The Sunday Magazine

Three Hippies and an Oven, 2.0 - a Karin Wells documentary

At the height of the activist counter-culture in the 1960s and 70s, Berkeley was the capital of the worker co-op movement. In 2016, Berkeley is once again in the vanguard. Co-ops are back in the Bay, in greater concentration that anywhere else in the U.S. — and back with a difference. They mean business; sometimes big business.
Alvarado St. Bakery is a worker-owned bakery in Petaluma, California that produces 50,000 loaves of bread a day. (Karin Wells)

In the 60s and 70s, the California Bay Area was a hotspot for worker co-ops — businesses owned and governed by the people who work in them. Over the years activism abated, gentrification set in and most of those co-ops collapsed and died.

Now they're back, but there's a difference. This time, worker co-ops are seen as a serious solution to America's economic woes. City governments are investing in the idea. Creating worker co-ops is listed third on Bernie Sanders's 12-point Agenda for America

Once again, the California Bay Area is at the forefront of the worker co-op movement. 

Box Dog Bikes is a worker co-op in San Francisco's Mission District. (Karin Wells)

"I wasn't there in the 60s. I don't know what it was like or why it ended, but I think it's easier to work with other people instead of bearing the brunt of responsibility with owning a business," says Emily Conner, a worker-member at Box Dog Bikes in San Francisco. 

"Often times people think of worker co-operatives as a hippie thing, but truly that's not the case," says Yassi Eskandari-Qajar, a policy director with the Sustainable Economies Law Center. "It's small businesses that are owned and operated by their workers."

There are roughly a hundred worker co-ops in the Bay Area. They are owned and operated by a mixture of veterans from the old co-op movement and members of a younger generation. 

The Cheese Board in Berkeley, California was started in 1967. In 1971, every employee became a worker-owner. (Karin Wells)

"Certainly the generation coming up got the signal that no company's going to take care of you for life. You're going to have to take care of yourself," says Tim Hewitt, a member of the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives.

"More and more people are saying, 'If I'm going to have to take the risk, why should I not take control of things?'" 

Click the button above to hear Karin Wells's documentary Three Hippies and an Oven, 2.0.


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