Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

An Argumentative Dialogue on Worker Cooperatives

Posted Jul 14, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

More people today are thinking about different forms of business, including worker cooperatives.  In Learning through Disagreement, I use the question of starting a worker cooperative to illustrate the workbook’s method of exploring reasons for different views and then evaluating them with an ethics of purpose, principle, and consequence.  The key to the process is that participants learn more about the issue by engaging in a dialogue with alternative views.  To demonstrate a possible result of doing this type of work, I am sharing the argumentative dialogue from the workbook.

An Argumentative Dialogue On Worker Cooperatives
From Learning Through Disagreement (Broadview Press, 2014)

TONI: When I expand my business, I plan on making it a worker cooperative.
RY: You want to do what?
TONI: As my business grows, I want to bring on new people as co-owners of the
RY: You mean you want to give away the business to others?
TONI: No, I want to build the business with others who share the risks and the rewards of
running a business.
RY: Well, I think that is a bad idea. I think you should maintain ownership of the business
and hire people when you need them, and be able to fire them when you don’t.
TONI: So you don’t think we should share ownership?
RY: Never, and I will tell you why. We should not because that would mean giving up
control of the business and we should maintain control.
TONI: Well, at least your argument is valid.
RY: What do you mean?
TONI: It’s a good syllogism, with an observation and value judgment supporting your
RY: OK, so do you agree with it?
TONI: No, I disagree with your value judgment. I think we should share control with those
whose fate is tied up in the direction of the business. I think we should design businesses as
worker cooperatives because then everyone working in the business will have some say in
the direction of the business and I think we all should have a say in decisions that can
seriously affect our lives.
RY: Good logical argument.
TONI: Thanks
RY: Have you done any research on this?
TONI: Yes, there are over 300 worker coops in the United States, in various industries from
food to home care. The biggest worker coop is Mondragon in Spain, This cooperative
conglomerate owns $33.5 billion in assets and employs more than 92,000 workers, many of
whom are owners of the group. There are plenty of examples of successful worker
RY: Well, for me to agree with you, I would have to assume that I would get more
enjoyment working with others, as I would get from having others work for me. Don’t you
want to be a captain of your own ship? I see myself as an entrepreneur, and I hope a very
successful one.
TONI: Yes, I guess I do assume that working on a team would be more satisfying for me.
We may be quite different on this score. But it’s not only about me. I assume that many
have similar aspirations as I do, and I really don’t want to put myself in a position of
controlling them or them controlling me. I assume that we don’t have to design a business
with a military command and control structure. We could be more like a soccer team.
RY: I don’t know of any soccer teams that are worker cooperatives.
TONI: True, I was referring to how they all contribute to the success of their team. When
you think about it, I don’t see why players should not own their teams. If you were a soccer
player would you like to have a say in decisions that affect you and your team?
RY: Sure, but that’s not how things are done, especially in professional sports. Players go to
the highest bidder. They go where someone will pay them to play.
TONI: I am not suggesting that we take on the powerful institutions of professional sports. I
simply wanted to use the players’ teamwork to illustrate what a worker coop could achieve,
and what I would like to try.
RY: OK, but you must realize that most players engage in cooperative teamwork because
they are motivated by money and fear of losing their position to the player waiting on the
TONI: Don’t you think lots of players really like playing the game and playing it well?
RY: That may be true of a few, but if they don’t watch their back, they will not be playing
very long.
TONI: We seem to have very different assumptions here. If I assumed that the only way
to get people to excel is through incentives or punishments, then I would agree that coownership
would be unwise. But I assume that many people are more or less like me. We
want to have some control over our work and we want to do well.
RY: Well, I think a lot of people just want a paycheck, and are happy to have a job.
TONI: We really do have different assumptions.
RY: So it seems. You appear to focus more on the importance of good relationships and
maybe I focus more on individual achievement, but both are important.
TONI: Yes, I agree, we need to find some balance between them. Perhaps we can do this by
evaluating the ethical strength of the different arguments we have developed.
RY: OK, where should we start?
TONI: We can start with my first argument about what kind of business I want to run. One
ethical question that relates to this argument is the question of what a good business would
look like. What is its purpose?
RY: And what would you say?
TONI: Well I think a good business meets some needs and wants of the people in its
community. I see businesses as providers of goods and services, and a good business would
do that well.
RY: OK, but I don’t think you have to be a worker-owned cooperative to provide excellent
goods and services.
TONI: I agree, but I also want to create an excellent community of people who together
provide these goods and services: This is really a business’s internal purpose. I think the
work community should be one of mutual respect and responsibility, and a worker
cooperative is a good way to become that kind of business.
RY: Well, I can see that in an ideal world, but you may not realize your external purpose if
you focus too much on your internal purpose. You know what I mean?
TONI: Yes, I know we have to make it in the market, but as I have said before, worker
coops have been quite successful.
RY: Let’s look at my argument from an ethics of principle.
TONI: Great. What is your implicit principle? It is probably the same as your argument’s
value judgment? Can you make that into a universal moral law?
RY: The value judgment was: “Owners should maintain control of their business.” I guess I
can re-word it to say something like “People should not give up control of things they own.”
TONI: OK, this is a bit complicated, since we are thinking about whether or not to share
ownership. It doesn’t seem like it is morally wrong to share ownership, but then at the same
time, it doesn’t seem like we have a moral obligation to share something we own. I guess we
need to know what you actually own when you own a business.
RY: Well, you own the assets, and you own the income it generates. You own the profit.
TONI: You may own the financial capital and the material capital, but you do not own the
social or cultural capital—the human capital. You might pay for them, but you do not own
them. If there are parts of every business that you do not own, then why should you control
those parts?
RY: OK. You know, it doesn’t seem that the ethics of principle really helps us evaluate the
merit of my argument.
TONI: I think you are right. Not all three ethical approaches are equally helpful in every
case. That may true in this case in terms of trying to universalize the implicit principle, but
what about the second question we ask when using this approach: “Does your proposal
respect the moral agency of others?”
RY: Good question. As much as I hate to admit it, you position that people should have a
say in decisions that affects them shows more respect for others than mine does. I think we
need to move on to an ethics of consequence.
TONI: Fine with me. Who will be affected by our decision?
RY: You will be, or whoever is sharing ownership with those who join the business. Let’s
call them workers. Then we have your family and the other worker’s families. We should
include the other relevant stakeholders as well, such as the consumers, investors, the
community, and suppliers.
TONI: And what do you see as the impact on these different groups? And do you think it
will be positive or negative?
RY: For you, or whoever wants to share ownership of a business, the positive consequence
would be you that would have company (no pun intended), but the negative is that you, from
my perspective, you increase the risk of failure. The workers might gain, if the business goes
well, or lose, if it does not. I don’t think the other stakeholders would be affected much.
TONI: What about the community? If the business is owned by a group of people who live
in the community, isn’t it more likely that the business will be responsive to its community?
Furthermore, I think that since worker cooperatives promote active involvement at work,
they will also promote more active involvement in other communities, such as public
RY: Could be. Once I think more about this, the real issue seems to be the competitors. If
your worker-cooperative is not competitive, the whole business will fail. That would be a
negative consequence for everyone, including the community.
TONI: Right, I think we are dealing with risk and safety here, and if we take care on adding
co-owners as we grow, I think the consequences can be quite positive for most of us.
RY: OK, if you are willing to take the risk. Also, if we look at our application of the three
ethical approaches, it certainly does not rule out moving toward worker-cooperatives, so I
would have to say it seems like a sound decision.
TONI: Yes, but I think I need to be careful in adding new owners, so maybe you would like
to give me some feedback when the time times. Hay, would you like to be the first coowner?
RY: I don’t think I am ready right now. Working with someone like you, however, would
not be a bad idea.
TONI: Let’s keep in touch.

Leave a Reply


Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

Adam Smith Atlantic trade banks biosphere citizen Citizens United city civic civic conversations civic economy civic membership civilizing the economy common citizen Commons corporate citizen corporation as property corporations democracy disagreement economics of dissociation economics of provision Egypt future health care reform invisible hand John Locke Kant libertarianism membership money moral equality ownership property property relations protection reciprocity Scotland slavery Smith and slavery Smithian economics sustainability taxes the civic tobacco trade Wall Street

Cambridge University Press
Local Bookstores
Barnes & Noble