Union Cooperative Initiative works to build sustainable local jobs

Kristen Barker isn’t surprised if you haven’t heard of the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative.

In fact, she pretty much planned it that way. She wants CUCI to demonstrate success in the form of job creation — and not just talk about it, she says. 
And that is beginning to happen. 

The group, created in 2010 by Barker and three other friends who work in social justice and peace, is modeled after the nearly 56-year-old Mondragon worker-owned cooperative in the Basque region of Spain. CUCI formed after Mondragon signed an historic agreement with the United Steelworkers in 2009 to launch union cooperatives in the United States. The model is meant to develop sustainable jobs using worker ownership alongside the collective bargaining process.

For two years, Barker and co-founders Phil Amadon, Ellen Vera and Flequer Vera have been raising money, creating partnerships with key unions and studying efforts elsewhere to bring the worker cooperative to life.  

Last weekend, the Cincinnati group celebrated a series of successes that included the launch of its first co-op — an incubator farm that is training farmers, supplying a CSA and three retail outlets and employing six people. The 30-acre farm is in College Hill, near Winton and North Bend roads. 

It is currently also studying four other potential co-ops that include a Cincinnati railway manufacturing co-op, a food hub, an energy retrofitting co-op and a jewelry maker co-op. Each project is a different stage of feasibility studies and includes partnerships with universities and trade councils, as well as other local, state and federal groups.

“These are super exciting projects,’’ says Barker. “The time is right for this. The ideas have been incubating and germinating. This feels really huge.”

But what really excites Barker is the likelihood that Cincinnati may be the pilot city for Mondragon, which employs more than 83,000 people in 256 countries, if it chooses to bring its operations to the U.S. 

“It was our dream to bring Mondragon here, and we have been successful,’’ she says, adding that they hosted a Mondragon co-op that is looking to expand. “I feel very confident that jobs will flourish, and in the future, thousands of jobs will flourish.”

Barker, a single mother of a special needs daughter, says the work has been time-consuming and difficult, but well worth it.

“I am from Cincinnati and I want this area to thrive. I want jobs to stay here. I want families to live in a beloved community where all are valued, at peace and doing work that is equitable.”

Do Good:

• Sign up for the CUCI email newsletter to receive information about news and events. 

• Contribute to help fund the feasibility studies and other related initiatives. 

• Volunteer your skill or trade by emailing Barker. 

By Chris Graves
Chris Graves is the assistant vice president of digital and social media at the Powers Agency.