"Cooperatives and Community Organizing from Spokane to Barcelona" 

Many Spokane locals know the red awning and wooden windmill that greet visitors to the Great Harvest Bread Co. For decades, this haven of fresh-baked bread and family-owned farming has been a local icon of small business on the South side of the city.

Last year, Great Harvest made another mark on Spokane’s history by becoming the latest member of the Spokane Workers Cooperative. Joining the ranks of other local co-ops like Range Media, Treatment, and Ron Morris Heating and Air, Great Harvest is now fully worker owned and part of a network dedicated to expanding the social and economic impact of businesses in Spokane. 

The growing cooperative movement in the US – spearheaded by groups like the Spokane Workers Cooperative – represents an important opportunity for the future of community organizing. Just like churches, schools, or community-managed social centers, co-ops like Great Harvest are another way for people to build organized power and address the challenges facing their community – be that fair pay, sustainable agriculture practices, healthy food or beyond.

To dig deeper into this idea, I sat down last week with the Co-Founder of the Spokane Workers Cooperative, Joel Wilkerson, to swap ideas about the intersection of the cooperative movement and community organizing

We started with a basic definition of what a cooperative business is:

Like any good community organizing institution, a co-op is owned and run by a group of local people to meet a shared need. In the case of a co-op, this group is usually composed of either the workers, the customers, or the suppliers in a business.

Ensuring workers have a voice in the decision making process means they can advocate for safe working conditions and fair pay. Customers can use their say to make sure the business is investing in their local area. And suppliers (farmers or ranchers for example) can come together through co-ops to compete with larger corporations. 

Because most of these member-owners are also residents in the community, co-ops are notoriously good at investing locally and responding to their community’s economic or social needs. 

Joel was open about the uphill battles they face building cooperatives in Eastern Washington, however. “The idea of worker ownership isn’t part of our culture in the US” he admitted. “Teaching people how to run and manage a cooperatively owned business requires a paradigm shift about what a business can be.”

While groups like the Spokane Workers Cooperative may still be fighting for full recognition in the US, they are a common practice in many parts of Europe and South America. 

In Barcelona, consumers and employees have been using the cooperative model to improve corporate accountability and resiliency since before Spain was even a country. 

Today, there are over 860 cooperatives in Barcelona. In Catalonia overall, an estimated 9% of GDP is generated every year by cooperative companies. But while they have an impressive economic impact, their vision goes far beyond “business as usual.” 

Ruben Medina is a coordinator for Impuls Cooperative de Sants, a network of 35 cooperative businesses located in the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona. These members include grocery stores, restaurants, housing developments, cleaning services, architecture firms, and more.

Map of all Impuls Co-op members in the Sants neighborhood 

Ruben is emphatic about how co-ops function as a vehicle for community power locally. “Many of the cooperatives in Impuls today were created directly out of a community need,” he explains. L'Economat Social was developed as a way to bring fresh produce into the community. Quesoni Co-op was founded because neighborhood events began needing technical, sound, and audiovisual assistance. 

Impuls brought these individual businesses together in an organized network, enabling them to grow their impact by identifying shared issues and tackling them collectively. The results in the community are impressive.

“At one point we realized that each of our businesses was paying a lot of money for cleaning services,” Ruben recounted. “The businesses we were contracting to do this were often large chains, they treated their workers poorly, and they had no intention of reinvesting that money in our community.” 

Impuls shared this realization with other neighborhood groups and a call was put out in 2016 for interested community members to develop a solution. In short order CoopNet was born: a cooperatively run, cleaning service dedicated to eco-friendly practices and with a commitment to a 1:1 salary ratio among men and women. 

Just a year later, CoopNet itself joined Impuls as a fully-fledged member of the cooperative network.

These ripple effects go beyond the business world as well. When co-op worker-owners realized there was a shared need for better childcare support, they collaborated through Impuls to form a new daycare program that was open to all members of the community. 

In Sants, local economic power developed through Impuls has meant businesses work to address local issues, keep money circulating in the community, and protect worker rights. Not out of altruism or charity, but because they are run by the people who have a vested interest in those exact same things.

The conversations with Ruben and Joel ended in a common agreement that the future of the cooperative movement and the future of community organizing each represent a huge opportunity for the other. Strong cooperative businesses have the potential to be powerful community institutions just like churches or schools, and a well organized, energetic community is exactly the kind of environment that co-ops can thrive in. 

Hearing about the groundbreaking work in Spokane and seeing first hand results in Barcelona made me think about all the businesses in Spokane doing similar work. Stores like Wishing Tree Books, South Perry Pizza, Meeting House, and yes, Great Harvest. All small, community-focused businesses spread out along the City’s South Hill neighborhood - an area that has see-sawed between years of gentrification and drug deals during my lifetime. 

What happens if these businesses begin to organize too; could the South Hill be the next Sants?

The Spokane Workers Cooperative has its work cut out for it, as do its peers like the Spokane Alliance and Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance (SIMBA). But these networks are at the forefront of making the City accountable to people instead of profits. And they have a large cheering section rooting for them over here in Barcelona.

The motto of Impuls Sants: "Social and Economic Structures for People Power"