Photograph by Stacy Kranitz
In a worker-owned cooperative, employees both help run a business and share in its ownership. While co-ops make up a small portion of US businesses, the pandemic and its aftermath have helped lead to an uptick in interest in this model. There are now 465 verified worker-owned co-ops in the country, according to Mo Manklang, policy director of the nonprofit US Federation of Worker Cooperatives—up 36 percent since 2013. People turn to worker cooperatives, Manklang says, “when their government is unable to meet the moment.”
Given today’s epic income inequality and corporate consolidation—with the work that is available increasingly unstable and episodic—it’s no wonder workers are drawn to jobs that give them back some power. These co-ops mark a return to what Emily Kawano, the co-director of the co-op development organization Wellspring Cooperative Corporation, calls making a “livelihood” rather than just earning a paycheck.
Co-ops expanded in the United States in another transitional period in the country’s history, the 1880s, many of them founded by Black people after the Civil War. “When we were freed after slavery, and went to work, we got the worst jobs and the worst pay and the least disposable income,” explains Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. “Cooperatives were the way to get around,” the exclusion from traditional businesses and banks.
In the 20th century, the New Deal era encouraged this cooperative work ethos, and co-ops had another renaissance in the 1960s and ’70s. As the 2020 pandemic took hold, the worker co-op paradigm appealed with its labor-centered approach to business. “Things are going to happen, like natural disasters,” says Camille Kerr, a community organizer who co-founded ChiFresh, a worker-cooperative food service business in Chicago. “The pandemic lifted up the need for us to focus on meeting each other’s needs. What better way to do so than collective ownership?”
To give a sense of what these imaginative businesses are up to, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and Mother Jones sent six photographers to document co-ops in six regions of the country. The question underlying the assignment was both practical and utopian: What does it look like when ordinary people are their own bosses? —Alissa Quart
Featuring: Annie Flanagan, Constanza Hevia H., Stacy Kranitz, Anjali Pinto, Joseph Rodriguez, Tristan Spinski
This project was supported by Solutions Journalism Network
Curators: Alissa Quart, Mark Murrmann
Editor: Maddie Oatman
Designer: Debbie Ullman
Additional production: David Wallis
Additional research: Ramenda Cyrus
Supported by: Solutions Journalism Network
About The Artists
Annie Flanagan @annieflanagan
Annie Flanagan is a New Orleans-based freelance photographer, journalist, and educator. Their work primarily focuses on gender, sexuality, identity, and trauma in the United States. Flanagan received an M.S. from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University.
Constanza Hevia H. @constanzaheviah
Constanza Hevia H. is a Chilean documentary photographer and filmmaker. She documents visual stories focused on social and cultural issues using an anthropological methodology. In her work, Hevia seeks to explore the complex relationship between memory, loss, and mortality. She is a member of Women Photograph, Foto Féminas, and Diversify Photo.
Stacy Kranitz @stacykranitz
Kranitz was born in Kentucky, and currently lives in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Kranitz is a current Guggenheim Fellow. Her first monograph, “As it Was Give(n) to Me,” will be published by Twin Palms.
Anjali Pinto @anjalipinto
Anjali Pinto is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She received a B.A. in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, with special training at the Danish School of Media and Journalism.
Joseph Rodríguez @rollie6x6
Joseph Rodríguez is a documentary photographer born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He studied photography in the School of Visual Arts and in the photojournalism and documentary photography program at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Rodríguez teaches at New York University and the International Center of Photography, New York.
Tristan Spinski @tristanspinski
Tristan Spinski is a photographer, writer, and co-founding member of GRAIN, a photography collective. Spinski earned his master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley, and much of his work examines the confluence of economy, culture, and landscape. He lives in Maine.
Alissa Quart @Alissaquart
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is also the author of five nonfiction books and two works of poetry. The former include the acclaimed “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America” and “Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers.” Her latest is forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins in 2022. Quart contributes journalism to the New York Times, the Guardian, and many other publications. The multimedia, photo, and film collaborations she has written or executive produced include the Emmy-winning documentary “Jackson.”
About The Organizations
The Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) produces quality journalism about—and often by—Americans who are experiencing economic injustice. Our nonprofit supports independent journalists and photographers so they can create gripping stories that counter common poor-shaming narratives. We then inject these stories into the mainstream media, mobilizing readers to change systems that perpetuate inequality.
Mother Jones is a nonprofit news organization with a bi-monthly magazine that delivers bold and original reporting on the urgent issues of our day, from politics and climate change to education and the food we eat. We investigate stories that are in the public’s interest.