Book review: For All the People by John Curl

‘For All The People’ by John Curl

Uncovering the hidden history of cooperation, cooperative movements, and communalism in America

PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland CA 94623

John Curl is a professional woodworker and a 30-year member of Heartwood Cooperative Workshop in Berkeley, California

For all the People is a magnificent, comprehensive and detailed history of co-operatives and collectives of all kinds in the USA. It covers so much ground, and in so much detail, that it’s hard to summarise in a short review, so I’ll highlight those details that particularly spoke to me.

The book starts with a look at the co-operative cultural patterns of indigenous peoples before the arrival of the Plymouth Pilgrims in 1620 and goes on to describe in detail how the co-operative movement has thrived and foundered, thrived and foundered again and again under different circumstances throughout four centuries of US history.

The concept of a federation of north American states was inspired by indigenous peoples of the Americas

It was the League of the Iroquois which inspired the concept of a federation of colonies. The first person to propose that the colonies unify as the Iroquois had done and speak with one voice was Canassatego an Onondaga Iroquois chief, at an Indian British conference in Pennsylvania in 1744.

The political system of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was an inspiration for Tom Paine

Tom Paine experienced indigenous democracy at first hand as secretary in negotiations between the rebels and the Iroquois in 1711. He studied the Iroquoian language and used indigenous society as a model in his writings.

Role of co-operatives in supporting working people as labour relations changed from skilled artisan to waged labour in the early 19th century.

As in the UK, capitalist industrialisation in the early 19th century forced a change on working people from being autonomous skilled artisans – with a range of strategies for survival and self-expression – to becoming wages slaves, reliant on only one source of income to feed their families and live their lives. Co-operatives became an important means of support, providing support for striking workers to co-operative warehouses, and co-operative stores.

Curl describes how in 1794, Baltimore shoemakers formed the United Journeymen Cordwainers and demanded the standard piece work rate be raised to 6 shillings. Their demand rejected, they went on strike, taking with them over half the city’s workers. They organised the first co-operative ‘manufactory’ in the United States, a large workshop open to all journeymen boycotting the masters’ shops. Soon some of the masters began paying the higher rates and the workers returned to their shops. It seems that the co-operative model was often used in this way, supporting the workers while they were on strike and abandoned once the strike was successful.

In the early 19th century customers of country stores often paid their bills by trading produce, livestock or artisanal products for merchandise. Robert Owen’s store at New Harmony was the earliest prototypical co-operative store, which did business based on labour notes redeemable in the store. Community members received supplies, clothing and groceries on credit, which they redeemed with time credits for work performed.

Secret Co-operatives

The Knights of Labor was established in secret in 1869 by members of a Philadelphia taliloring cutting local trade union, blacklisted for striking. Its’ aims were ‘to secure to the workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create, to harmonise the interests of labor and capital’ . One of their first principles was co-operation. When they went public in 1878, ‘we will endeavour to associate our own labors, to establish co-operative institutions, such as will tend to supersede the wage system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system”

The Knights of Labor called for public ownership of railroads and other commercial transport, of the telegraph and telephones, water systems and utilities; for an 8-hour day, equal pay for equal work, abolition of contract, convict and child labour. They were one of the first organisations to include white and black in the same union and the first to include women – KOL had 50,000 women members at its peak, including many housewives, whom the Knights of Labor recognised as workers.

The early1880s was a time of industrial expansion, machinery was being introduced on unprecedented scale and an increase in unskilled & semi skilled labour, cuthtroat competition, and wages forced down. At the same time the USA was experiencing the peak of immigration from northern Europe, and the beginnings of immigration from southern & eastern Europe, bringing 5 million immigrants, mostly unskilled. When industrial capitalism forced these immigrants into wage slavery, they organised production and mutual aid co-operatives.

By the middle of 1886 there were between 185 and 200 Knight co-operatives across the US, concentrated in the east and mid west. More than half were mines, foundries, mills and factories making barrels, clothes, shoes and soap, as well as co-operative printers, laundries, furniture makers, potters, lumberjacks; factories making nails,boxes, underwear, brooms, pipe and stoves.

Co-operative development

The KOL general co-operative board published forms of constitutions and bye laws that could be modified to suit any form of co-operative, and numerous articles on the nuts and bolts of different kinds of co-operation.

However, as usual, capitalists and competitors hit the Knights co-operatives hard, making it difficult for them to obtain credit, supplies and markets.

Solidarity co-operatives

In 1886, New York City’s district assembly 49 – one of the most radical of the Knights assemblies, established an extraordinary group of co-operatives.  A committee on co-operation, chosen by the whole district, managed all the enterprises. They offered non-interest bearing shares for purchase to individuals and labour organisations that were redeemable after one year. Investors could not determine which co-operative their funds would be used for. No profits went to shareholders, but stock was to be bought back by the co-operatives from profits.  Shareholders had no control over management. Of the net profits after salaries and debt payments, 50% went to expanding the co-operative chain, 25% insurance and 25% to a fund for buying land.

Solidarity Co-operatives in 1887:

  • Solidarity fancy leather goods factory
  • Plumbers co-operative association
  • The Leader publishing association
  • The Concord Co-operative printing company
  • Solidarity cigar company
  • Solidarity co-operative and distributive store
  • Solidarity KOL watch case company

The book goes on to discuss the influence of Rochdale and George Jacob Holyoake, and to survey the role of co-operatives during the Civil War, the abolition of  slavery, the First International,  the First World War, the great depression, the New Deal and the second World War. There are numerous fascinating histories of individual co-operatives such as: The Get Even Quick Cattle Company, the Troy Lauundry Womens Cooperative and Nashoba, Tennessee, one of many communes established after the abolition of slavery.

It also looks at the Berkeley Co-op, Bay Warehouse Collective and the Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop,  with which the author was very much involved, and reviews co-operatives and the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. It also looks at early and 20th century Communalist movements and ends with a survey of the infrastructure of the co-operative movement in the US today.

Why do worker co-operatives fail?

John Curl asks why so many worker co-operatives fail. He points out that the majority of all new businesses fail in their first year and that start ups are advised not to expect a profit for two years. He also points out that most enterprises are increasingly based on costly technology and that most co-ops start out under capitalised.

However one of the points that most clearly comes across throughout the whole book is the consistent opposition from corporate interests and the politicians that serve them. For example, the Sherman Anti Trust Act of 1890, declared illegal any combination or conspiracy to restrain interstate commerce. The Act aimed to outlaw the Trusts which controlled most of US industry in the wake of the Civil War. It supposedly favoured small business by curbing monopoly, but made no distinction between conspiratorial practices of big business and co-operative practices of small producers. It outlawed co-operatives engaged in interstate commerce and unions organising interstate strikes. The Sherman Act made numerous co-operatives illegal and was used to break strikes 12 times in the decade, but never once to break a Trust.

Curl concludes by describing how the system has failed dismally to provide a decent life, basic services or jobs for vast numbers of north Americans. He says that the corporations still fear worker co-operatives, for the same reasons they have used their power to put them down throughout history.

It’s clear that there has been consistent and significant opposition to the cooperative idea, throughout US history, however I believe that this is a result largely of historical circumstances which resulted in a political system located to the right of the political spectrum, which views worker organisation of any kind with fear and suspicion.

I also believe it is time to review the traditional focus of co-operatives – both in the US and the UK – on just one stakeholder group: consumer, employee, or community. A more sustainable way forward might be to explore the potential of the multistakeholder model, a model that takes into account the needs and concerns of employees and customers, as well as other stakeholders, such as suppliers, the wider community, the environment. A co-operative enterprise supported by all its stakeholders might perhaps have a better chance of surviving the slings and arrows of a competitive and individualistic society. The co-operative I work for – Somerset Co-operative Services – has developed such a model, which can be downloaded for review at:

There is a current of opinion growing and manifesting itself everywhere that not only have our political systems failed us, but also there are serious flaws in a business model that is legally obliged to look no further than the interests of shareholders. Surely one of the problems associated with capitalism is its primary focus on one stakeholder, namely the investor? As Noam Chomsky said in a recent interview, US CEOs and senior managers are caught in an institutional contradiction, they are obliged by law to maximise short term profit, i.e. to benefit the investors at the risk of ignoring other issues, such as  climate change. (see

For all the People is an important and timely book – read it to see where co-operatives have succeeded, how they have supported and inspired working people to action and where and how they have failed. We can learn much from this history and we need to look back and learn in order to look forward and act.

‘I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country’

Thomas Jefferson 1816