Anna Bodeenberg is a member and board member of Earthworker Cooperative.
Reading the news, scrolling social media, listening to politicians it feels like every day there is a new threat to our environment, our climate, our communities. There are countless reasons to feel angry, countless things to protest, countless moments of sadness. What can seem lacking are reasons to hope, and meaningful things to build. Earthworker Cooperative is one attempt to address that. In the face of multiple crises of climate, community destruction, economic disenfranchisement, underemployment, and lack of meaningful political action, Earthworker is seeking to build solutions from the ground up, rooted in and controlled by communities and workers. Our strategy is to create a network of mutually supporting, environmentally sustainable worker-owned cooperatives, which build the technology we need to lower carbon emissions, and through which we meet our needs, sustain and renew our communities and work towards creating an economy of care.
Underpinning this project is the idea of a ‘just transition’ – in order to make the changes to our energy production system that the climate demands we must support and work with the communities directly affected by those changes to sustainably transition to new livelihoods. Furthermore, we aim to bring those livelihoods under the direct control of the community so that jobs won’t be offshored or economic decisions made by far away offices. At Earthworker, we meet people where they are at, bringing together unlikely allies including coal communities, environmentalists, small-businesses and faith groups for shared aims. We recognise that we do not need to come from the same place, with the same ideology, to work together. We build on legacies of cooperation, mutualism and solidarity that exist in most traditions, whether that be based in trade-unionism, religion, political ideology or culture.
But what does this actually mean on a practical level?
The budding Earthworker ecosystem currently consists of three concrete projects, under the umbrella body that is Earthworker Cooperative. The first is the Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Cooperative. Based in Morwell, in Victoria’s coal-dominated Latrobe Valley, Earthworker Energy produces renewable energy technology, beginning with solar hot water systems.
Redgum Cleaning Cooperative is a worker-owned green cleaning cooperative located in Melbourne offering home and office cleaning using natural products.
Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Cooperative
Cooperative Power, set up by a coalition of trade unions, NGOs and community groups including Earthworker, is a cooperative electricity retailer providing affordable electricity to its members and giving them a say in how it is generated.
These three businesses are just the beginning of a broad vision of cooperation between cooperatives, in which each cooperative is an autonomous entity while supporting and being supported by the others in the network, thereby providing the resilience necessary to withstand the challenges of operating in a competitive capitalist environment. This model has been demonstrated by the Mondragon Corporation, in the Basque Country, a federation of worker cooperatives that is now one of the largest business groups in Spain, with over 74,000 worker-owners.
In cooperatives, power is held by the membership with a rule of ‘one member one vote’ regardless of differences in financial input. Furthermore, in a worker cooperative, it is only the worker-owners who are voting members, ensuring that the people doing the work are democratically in control of their own workplace. Eleanor, a Redgum worker owner, puts it this way; “I just believe that people should have input in the decisions that
affect them, whether it’s in the workplace, economy, or wherever. Taking back control over how we use our labour and building a more democratic economy gives us so much more potential to do good in the world. I also love the fact that worker cooperatives help us develop as human beings, because they depend on people working together to meet their needs, rather than competing.” From this position, a workplace becomes an asset to community-building and resilience, supporting and supported by those around and within it, while asserting democratic control over the economic realm.
In these uncertain times, Earthworker aims to foster cooperation, to bridge longstanding divides, and to empower communities to build their own solutions, together. We hope to be one string in the intricate bow of a just and sustainable transition. We welcome new members, supporters and fellow travellers to join us along the way; to find out more visit earthworkercooperative.com.au
This article appeared in the AJDS Magazine Just Voices, issue 17, 2019: Environmentalism.