PurposeThe purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the conjecture that worker cooperatives (firms that practice participatory management and share profits broadly) suffer a competitive disadvantage relative to conventional firms is not supported by existing empirical research. It also considers alternative explanations for why such cooperatives are rare.
Design/methodology/approachHistorical analysis, literature survey, and survival analysis.
FindingsStudies of worker cooperatives in a variety of national settings indicate their failure rate is lower than conventional firms at least in the short and medium term. This contradicts the proposition that they are rare because they suffer a competitive disadvantage and focuses attention instead on their low formation rate.
Research limitationsThe “liability of newness,” wealth and credit constraints, entrepreneurial rents, and collective action problems are cited as important barriers for the creation of worker cooperatives de novo, but these factors should be greatly reduced for those created through the conversion of an existing firm. Paradoxically, the overwhelming majority of cooperatives are created from scratch, and hence this explanation remains incomplete.
Practical implicationsExisting policies incentivizing the creation of worker cooperatives, and current initiatives to promote them, do not encourage the creation of inferior economic institutions.
Originality/valueThis paper contradicts the widely held belief that the distinctive features of worker cooperatives (participatory management and broadly shared profit) place them at a competitive disadvantage in a market economy. It also provides insight into why cooperatives are rare by challenging explanations based in presumed inefficiencies and focusing attention instead on barriers to creation.