Workers in Maine Buy Out Their Jobs, Set an Example for the Nation

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On remote Deer Isle, Maine, the movement for a more just and democratic economy won a major victory this summer. More than 60 employees of three retail businesses – Burnt Cove Market, V&S Variety and Pharmacy, and The Galley – banded together to buy the stores and create the largest worker cooperative in Maine and the second largest in New England.

Now the workers own and run the businesses together under one banner, known as the Island Employee Cooperative (IEC). This is the first time that multiple businesses of this size and scope have been merged and converted into one worker cooperative – making this a particularly groundbreaking achievement in advancing economic democracy.

Getting There: What It Took
When the local couple that had owned the three businesses for 43 years began to think about selling their stores and retiring, the workers became concerned. The stores were one of the island’s biggest employers and a potential buyer probably would not have come from within the community or maintained the same level of jobs and services. Only a worker buy-out could achieve stability.

Because these workers were trying to accomplish something historic, it took more than a year – and it wasn’t always an easy road. But the workers’ strength lay in their own determination, and in the ability to rely on a group of allies dedicated to growing the cooperative movement. The Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative (IRSSC) and the Cooperative Development Institute, helped them develop their management, governance, legal and financial structures. They were also able to secure financing from Maine-based Coastal Enterprises and the Cooperative Fund of New England, both Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs). Without that dedicated technical assistance and available capital, it is doubtful the IEC would be here today.

More Is Needed
While the creation of the IEC maintained dozens of decent paying jobs and a remote community’s only nearby access to essentials such as groceries and prescription medications, it also points to a successful model that could be used across the country to expand ownership and wealth to regular working people. This experience shows that if only we had more resources to experiment with grounded, practical economic policies, we could create many more of the living-wage jobs and community-sustaining businesses we desperately need.

The Great Recession has led many to consider better ways to organize our economy, as always happens during economic downturns. But the reality is that our economy, even during the “good times,” has always been failing working people. So we need to think long term and change our strategies in order to build a durable, democratic, equitable and just economy.

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