The modern cooperative movement began in reaction to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Pioneers such as Robert Owen and William King labored to change the harsh working conditions. The law was not on their side, however, and many of their efforts did not come to fruition. In 1843, the Rochdale Pioneers opened shop promising that the flour would be pure and the scales would be fair. The Pioneers grew quickly and in the financial panic of 1848, they became a very safe place to have ones money.
Throughout the remainder of the 1800’s cooperatives began springing up in Europe and the Americas. England continued with a consumer cooperative movement to match its culture as a “nation of shop keepers.” In Germany, the dominant form was the Credit Union. France focused on worker cooperatives. In the US and Canada, the Grange and Populist movement helped to create the strong producer cooperatives of the Agriculture industry. Italy developed along all of these lines.
In the 1930’s cooperatives in the UK and Canada consolidated creating large second tier cooperatives. Today, the Coop Atlantic and Cooperatives UK are the remnants of these movements. Coop Atlantic is a producer-consumer cooperative while The Cooperative in the UK is a consumer cooperative providing “cradle to grave” goods and services to millions of Britons.
In the 1950’s under the fascist heel of Franco, Basque workers created a manufacturing cooperative. The ULGOR cooperative grew creating its own banking structure, social security network and educational institutions. Today, Mondragon is one of the largest corporations in the world and continues to operate as a democratic worker cooperative.
The Italian cooperatives of the north have also prospered and the Trentino and Bologna areas of Italy have the cooperative model as the dominant form of conducting business.
Worker and Consumer cooperatives began to take off in the United States in the early 1980’s and 1990s. Union Cab and Isthmus Engineering are two of the older worker cooperatives in existence today. The consumer cooperatives have begun working together nationally to achieve better prices on goods. Worker cooperatives have also started to network regionally and nationally.
The cooperative movement begun by a handful of men and women in 1843 has blossomed into an international movement of democratic enterprises that represent over 800 million people worldwide. The top 300 cooperatives have an aggregate turnover of 1.1 trillion dollars, which equals the 10th largest national economy.