Why one big co-op?

The idea of having a worker cooperative with branches in multiple cities is highly unusual.

Having producer co-ops or consumer co-ops with offices or storefronts scattered across several cities or several states is pretty routine. And there are even worker co-ops, particularly in the tech industry, where individual workers are spread across the US and even up into Canada. But to have clusters of worker-owners in multiple cities, well, that appears to be pretty unusual. The closest anyone has come is Equal Exchange, with several outposts beyond its headquarters.

So, why one big co-op? Why not a network of co-ops, like the tech co-ops have formed? Well, the tech co-ops provide a broad range of hardware, software, administration, and design skills. We, in contrast, interpret and translate. At the risk of oversimplifying, they have more than a dozen specialities in their membership, whereas we have (basically) two. Our audience, priorities, and timing are different enough that closer coordination makes sense for us.

But I also see another reason to band together into a single organization, and that’s being a union co-op. First off, we won’t see many of the benefits of union membership—as in actual job benefits, like health insurance or a pension plan—until our pool of contributors reaches a certain size, which would be a real struggle for a local co-op to reach on its own. And freelance interpreters having those benefits without being in a union or a co-op (or, realistically, both) is flat-out impossible.

Second, I don’t see interpreters (or translators) ever becoming the recognized and respected professionals that they absolutely deserve to be without both owning their own businesses and strongly identifying with other workers. The former can be done as a freelancer, but is more effective as a worker co-op. The latter can be done by posting on social media, but is more effectively done by tapping into existing networks of mutual solidarity between workers, which means a union.

Third, the existence of a single co-op that interpreters in different cities can join means that the barriers to entry are lowered for skilled workers to both cooperativize and unionize. There is a network effect on increased availability of benefits for all existing members (see above), plus an expanded base of workers for leadership roles, internal financing, and of course, the work itself. Similarly, our co-op (in Madison) is beginning to ramp up remote conference interpreting. In a single co-op, other branches would be able to participate in our contract with the platform provider, and could save the trouble of signing their own. This would allow the co-op to expand its capabilities fairly quickly.

Fourth, once we reach national scope, we can be direct competition to large interpreting agencies, both for clients and for interpreters. As a co-op with far less overhead than a traditional agency, we are well positioned to compete for clients on both price and quality, and for workers on pay and working conditions (and benefits, through the union). We can challenge both their market niche and their business model. I also think marketing a single national brand would be considerably easier than several small ones.

Being one big co-op doesn’t mean being a monolithic organization. That wouldn’t be desirable or sustainable. Rather, local branches would have considerable autonomy to meet their needs of their local market as they see fit. National governance would apply to issues best dealt with at scale, such as benefits, legal matters, possibly marketing and/or administration, giving trainings, receiving trainings, skill evaluation, communication, coordination with other national organizations, and so on.

In short, having one big co-op will be well worth the effort it will take to set it up.

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