A master’s student in the UEP program, Li sees a place for democratic workplaces that put people over profit
For Erwin Li, AG24, worker cooperatives do more than ensure fair wages and hospitable work environments. They empower employees to collectively make decisions about a business they can call their own. Li, a graduate student in Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy (UEP), works closely with Senior Lecturer Penn Loh and the Center for Economic Democracy to study how cities can better support these business models. He hopes to open a co-op café someday.
What’s a worker cooperative, and why is it special?
Worker co-ops put people before profit. Unlike other companies, where a small few—a board or C-suite leadership—have decision-making power, every worker in a worker co-op gets a say in the workplace, from how profits might be divided to workplace conditions. There’s an aspect of democratic decision-making and profit-sharing that I think makes them unique.
How did you become interested in co-ops?
I worked in food and agriculture for a number of years, which evolved into mutual aid efforts, particularly around growing food for and delivering groceries to immigrant families in New Haven, Connecticut, where I lived during the pandemic.
I kept thinking how beautiful it was that communities were rallying together to support one another, but at the same time how these efforts were very fluid and makeshift. I began to wonder what a more formalized economics of cooperation could look like.
Just because you put “cooperative” in your name doesn’t mean that you’re a cooperative organization, though. There’s so much to learn—and un-learn—when it comes to not following hierarchy and implementing democratic processes in the workplace.
Cooperatives also aren’t just about their own success; they’re about everyone’s success. It’s about really trying to break the paradigm of a hyper-competitive, capitalist structure. These questions led me to UEP and Tufts.
Why does this matter?
Throughout the pandemic, everyday people have been thinking more critically about how their workplaces and the broader economy do not support them. Frontline workers bore the brunt of COVID-19. We've seen mass layoffs and business closures. Soaring costs, particularly for necessities like rent, groceries, and gas, have made life harder for so many people.
Our social safety net isn't enough either. But I don't think our answers lie in just providing more jobs. Wages have still largely stagnated for the working class, and we can see who we really value when the average CEO earns 272 times more than their average worker. So I ask: What would it look like for workers to exercise more power and ownership in the economy for themselves?
That structure, to me, looks like a worker co-op. Research has shown worker co-ops tend to survive longer, provide better wages, and more job satisfaction than their counterparts.
I believe cities should be invested in building their local economies. So I've been looking at how the city of Boston can better support worker co-ops, as well as the grassroots movements they might be part of.
Where do you hope your project will lead?
I’m interested in showing just how transformative worker co-ops can be. For me, “transformative” means to rethink the ways that we relate to and care for one another.
My dream is to run a worker co-op café, with a small section for grocery and prepared foods. We would use any outdoor space for a garden. Through programming, I hope the business could serve as a space for people to gather, ideally to be in community and build solidarity toward social movements. The People’s Restaurants in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, are one of my inspirations.
I try to honor and respect the fullness of people I work with, and I would endeavor for my worker co-op to give people a place where they see their work as dignified and where they would feel empowered to make a difference in their everyday lives and communities.