Reflections on the 2016 Worker Cooperative National Conference: Elias Gardner

News Story: 

The 2016 Worker Cooperative National Conference, hosted by The US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and The Democracy at Work Institute, was held this year in Austin, Texas, just blocks away from the Texas Capitol Building. Over that hot and humid weekend, there was an impressive showing of Vermonters at the conference of 400+ people, including attendees from Round Sky Solutions, Catamount Solar, and Brattleboro Holistic Health Co-op. The gathered worker co-op community included an amazing diversity of people from all different backgrounds and professions, and the air was practically buzzing with the excitement of having everyone together from all corners of the country.

It became immediately clear to me that employee ownership is on the rise. One common thread over the course of the gathering was trying to figure out how to make the upcoming flood of retiring baby boomers aware of the opportunity employee ownership offers for small business succession. Another major focus was on how to provide better options for retirement savings. Currently, there is almost no way to ensure that retirement savings are invested in other cooperative businesses. Fortunately, change is afoot on this front, with individuals looking to start funds focused on cooperative investment and discussions are continuing about how to change regulations so the existing options are more discoverable.

After each workshop-filled day, the conference attendees retired to parties at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex on Friday, and then Kenny Dorham’s Back Yard Saturday. Black Star Co-op donated plenty of its delicious beers for both parties, and the gatherings were great opportunities to meet new people and continue conversations that had been sparked by the day’s sessions. On Sunday, after a final round of discussions, everyone headed home rejuvenated and energized by all the upcoming promise in the worker cooperative world.

Elias Gardner is a worker-owner at the New School of Montpelier co-op, and is a volunteer on the Vermont Employee Ownership Center's board of directors. His notes on the various sessions he attended at the conference can be found here.