North American Technology Worker Cooperatives

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About

Tech Co-op Network is the network of North American tech worker co-ops: worker cooperatives that provide media, communications, and computer technology goods and services. All are welcome!

We catalyze collaboration and mutual support among our members, while educating, encouraging, and supporting would-be cooperators and the general public. We subscribe to the International Co-operative identity, values, and principles. Many of us work primarily with progressive, nonprofit, and social change organizations as a part of our individual commitments to environmental, economic, and social justice and sustainability.

With a blend of partnership, federation, and friendly co-opetition, Tech Co-op Network makes visible and strengthens the vertical and horizontal connections among tech worker co-ops in North America (US, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean).

What exactly is a worker cooperative?

A cooperative is a business owned and controlled by the people who use its services. Unlike a typical business, which returns profits to the owners based on how much the owners have invested in the business, a cooperative rewards its owners based on how much they use the cooperative. And unlike a business where owners have different amounts of power based on how much money they have invested, a cooperative is governed on a democratic basis, with one vote per person regardless of investment.

There are three main kinds of cooperatives:

  • Producer cooperatives—most are big rural agricultural co-ops like Organic Valley, Sunkist and Ocean Spray—in which independent producers join together to process, market, or distribute their products collectively.  The co-op helps its producer-members get a better price than they would separately, and might enable them to create new products or access new markets they couldn't alone.
  • Consumer cooperatives—credit unions, housing co-ops, and retailers like food co-ops or REI—where the members are the consumers of the goods or services provided by the co-op. The co-op is there to procure high-quality goods or services and sell them to the consumer-members at a low price.
  • Worker cooperatives—like Arizmendi, Equal Exchange, and our members—are businesses owned and controlled by the people who work in them. The worker-members own the business and return its profits to themselves based on how much they work for the co-op. They control the co-op, perhaps by electing a Board of Directors to make policy and hire managers to organize their work, or (as is more common in smaller worker co-ops like ours) by governing and/or managing the co-op all together, as a collective.

Our History

2004: The tech-coop email list is started to coordinate the creation of a tech worker coop federation. The federation fizzles, partially because a big US presidential election and associated projects distract everyone, but mostly because it was trying to involve the wrong people and the community was still too small; most of our coops were just getting started or were not yet born. The email list, however, survives.

2007: After a Co-op Story Share session at the first annual Nonprofit Software Development Summit, the tech-coop list is expanded as a venue for tech worker coops to continue connecting and sharing resources. There are now enough coops and subscribers to start a real community with occasional list traffic. Ben Mauer of Quilted suggests right off the bat that we start "something like the Graphic Alliance only less extensive."

2009: A group of tech worker coop members organized via the tech-coop list co-write, co-edit, and co-design A Technology Freelancer's Guide To Starting a Worker Cooperative, very informally branding themselves the "Network of American Tech Worker Coops" just to give some kind of name to the community which collectively tells their stories therein. It is well-received and spreads across the Intersphere.

2011: Poonam Whabi of Design Action Collective suggests: "Somewhere down the line, it would nice to have a website advertising the tech services that our shops provide. And probably a way for folks to search by location, if they were interested in working with a coop to meet their technology needs. I think a lot of the worker coops would be into that."

2012: The tech worker coop gospel is spread at three conference sessions: at South by Southwest, the National Worker Cooperative Conference, and the Allied Media Conference. The Freelancer's Guide gets hundreds of downloads, and we receive questions from lots of folks interested in starting their own coops -- after the Great Recession and coincident with the International Year of Cooperatives, it seems there's more interest in and visibility of tech worker coops than ever before. Anna Boyer of C4 Tech & Design and the USFWC Board suggests a program "that connects cooperatives with other cooperatives based on key similarities or needs. ... Sort of a mentorship/mutual aid program. ... It would be less formal and on a smaller scale that an organization. ... For co-ops separated geographically, connections with other co-ops of the same industry can be insightful."

July 2012: Inspired by all this activity and these many similar ideas, Electric Embers envisions a more consolidated network/identity for our community. To start the process, EE approaches four co-ops that have recently been especially active in communicating about tech worker co-ops (Design Action, Quilted, Palante, and C4). After some initial conversations in person and over email, the network concept is finalized, and we really start collaborating.  After adding four more founding members (Agaric, TechCollective, Radical Designs, and Gaia Host) the group agrees on a name and mission, and starts designing (thanks Design Action!) and developing (thanks Quilted!) a website to execute our vision.

October 2013: The tech-coop email list has doubled in size over the past two years to over 150 subscribers. The time is right! Our vision is finalized and our initial website is ready to go. We invite all the tech worker co-ops we can find, open the door wide to new members, and launch the Tech Co-op Network to the world!

2013-2014: Tech worker co-ops are striking a public nerve: