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At Law Forum, Experts Discuss Worker Co-ops as Economic Model

A student center at Harvard Law School.
A student center at Harvard Law School. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Iris M. Lewis, Crimson Staff Writer

Worker cooperatives are a viable alternative to corporate capitalism, yet they are rarely brought up in political discourse, two speakers at a Harvard Law Forum event argued Wednesday.

Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor of media studies at University of Colorado Boulder, and Jason Wiener, a worker cooperative lawyer, came to the Law School to argue the case for democratic cooperatives—speaking on how they work, why they’re important, and why so few people have heard of them.

Both Schneider and Wiener said they have made it their professional goal to advance worker cooperatives as an alternative to traditional capitalism.

“We need to convince people that the model that exists [of co-ops] is readily adoptable,” Wiener said.

Harvard Law Forum President Peter D. Davis ’12 said the talk aimed to explore one way to approach a larger dilemma. “If you don’t like state communism, and you don’t like corporate capitalism, what do you like?”

Schneider and Wiener both proposed their favored solution: democratic worker cooperatives. In a co-op, a company’s workers run their business democratically instead of placing investors in charge.

“I call it the iPhone of business models—it should be as intuitive and self-explanatory as possible. But we have to deprogram so much conventional wisdom and conventional learning,” Wiener said.

Schneider’s talk looked specifically at local control, fair bureaucracies, and protecting the rights of creators. Wiener focused more on logistics, including cooperatives’ taxes and the history of co-op law.

Naushard Cader, a Harvard graduate student who attended Wednesday’s event, said he thinks the co-op discussion is an important one.

“I think it is fantastic, and something that is actually taking place across the country and the world,” he said. “It’s very timely to talk about this particular topic.”

Both Wiener and Schneider highlighted how underrepresented co-ops are in current political discussions.

“I don’t think I heard the word ‘cooperative’ while I was in law school,” Wiener said, garnering a few laughs from the law student-heavy audience.

Davis said he hopes Wednesday’s event changed that—and helped get the word out.

“We had a full house. I’m always happy when the public is here, and there were a lot of people who were from out of Harvard Law School,” Davis said. “I hope that people walk away today thinking that there are more possibilities than they thought before.”

Another audience member, Tracy Bindel, said she did.

“I was really excited that this event was here at Harvard today,” Bindel said. “I really appreciated learning much more about the government structures and alternative co-op models that exist.”

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