Resilience, Cooperatives, and COVID-19

Seedling sprouting in the palm of a person's hand.

 

As 2021 ends, I’ve been thinking about the word “resilience.” Resilience is the “ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens,” according to Merriam-Webster. After 20-months of unprecedented shifts in our society, economy, and daily lives brought about by the pandemic, as well as social grappling with institutional and structural racism, concerns about climate change, and more, perhaps we are all thinking about resilience now more than ever.

Cooperative businesses are built around the globally-recognized principles of concern for community, cooperation among cooperatives, and democratic member control, based on values of self-help and solidarity, among others. As the COVID-19 pandemic impacted cooperative members, communities, and businesses, cooperatives have responded in unique ways that highlight the spirit of cooperation and the resilience of the cooperative community.

Globally, cooperatives have responded to the pandemic by adapting in their businesses and by supporting their members and communities with examples including enhancing home delivery of food, grants for cooperatives to purchase agricultural products, and donations of medical products. In the U.S., cooperatives set up community internet hot spots for their members learning and working from home without stable internet access. Really, the examples are too many to capture in one place.

Like many businesses, cooperatives have also faced challenges from the pandemic. The World Cooperative Monitor’s 2020 report, “Exploring the Cooperative Economy” highlighted that some cooperatives saw major declines in revenues, faced cash flow issues, and had to implement temporary unemployment measures – with impacts varying widely by sector. A recent analysis by researchers at Cleveland State University, in collaboration with the CFAES Center for Cooperatives at The Ohio State University, explored how food, agriculture, and rural electric cooperatives in Ohio were impacted by the pandemic. Interviews with cooperative leaders illuminated both positive and negative impacts from COVID-19. Some co-ops saw accelerated implementation of digital technologies. Others experienced serious negative impacts from supply chain disruptions, with one leader sharing that uncertainty has made it “impossible to make decisions on expanding or improving operations.” Importantly, the analysis showed that rural electric, food, and agriculture cooperatives in Ohio employed roughly the same number of people in 2021 as they did pre-pandemic and did not have to lay off workers during the pandemic. Read the full report, “Cooperatives and Ohio’s Economy: Their Contribution and the Impact of Covid-19” here.

Join the CFAES Center for Cooperatives on December 15, 2021 at 1:00pm Eastern for a free webinar discussing the economic contribution of Ohio’s food, agriculture, and rural electric cooperatives and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this cooperative community. Register for the webinar here.

Across the United States, the pandemic was particularly challenging for the restaurant and food service industry. In Los Angeles, a growing community of worker-owned cooperative restaurant and food businesses is building workplace democracy and spaces for community building post-pandemic. As communities consider how to build more resilient businesses in the wake of the pandemic, worker-owned cooperatives and other employee-owned business models may be uniquely positioned to address income and wealth inequality as well as a looming business succession challenges. In Ohio, an estimated 54% of businesses, representing $118 billion in payroll and $690 billion in sales, are owned by baby boomers who are at or nearing retirement age. A recent report, Building Legacies: Retaining Jobs and Creating Wealth Through Worker Ownership, released by the Ohio Worker Ownership Network highlights the potential impact of worker owned enterprises to build wealth, provide stable employment, reduce economic inequality, and provide a viable path for business continuity.

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