Madison, Wisconsin

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Supportive Mayor in a Small City in the Heart of Cooperative Country

Madison, the capitol of Wisconsin and home of its flagship university, has a solid middle class, a stable economy, and relatively little racial diversity. The state of Wisconsin is distinguished by a long history of cooperative organizing and a strong cooperative economy, based in agriculture but present across sectors. A polarized dynamic between progressive Madison and conservative state government has made the statehouse a flashpoint for mass protest. Madison’s progressive mayor has a history of supporting co-ops and, in 2014, committed $5M over five years from the city’s capital budget for cooperative development. In 2015, a worker co-op leader was elected to Madison’s Common Council.

 

Madison has the highest rate in the country of employment per capita in worker cooperatives. More than 500 people working in 14 worker co-ops compose between 0.3% and 0.4% of Madison’s total labor force. These co-ops have a public profile and level of political influence that is not seen elsewhere in this country. The cooperative way of doing business is widely seen as “normal” in Madison, and co-ops enjoy institutional support from higher education and business service providers. The two largest worker co-ops in Madison were both formed through conversion from a conventional form of ownership.

Ecosystem Analysis

A clear picture emerges in Madison of a mature and well-supported ecosystem for worker cooperatives, with Essential, Important, and Environmental Elements in place, alongside a nascent ecosystem for low- and moderate-income worker cooperative development aimed at scale.

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Strong Elements in This Ecosystem

– Member Skills and Capacity in long-standing worker cooperatives

– Experienced Technical Assistance providers

– Values-Driven Businesses, including co-ops of all kinds

– Advocacy Partnerships with labor, higher education, & co-op lobbying groups at the local and state levels

– Widespread Attitudes and Culture favoring co-ops

Opportunities to Build and Leverage Strengths in This Ecosystem

– Develop a city-wide strategy for incubation of worker co-ops for low-wage workers and build capacity of Co-op Developers to carry it out
– Explore Connection to Market and contracts with anchor institutions as a strategy for scale
– Develop the Financing ecosystem for worker co-ops beyond the strong foundation of self-financed growth

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Food for Thought

With an already strong Cooperative Growth Ecosystem, Madison has an opportunity to aggregate the resources, reach, and expertise of its current worker cooperatives and co-op developers to bring in new worker-owners from low-income communities and communities of color. Could some portion of the mayor’s capital budget support “high-risk” forgivable pre-development loans to support this expansion? How could high cooperative awareness and the fact that the two largest worker co-ops in the city were created through conversion jump-start a drive for cooperative conversions in Madison as a business succession and community economic development strategy? What additional outreach and supports may be needed to bring the worker co-op model to Madison’s low-wage workers?