An image from below of an ethnic woman loosely leaning away from a building and looking into the camera knowingly.
Image credit: Emma Harrisova on Unsplash

Worker cooperatives, as part of a solidarity economy framework, offer a way to meet people’s immediate material needs while building a more democratic economy. However, since worker co-ops are structured around capitalist markets with the demand for efficiency and profitability, they often struggle to meet their social and material goals.

That is why advocates of worker co-ops who seek economic transformation argue that worker ownership must be linked to a community building strategy1 and “political struggle to wrest power from the ruling class”2 if they are to achieve their potential. Radical municipalism offers a means to combine worker co-ops with a liberatory political agenda.

What Is Radical Municipalism?

Radical municipalism is a political program that places an ethical imperative on direct democracy, which gained prominence through Occupy Wall Street and related movements. Municipalists believe that everyday people have the capacity for self-governance and self-determination—and that the best way to overcome forms of social domination like racism, patriarchy, and xenophobia is through a participatory and pluralistic society that brings people together across differences.

Radical municipalism calls for political action both inside and outside the current system. On the inside, municipalists push for initiatives like participatory budgeting, which opens space for residents to make decisions directly regarding the allocation of public dollars. While these initiatives might bring beneficial reforms, they do not address the underlying power inequities of capitalism and the state.

To supplant these power inequities, municipalism advocates bottom-up people’s democracy. Achieving this requires radical municipalists to establish directly democratic people’s assemblies outside the system with the long-term aim of contesting the legitimacy of established government by creating a more authentic forum for community governance. These assemblies would then link to other assemblies in a federation of free municipalities.

Radical municipalism is a political program that places an ethical imperative on direct democracy.

Municipalism’s conception of democracy differs greatly from the dominant paradigm of democratic theory, which today traces its roots to the work of Joseph Schumpeter, who understood democracy to be an instrumental method rather than a relationship or mode. Schumpeter applied a market principle to the democratic process, in which voters resemble consumers choosing between political products.3

Radical municipalism calls out common faulty assumptions about the past. As the late David Graeber pointed out in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the market-based conception of society legitimizes the status quo rather than provide an accurate picture of the past.4

In reality, human societies have created a dizzying array of radically different social forms. The Iroquois Federation, for example, functioned on fundamentally different ontological assumptions that strictly limited the accumulation of wealth and property.5

The upshot is that humanity is not bound by cynical liberal myths about human nature. Other worlds are possible.

The most profound example of radical municipalism in practice is the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (often referred to as “Rojava”), which has successfully implemented a system of directly democratic assemblies governing a region of over four million people.

Other notable organizations and movements embodying these practices include the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Barcelona en Comú, Cooperation Jackson, and more. Eleanor Finley and Aaron Vansintjan also situate radical tenants’ unions, mutual aid networks, and Indigenous resurgence as adjacent nodes in the municipalist struggle. Worker-owned cooperatives are widely seen by radical municipalists as part of a diversity of tactics in a broader solidarity economy movement.

Understanding Worker Cooperatives

A cooperative is a legal entity, but the underlying idea of cooperation is as ancient as the earliest humans. Today, there are many different types of formal cooperative entities that serve different purposes. For example, your local grocery co-op is likely a consumer co-op owned by members who shop there. Other types of cooperatives include credit unions, purchasing co-ops, limited equity housing co-ops, multi-stakeholder cooperatives, marketing co-ops, platform co-ops, and more. Worker cooperatives are owned and operated by and for the benefit of the workers.6

On their own, worker cooperatives do not seriously challenge capitalism. But as part of a broader economic and political movement, they can.

Worker cooperatives are the fastest growing type of co-op and tend to be the most radical. Most US worker-owners are women and of color, with Latinas making up the largest demographic group.

A worker cooperative is a for-profit enterprise. A successful co-op is a successful business.7 However, worker co-ops differ from conventional businesses in two important ways. First, worker co-ops are operated democratically through a one-worker, one-vote principle. Second, the profits generated by worker co-ops are distributed to the workers. These dividends are allocated based on hours worked rather than money invested.

Worker co-ops provide much better work environments than conventional companies because the workers themselves set the policies and wages while also enjoying the profits. Furthermore, worker-owners usually live in the local community where their co-op is located, and they tend to create positive community outcomes as wealth creation is dispersed among the community rather than concentrated in individuals.

While many worker co-ops see themselves as part of a transformational movement, others view a better workplace as an end in and of itself. On their own, worker cooperatives do not seriously challenge capitalism. But as part of a broader economic and political movement, they can assemble a noncapitalist, systematic alternative.

Co-op Structure: Representative or Self-Managed

The degree to which worker co-ops can foster democratic agency is largely tied to their governance structures and management practices. Worker cooperatives often include four major groups: members, board of directors, management, and unions. The members are simultaneously workers and shareholders governing the co-op based on the principle of one worker, one vote. Advocates for worker co-ops like the ICA Group and Democracy at Work Institute encourage co-ops to develop clearly defined structures, roles, and decision-making processes. This is especially important as co-ops grow and become more complex.

The aim of co-ops, from a radical municipal perspective, should be to foster democratic agency.

In some worker co-ops, democratic participation takes on a more representative form. Membership will meet in a general assembly once a year to elect a board of directors and vote on major items the board has brought to the meeting. In these co-ops, the board of directors oversees day-to-day operations, including hiring management. The ICA Group recommends the board of directors only bring an item to general membership if it 1) will affect the co-op’s survival, 2) has to do with policies for hiring or firing co-op members, or 3) affects the basic character of the cooperative.

Management here plays a similar role as in traditional businesses. However, worker-owners can direct and potentially remove disliked or abusive management. This type of representative cooperative is in tension with the ethics or aims of radical municipalism, even if it does foster a more just and pleasant workplace environment.

Other worker co-ops use direct democracy methods. These co-ops can (and often do) forgo hiring management or electing a board of directors and instead make decisions as a collective or delegate certain responsibilities. The aim of co-ops, from a radical municipal perspective, should be to foster democratic agency by creating opportunities for worker-owners to participate directly in decision-making.

Radical municipalism advocates for direct democracy. While direct democracy is often portrayed as impractical, the representative governance structure does not necessarily produce better outcomes; it simply conforms closer to conventional practices. It is true that direct democracy is more time consuming and requires a high degree of commitment, trust, and skilled facilitation. Still, it can be more effective in advancing values like community and ecological wellbeing.

Labor unions are another important facet of the budding radical worker co-op movement. Even in directly democratic worker co-ops, the interests of the members as workers and as owners may diverge. A radical union ethos can help maintain worker voice, even as the co-op model softens labor-management conflict.

Despite potential shortcomings, worker co-ops remain valued by municipalists because they can foster practical education in democratic practices and transition ownership of the means of production to the workers. In a robust solidarity economy network aligned with a radical municipal political movement, worker cooperatives can help advance the democratic transformation of society.

From Worker Ownership to Municipal Ecosocialism

As previously noted, worker co-ops will not transform the economy on their own and must be seen as part of a wider process of expanding solidarity economy networks into a countervailing power against capitalist norms. To turn worker co-ops from “quaint little projects on the side” into institutions with liberatory capability, Ajamu Nangwaya and Kali Akuno emphasize the need for “enabling structures.”8

A successful radical municipal movement can support worker co-ops in several ways. By expanding participation in existing governance structures through initiatives like participatory budgeting, municipal policy can be leveraged to promote cooperative development. Stacey Sutton shows how friendly municipal policies have significantly encouraged co-op expansion; however, Sutton also points out the danger of becoming overly dependent on politicians and losing sight of the social mission of cooperation.

Radical municipal activists can help avert these dangers by fomenting a “revolutionary cooperative culture”9 within the co-op movement. Furthermore, by building up the people’s assembly as an independent power base outside the existing government, the movement can exert pressure on elected officials so that cooperative policy is less reliant on political champions.

Some argue that direct participation in the workplace will cause disillusionment with impersonal and unaccountable electoral politics. A robust municipalist movement can exploit this disillusionment by posing a revolutionary alternative that opens space for direct participation in community governance.

A founding theorist of radical municipalism, Murray Bookchin, was not very high on the idea of worker co-ops, which he referred to as a “blatant bourgeois trick.” However, municipalizing every enterprise like a local café, a construction company, or a retail shop seems not only unworkable but antithetical to the overriding philosophy of radical municipalism. As a decentralized, grassroots movement, municipalists should seek to disperse power and decision-making throughout society and the economy. A network of unionized worker-owned cooperatives can complement a radical municipalist future as autonomous productive entities.

In these critical times, worker cooperatives can help remedy inequality, alienation, and community disempowerment. While they are not impervious to capitalist values and contain other shortcomings, worker co-ops offer a way to grow our democratic muscles while expanding community ownership of the means of production. As a constituent element of a broader solidarity economy, worker cooperatives can play a vital role in advancing social, economic, and ecological liberation.

This article is based on research commissioned by the Municipalism Learning Series, a project of the Solidarity Research Center. The original paper is available here.



  1. Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013), 31.
  2. Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, “Toward Economic Democracy, Labor Self-Management and Self-Determination,” in Jackson Rising Redux: Lessons on Building the Future in the Present, eds. Kali Akuno and Matt Meyer (PM Press, 2023), 65.
  3. Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1970), 4.
  4. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House Publishing, 2011).
  5. Michael Menser, We Decide!: Theories and Cases in Participatory Democracy (Temple University Press, 2018).
  6. Priya Baskaran, “Introduction to Worker Cooperatives and Their Role in the Changing Economy,” Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law 24, no. 2 (2015): 357.
  7. Baskaran, “Introduction to Worker Cooperatives,” 362.
  8. Akuno and Nangwaya, “Toward Economic Democracy,” 71.
  9. Kana Azhari and Asere Bello, “Cooperation and Self-Determination—Not Middle Management,” in Jackson Rising Redux: Lessons on Building the Future in the Present, eds. Kali Akuno and Matt Meyer (PM Press, 2023), 354.