be directly involved in decision-making, or they may elect decision-makers, or it may refer to a more traditional company structure in which employees are not ranked hierarchically e.g. managers are no more senior than employees. The power held by employees in worker co-operatives is vested through either direct ownership or through control of shares.
The International Co-operative Alliance is a co-operative union representing the interests of co-operatives throughout the world. In terms of values and organisational goals held by worker cooperatives, the International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers' Co-operatives – a division of the ICA – puts out an eight-page document that was approved by the ICA’s General Assembly in 2005. It includes values like: having free and voluntary membership, working towards creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, having internal regulation defined by regimes borne out of democratic process and – generally – that work is carried out by members.
Worker cooperatives have quite a rich historical pedigree and became common during the industrial revolution as a way to cope with ‘capitalist excesses,’ and lack of job security. Workers increasingly self-organised as labour moved to industrial areas.
In the UK, the biggest well-known cooperative is the John Lewis Partnership, although there are other less prominent but still substantial cooperatives including Suma Wholefoods and the Essential Trading Co-operative.