Interview with Dario Azzellini

Yes We Can: Worker-Owned Coops

Founded in 1973, (yes, that’s 45 years ago!) the Park Slope Food Coop is one of the oldest and largest consumer food coops in the country. It’s a presence in our lives, the source of our food, and a center for community engagement. And it’s also part of a larger coop movement that stretches back in time and exists in many parts of the world.

Dario Azzellini travels the globe studying, teaching, writing, and producing documentaries about cooperatives. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Community and Worker Ownership Project of CUNY’s Murphy Institute ( Azzellini has a broad perspective on the place of cooperatives in the history of humanity. His work can be found at

Cooperation in Human History 

Although not always designated by the term coop, “cooperation is anthropologically embedded in human beings. Cooperatives go back thousands of years. We wouldn’t have developed without them,” says Azzellini. Over the course of human history, “if humans had used today’s business norms and laws we wouldn’t have evolved beyond the state of Neanderthals. Humankind thrived because of cooperation,” he says. Azzellini points to numerous examples throughout human history—beginning with antique Greek mills and on through medieval times, when serfs and workers began “building networks of cooperation to resist the power of rich, commercial business and enterprises. During industrialization, this developed into what we know as cooperatives, often founded by urban workers to survive the brutal force of industrialization and early abuses of labor. “They built cooperatives to strengthen each other, to build social networks, to assure mutual health in daily life. People in the countryside also started to build cooperatives for financial aid, and to resist the pressure of rising commerce and the enclosure of the commons. In Germany, the first social security systems were based on worker-built cooperatives that Kaiser Wilhelm expropriated to build a modern social welfare system.”

What Do Cooperatives Provide? 

According  to  Azzellini, two primary coop functions are offering solidarity and equality, leveling the playing field. “It doesn’t matter how much you put in, you get out what you need. Coops give everyone the same possibility, the same services. The participants set the priorities and the rules.” Decisions are based on these shared values, differ from those of the commercial marketplace, where financial power or property ownership are ruling factors, Azzellini says. In capitalism, ownership and size of property dictate the share of decision-making. “In the past, the chief was the recipient of the fruits of people’s labor in a community. Today, a Walmart in the neighborhood doesn’t reinvest profits made in that neighborhood. In contrast, a coop distributes its earnings to its members, who spend money where they live.” (In the case of the PSFC, it distributes its earnings to members through the low mark-up on food and other products.) It’s an important way that worker coops support community development, as well as local production and consumption. 

Elsewhere, thanks to international trade and distribution, globalization increasingly dominates world economies. Both money and other assets are concentrated in fewer and fewer areas, and extracted from everywhere else. Azzellini considers cooperatives a counterforce to these developments, which in his view devastate both people and many regions of the Earth. To see that impoverish-ment first hand, “we don’t even have to look to Africa or Latin America, we can go to New Jersey or upstate New York,” Azzellini points out. “In all these places, coops are a mechanism to strengthen local communities and economies—an important democratic exercise. We are told that we’re living in a democracy and everyone should be democratic. But democracy is reduced to a single vote in an annual election. You make an X on a paper and that’s it.”

Azzellini maintains that there can and should be broader ways to sustain and build democracy. The production and consumption of goods and services is a key and often untapped arena, he says. Cooperation helps people examine their values, the value of money, goods, food, and the value of the work behind it. “In a coop, you can ask questions about priorities that you can’t in a chain supermarket. Nor can you raise such questions in the hierarchy of the work place with your employer.”

Not All Cooperatives Are Altruistic

Yet many coops have moved away from their original purpose—due to marketplace pressures, says Azzellini. Some are managing prisons for immigrants. Others may institute hierarchies, increasing pay for some workers over others, or hire more outside workers. A famous Basque cooperative turned into a corporation, without any say by the workers. The most authentic coops have what he calls “shop floor democracy” where it’s one person, one vote. People who have struggled to set up or maintain a coop, value solidarity. Coops that survive long term get people in their community more involved. In the U.S., Azzellini says he’s seen “a decline in cooperatives, as more people adopt neoliberal ideas.” 

Azzellini  and  other researchers differentiate worker-owned coops from “hybrid” coops such as “consumer” coops like the PSFC, where members contribute some but not all labor. In member-worker and consumer coops, when participants retain their rights and uphold cooperative values, the coops over time become more organic, GMO-free, and community-oriented. Azzellini questions the widespread assumption that individual consumer choice is all-powerful. “I don’t think it’s useful or okay to put all the responsibility on the single consumer—for example, for destroying the world. Because a single consumer purchase or even many such purchases don’t determine business or governmental policies. It’s a neoliberal lie that just by changing our individual behavior, we are going to change the world. It doesn’t matter if we avoid one air trip, but rich people keep flying around in private jets. And yes, I can buy a car that uses less gas. But what will really change the situation is free public transport. We live in a world where most people can’t buy organic products. They get poisoned by the food they can afford to buy—and that’s not their choice.” Azzellini believes that supporting cooperatives, whether by joining a coop—or buying from cooperatives—is a more systemic, and hence more effective way to bring about social change. And PSFC members have ample opportunity to support New York City-based worker cooperatives. 

NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives 

The New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives or NYC NOWC ( functions as a trade association, says its program director Tamara Shapiro. Thanks to recent City Council funding, NYC NOWC administers grants to new worker cooperatives, maintains a directory of area cooperatives (between 60 and 80 in the city), and offers training in how to start and manage worker-owned cooperatives. The city is a hotbed of activity. In the Bronx, the country’s largest worker cooperative, Cooperative Home Care Associates ( has 1,000 members and 200 workers, who provide home health care services. In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Si Se Puede! ( is the largest worker-owned house-cleaning cooperative. A social media platform called Up and Go ( helps people find and book housecleaning services. Worker-owned child-care, catering, food packaging, printing, bookkeeping, dog walking, petsitting, tutoring, composting, tech, and jewelry design cooperatives. Many of these cooperatives are owned by immigrants. All and more can be found in NYC NOWC’s business directory ( “It’s important to build up connections between different  coops and build up commodity and service chains across coops. When the people you deal with are in cooperatives too that changes the relationships you have,” says Azzellini.

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