Buying In

The reemergence of a worker cooperative movement in Oregon

Five employees of Ear Trumpet Labs are seated in the company's workshop around tables cluttered with tools, bits of metal, and, and half-assembled microphones. They are working intently, but laughing as well.

Employees of Ear Trumpet Labs in the company’s Northeast Portland workshop. Founder Philip Graham, center, has proposed converting the company to a worker-owned cooperative. Photo by Kim Nguyen

On a Thursday afternoon in late summer, the six self-described tinkerers of Ear Trumpet Labs have gathered in their high-ceilinged Northeast Portland workshop for the company’s weekly staff meeting. Everybody remains seated at their respective workspaces except for company founder Philip Graham, who, after a morning spent catching up on email, seems happy to be standing for a change. With his bushy gray beard and lively eyes, Philip resembles a congenial wizard. He’s nearing sixty, approximately twice the age of each of his five employees. On a whiteboard at the center of the room is a list of the current bulk orders for the company’s signature handmade condenser microphones, and the group quickly settles on a deadline for fulfilling each one. “That IBMA order?” Philip says. “We have to ship that on Monday.”

“Oh! Before I forget. Check this out.” Philip’s daughter, Malachi Graham, passes around a flyer that one of their suppliers—a pinball parts company—sent in with an invoice. As it makes its way around the room, the flyer, a call for submissions to an annual “sexy men of pinball” calendar, provokes confused laughter.

“Why do we have this piece of paper?” Zane Greening asks. “Do we get springs from them?”

“Weirdly, we get carriage bolts,” Philip says. “The carriage bolt is a standard part for pinball, and we get it for one-third the cost of any other supplier.”

The laughter subsides, and conversation pivots to more general housekeeping issues—which supplies need to be restocked and in what quantities. A consensus is quickly reached that the bamboo paper towels Malachi recently ordered as an eco-friendly experiment are “weird” and “gross.”

“I don’t mind them,” Zane admits, and he happily takes the offending roll to his workspace at the rear of the workshop. The meeting, which has been punctuated by the irregular sounds of microphone assembly—clanking, wrenching, the occasional whine of an electric screwdriver—gives way to more laughter. “Unrelatedly,” Zane says, “I’m saving copper scraps just to see what kind of bounty we can end up with in a year’s time. I go through once a week and check the bins.”

An appreciative murmur follows this announcement; copper is the most valuable metal the microphone builders at Ear Trumpet work with. 

“I was thinking it could be chucked on for a Christmas bonus if we decide to take it to the recycling center,” Zane adds.

“Could we issue the bonus in a pile of copper?” jokes Malachi.

“Absolutely not,” Quinn Vega says, without looking up from the circuit board she’s deftly assembling at her table. 

On the other side of the table, Maeve Leake carefully folds a small mesh grille around a hollow tube. The task looks difficult but satisfying; crafted out of copper, brass, bronze, and stainless steel, Ear Trumpet microphones are renowned for their handmade visual appeal. In 2012, Tape Op magazine described the style as “a steampunk’s bong meets Sherlock Holmes’s Dictaphone.” 

Despite having worked here for three and a half years, Maeve is the newest employee at Ear Trumpet. Like many of her coworkers, she previously worked in food service, and says she feels lucky to have found sustainable employment that is directly connected to her identity as a musician. She’s also adjusting to the news that Philip is hoping to restructure the company over the next decade to an employee-owned cooperative.

“Once I started to realize the timeline,” she says, “it made me think a lot more about what I’m going to be doing in ten years. I’d had some loose thoughts about moving somewhere else. But now that this is in the works, it’s a lot harder to imagine leaving Portland.”

Three people work around a wooden table under articulated work lights.
Maeve Leake, Philip Graham, Rodya Hutwagner, and Quinn Vega at work assembling microphones

Worker cooperatives are extremely rare in the United States. In 2021, according to an economic survey conducted by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, there were 612 co-ops and democratic workplaces in the country, with a median workforce of six. Worker cooperatives are broadly defined by two characteristics: first, workers collectively own the business, thereby benefiting financially from the business’s success; second, workers participate in the management of the business’s operations, and are typically allotted one vote per worker-owner. This democratic governance separates co-ops from a more common kind of employee-owned company, in which workers own shares of the company but don’t have a substantive say in how it is managed. (Examples in Oregon include Miller Paint, Bob’s Red Mill, and Bi-Mart.)

Ear Trumpet is already about as close to a democratically run workplace as is imaginable for a business owned by a single person. The company makes most decisions by consensus and offers quarterly profit-sharing. Not long after introducing profit-sharing, Philip suggested to his employees that they might want to think about forming a worker-owned cooperative, getting a loan, and buying him out of the business over the course of the next decade, after which he’d like to retire. (“I’m getting to the point where my warranties are coming up,” he says; the joke doesn’t quite land with his youthful colleagues.) 

The word co-op might summon up images of a small grocery store founded in the 1970s (such stores are typically consumer-owned, rather than employee-owned), or perhaps a bike repair shop that dates back to the ’80s or ’90s. But the majority of extant co-ops in the US are start-ups—companies less than ten years old. Nearly one-quarter of the co-ops identified in the 2021 survey were founded in the previous two years alone, and most of these companies were started with the co-op model in place. Only 12 percent of co-ops in the survey converted from a different ownership structure, meaning that what Philip would like to see happen with Ear Trumpet is much less common.

Financing a transition to worker ownership can be challenging. Some banks shy away from such loans entirely, while other lenders will only consider them with a close review of the prospective co-op’s potential for sustained profitability. Beneficial State Bank, which has branches in California, Oregon, and Washington, is one such lender. Matt Mylet, VP and Commercial Team Lead at Beneficial, sees additional concerns for companies the size of Ear Trumpet. “A lot of times, smaller businesses may have up or down years,” he says. “Consistent profitability is important for making loan payments, so you have to take that into consideration when you’re looking at going down that path.” 

If a bank doesn’t come through with favorable terms for a loan, Philip is open to the idea of financing the deal himself, with the co-op members’ payments coming out of their share of the quarterly profits and going directly to him. Among his employees, there’s a little uneasiness around the notion that Philip might gamble his retirement on their future earnings. 

A former software engineer, Philip began building microphones in his basement in 2011. Malachi, a songwriter and singer, had grown interested in recording her own music, and Philip, who had been working on tube amplifiers in his spare time, decided to try his hand at constructing a mic out of the spare parts he had on hand. “The result wasn’t a crudely pieced-together Frankenstein mic, but a simple, handcrafted creation with a vintage air that became the prototype for what followed,” Vortex Music Magazine reported in 2018.

His first hire, Zane, joined him for several years of tinkering and manufacturing in the basement, until eventually the operation grew large enough to justify renting its current one-thousand-square-foot space and hiring additional staff. 

In those early years, interest in Ear Trumpet microphones surged whenever the Portland-based old-time music group Foghorn Stringband took them on tour. “I could tell what cities they were playing in just by looking at where my orders came from,” Philip recalls. “They had a very dedicated audience in a very small niche of music. They might only draw fifty people to their shows, but all fifty were musicians. They’d go up to them afterward to find out where they’d gotten their microphones. Our mics have the benefit of being noticeable.”

Since then, artists as varied as Brandi Carlile, boygenius, Elvis Costello, and the Violent Femmes have become devotees of the microphones. The Ear Trumpet workshop might retain the cozy intimacy of its basement origins, but there’s no mistaking the fact that the company is doing pretty big business. And with pretty big business come pretty big questions.


The modern cooperative movement dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when urban factory jobs upended an economic system that had been largely rural and agricultural. In England and Europe, early cooperatives came about as a response to the low wages and unsafe working conditions many workers experienced at their manufacturing jobs. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, other types of collectives were formed to ward off food insecurity and famine; agricultural cooperatives flourished in the US as farmers sought to save money by purchasing supplies in bulk and sharing shipping costs. During the “Great Upheaval” of organized labor in the 1870s and ’80s, cooperative shoe shops, iron foundries, barrel makers, and other businesses were founded with the backing of the Knights of Labor and other unions. Most of these labor movements and collective organizing efforts were more prevalent in the Midwest and on the East Coast than they were on the West Coast, but by the early twentieth century, cooperatives began to appear in Oregon.

In the decade after World War II, the number of co-ops in the Pacific Northwest temporarily swelled as a result of the booming lumber industry. The success of the Olympia Veneer Company, founded in 1921, inspired a wave of imitators: approximately two dozen plywood cooperatives thrived in Oregon and Washington between the 1950s and the 1970s. At the cooperatively owned mills, all worker-owners had an equal say in day-to-day operations and received equal hourly pay, regardless of their job title. Several mills along the Columbia River did brisk business for a time, but their reliance on timber, a resource whose availability ebbed and flowed, proved to be their undoing. Writing in 1957, banker Henry G. Dahl Jr. foresaw their demise: “It is likely that the future road of the worker-owned plywood companies will continue to be a rocky one because companies face a serious problem in the decline of timber and log supplies available to them.”

Oregon’s best-known story of a co-op conversion is that of Burley Design, which was founded as a traditional small business by Beverly Anderson and Alan Scholz in North Dakota in 1969, relocated to Cottage Grove in 1974, and became a worker-owned co-op in 1978. Burley specialized in durable cycling gear—their iconic yellow-and-blue trailers are still ubiquitous in cycling havens like Portland and Eugene. 

As enthusiasm for cycling exploded in the 1980s and ’90s, Burley’s workforce grew from nine cofounders to one hundred worker-owners, making them one of the nation’s largest manufacturing co-ops. This surge in new ownership was mandated by the company’s bylaws, which specified that once a new employee had worked 1,500 hours, a new ownership position had to be created.

In theory, this ownership structure should have protected Burley’s identity as a cooperative: regardless of one’s tenure at the company, everyone had an equal say in how it was run. In practice, many of the newer hires did not hold the same enthusiasm for maintaining a democratically run workplace as did the old guard. When big-box stores introduced cheaper, foreign-made bike trailers to the market in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Burley’s sales began to decline. Newer owners saw the resulting drop in their dividends and swung the vote to sell the company to a private investor in 2006.

Burley’s is the sort of high-profile story that naysayers use to argue that co-ops don’t work. As a co-op grows, it not only has to react to market forces, it also needs to dedicate time and resources toward reinforcing its identity as a collective. This can be especially challenging in the hyperindividualistic, profit-focused US economy. I spoke to one former worker-owner of a defunct Oregon-based co-op who said, “In our culture, we don’t have a lot of practice at participating in true democracies.”

But for every cautionary tale, there are plenty of examples of cooperatives prospering on both a small and large scale. Blue Scorcher Bakery & Cafe has roots in Astoria that date back nearly twenty years; Equal Exchange, the country’s oldest and largest fair-trade coffee distribution company, had 130 worker-owners as of 2020; and Cooperative Home Care Associates, a co-op of health care workers in New York City, has more than two thousand employees, half of whom are worker-owners. 

Internationally, there are even larger successes. India’s century-old Uralungal Labour Contract Co-operative Society, which primarily engages in large-scale infrastructure projects, has more than fifteen thousand members. The Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain, which was founded during the 1950s, now operates as a seventy-thousand-plus worker-owner conglomerate that includes manufacturing, a large grocery chain, financial businesses, and a university. Co-ops are far more common in Europe than they are in the US; the European Commission estimates that there are currently more than two hundred and fifty thousand across the continent. Historically, co-ops have enjoyed more political support in Europe than they have in the US, resulting in co-op friendly policies like Italy’s Marcora Law, which allows laid-off workers to invest their unemployment funds in new cooperatives.

The growth of co-ops in the United States could be a boon to economic stability. Studies have found that worker cooperatives in the US offer higher wages and a far more equitable ratio between the lowest- and highest-paid workers than ordinary companies. They also do a better job of avoiding layoffs during market downturns. And there are potential benefits beyond the financial: US co-ops have more racial and gender diversity than traditional companies, and co-op workers report increased job satisfaction, better training, and more active community engagement. 

A smiling cook wearing a headscarf over short braids puts food on plates covered in squares of banana leaf.
Worker-owner Ro in the kitchen at Mirisata

At Mirisata, a vegan Sri Lankan restaurant on Southeast Belmont Street in Portland, cofounder Alex Felsinger believes the biggest advantage of working in a cooperative is a healthy work-life balance. “I’m able to have a life in addition to running a business,” he says. “Everybody I know who is a sole proprietor of a restaurant, it completely takes over their life.”

After a successful stint as a pop-up during the early days of the pandemic, Mirisata launched its brick-and-mortar operation in October 2020. New employees qualify for ownership after working an average of at least twenty-eight hours per week for six months, and the worker-owner body has fluctuated from the restaurant’s three cofounders to as many as ten worker-owners. Currently, there are six. “There’s a push-and-pull dynamic,” Alex says. “We’re in an industry with very high turnover, and yet with a worker-owned cooperative, it’s most successful when you have people who stick around for longer periods of time.”

Alex feels confident that the core group of worker-owners is committed to the restaurant for the long haul. “We have some folks who do more administrative stuff, and we have other folks who take on more responsibilities in the kitchen,” he says. “That works for us. It’s not like every single task is being divided among all worker-owners. It wouldn’t be efficient, and it wouldn’t be playing to everybody’s strengths.”

Three people load plants onto a trailer at an outdoor nursery.
Worker-owners Dawn, Kirk, and Nutmeg at SymbiOp Garden Shop

On a sunny Friday afternoon in early October, as waves of traffic roll past the SymbiOp Garden Shop in Southeast Portland, tired commuters could perhaps be forgiven for not noticing the “worker-owned” portion of the store’s signage. “I’m trying to figure out how we can make it more obvious that we’re a co-op,” says JT Yu, SymbiOp’s lead business and system developer.

JT and two cofounders (Nutmeg and Lotus) launched SymbiOp as an ecological landscaping company in 2020. When a popular garden supply shop closed on Southeast Powell Boulevard in 2021, the trio and additional owners Matt and Khalila embraced the opportunity and took over the roomy indoor-outdoor space, where they now sell native plants and practice the same ecological approach that they do with their landscaping. The two-pronged business has been wildly successful: SymbiOp has grown to thirty employees, thirteen of whom are worker-owners, with several more set to qualify for ownership in coming months.  

Unlike Ear Trumpet, the founders of SymbiOp incorporated as a cooperative, spelling out the mechanisms for how their employees can become owners from the get-go. With 1.5 percent of every paycheck deducted and applied toward “buying in,” it takes about a year—two thousand hours worked—for a new employee to qualify for ownership. Additionally, the company offers ongoing trainings and support around consensus-based communication.

The worker-owners at SymbiOp have always made sure that anyone applying for a job with them has a firm understanding of the ideological underpinnings informing the company’s structure. The company’s bylaws are thoughtful and deliberate: “We strive to create social and ecological benefits as much as, or more than financial benefit” is one of their guiding principles. (JT wonders aloud whether the company’s current Craigslist job posting, which includes eight hundred words of supplemental material describing the company’s ownership and culture, “might even be too long.”) 

One of the newest worker-owners is Grace Piper, the garden shop’s nursery lead and native plant buyer. Before pivoting to working at a nursery, Grace worked for nonprofits and in higher education, where consensus-based decision-making was the norm. They found it frustrating to adjust to the traditional power structure at their previous nursery job, and leapt at the opportunity to apply for a job at SymbiOp when one opened up.

“A lot of people come here with experience working in cooperatives or living in cooperatives,” Grace says. “I think we’re kind of fortunate.”

The company’s cofounders epitomize this enthusiasm for cooperative culture: even before they started the company, they lived together in an intentional community, engineering an efficient housework plan that made the most of each person’s individual strengths. They bought groceries in bulk and grew their own produce, creating what JT calls a “human ecosystem” that helped the community weather the financial and psychological pressures of the early days of the pandemic. In many ways, SymbiOp’s multifaceted approach can be seen as an extension of the notion that people working and living together can create a more resilient, supportive environment than those who labor in isolation.

“Whether you’re a worker-owner or not,” Grace says, “there’s a lot of decision-making processes that everybody is involved in. Something that I find very important for us is having a specific set of values that is easy to come back to, so that when we do make a higher-level decision—or really any kind of decision—we can really hit it with the rubric: ‘Well, these are the values we all agreed on. This doesn’t quite meet all of those, so how can we make it meet more of them?’”

Both JT and Grace acknowledge that operating as a cooperative can feel unwieldy at times, especially when compared to the top-down decision-making that takes place at traditional companies. “There is this thing called decision fatigue,” says JT. “Not everybody wants to make decisions all the time. It’s a lot! So maybe some people want to feel like they have a say when they need to have a say, but most of the time they’re OK with other people who care more making these decisions. But having this security— knowing you still have a say if you need to—that’s ultimately where the checks and balances lie.”

JT sits on the board of the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, a nonprofit that offers a broad array of support to new co-ops in the region, with services ranging from feasibility assessments to technical assistance. In recent years, so many prospective co-ops have appeared that the organization can’t keep up with all the demand. But JT says he feels energized by what he refers to as the “growing ecosystem” of co-ops, and believes that their proliferation will make local economies sturdier, especially in the event of a global financial meltdown.

“I’m intentionally using plant metaphors because that’s what we’re about,” he says. “A tree itself can be satisfied with its own size, and might do pretty well with companion plants around it. But it’s not going to have nearly as much resilience as a whole forest, when the climate changes.” 

Two people are seated on opposite sides of a work table, talking while working with soldering irons. Both have long hair and bangs: one red, the other dyed blue and pink.
Maeve Leake, left, and Quinn Vega at Ear Trumpet Labs

Back at Ear Trumpet, after the staff meeting wraps up, Quinn heads outside to take her midafternoon break. “Philip came to us with the idea of becoming a co-op right around the same time that I was seeing a lot of smaller companies thinking about unionizing,” she says. “I was trying to grapple with the question, What is something that I could do that would be radically different in my job—where I’m happy with my boss and I really like how they treat me?”

Having worked primarily in retail before being hired at Ear Trumpet, Quinn is grateful for the financial security and health insurance that the job offers; at the same time, she’s aware that there’s no guarantee things will continue this way forever.

“Looking at the future and the other options that would be out there,” she continues, “like Philip selling the company to someone, or passing it along to Malachi or one of his other kids—I don’t like those paths nearly as much as this one, where we’re all owners, we get to own the means of production, we share in this equally. There’s only so anti-capitalist you can be while you’re a company, and pushing that as much as we can makes me really happy. But it’s a lot of work. It would be very easy for this thing to just go through our fingers.”

However, not all of the employees at Ear Trumpet feel as enthusiastic about the challenges ahead. Rodya Hutwagner has worked at the company since it moved into its current workshop nine years ago, and is tied with Malachi for the title of third-longest-tenured employee. “I’d been working in the service industry since before it was legal for me to work—poverty stuff—so I was just like, ‘Get me out of food service, I’ll do anything,’” Rodya recalls about their Ear Trumpet origin story. “So I just bugged Zane enough and they let me join.”

Rodya’s concerns about the cooperative are primarily connected to the financial risks of buying Philip out. “This is the poverty thing too,” they explain, “where I’m like, ‘Ugh, debt!’ It’s a reasonable thing that usually happens with these kinds of big purchases, like college debt stuff I’ve already been through. I just have to figure out my anxiety around that.”

At a nearby picnic table, production manager Zane—who is also Rodya’s close friend and long-term roommate—is taking a smoke break. (Everyone at Ear Trumpet sets their own hours, so on a pleasant day it’s not unusual to see several of the microphone builders soaking up the sunshine at the same time.) When asked how he feels about the road ahead, Zane hesitates, then describes his state of mind as “cautious.” 

“I feel incredibly lucky to work where I work,” he says. “I get why employee ownership is a virtuous, good thing, but it’s a little bit scary to change too much around when things are going well. My concerns are operational. The finances—we’re a fairly profitable business, I think we can work that out. But the operational stuff—it requires everyone to step up in a way that they are not necessarily used to. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot with a gun labeled Utopia.”

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest believers in the prospective co-op is Malachi, who recognizes that the most likely alternative scenario, in which she would inherit the business, could “build a lot of resentment.”

“For being functionally a family business,” she says, “in the sense that his daughter is the business manager, the notion of that—of being like, ‘I am the next generation of business owner’—feels very old-world and archaic to me. I never had an expectation that this would become my company. I really love the idea of it becoming everybody’s company, when everybody has built this business.”

Despite her enthusiasm for the co-op, Malachi can see where Zane’s concerns are coming from. “Having a kindly benefactor overlord has its benefits,” she admits. “Philip is really good about work boundaries for his employees and less good about work boundaries for himself. We’ve gotten used to that, and how do we shift that? If we’re all accountable, how do we communicate what our shared values for the company are when it doesn’t just kind of come down to one guy? How do we protect the business from the risk of the loss of him, basically?”    


Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount deducted from SymbiOp employees' paychecks for buying an ownership stake. It is 1.5 percent, not 1 percent.


Economics, History, Work, Money, labor


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