Despite their success, cooper cooperatives still had to manage the market and all of its instabilities. Bidding was competitive, big ‘boss’ coopers were constantly lowering prices to undercut cooperatives and cutting wages driving coopers to strike, and Rockefeller had introduced barrel-making machinery.
While cooperatives excluded machinery from their operations for as long as possible, boss coopers adopted the mechanized barrel-makers, increased production and eventually created an oversupply of barrels.
At this point, nearly all of Minneapolis’ coopers had enrolled in the Knights of Labor. This union of cooperative coopers and big shop coopers lead to a few triumphs over long-standing disagreements and a new strategy to improve wages. They negotiated a new price per barrel with millers, but still had to negotiate their inter-cooper relationships. Big shops were the cooperative’s competition, but the coopers working for big shops were union brothers. Striking coopers needed cooperatives to refrain from taking their big shop’s contracts during a strike, or else their strike would fail. Also, cooperators needed those strikes to succeed and drive up prices at big shops forcing millers to pay more for barrels no matter who was making them.
It was a constant tightrope and many shops, cooperative and otherwise, were rumored to break their price agreement with the millers in order to win more business. Between these tensions, the mechanization of the trade and growing exports of wheat, the market was a rollercoaster.
Eventually, after a detrimental price decline and massive strike, The Knights of Labor and the barrel makers of Minneapolis (coops and big shops) formed a pool of barrel factories called the Coopers Association to divide the work evenly among shops, limit employment, and regulate barrel price and wages. But the association had many critics. Many millers saw it as a monopoly and a few dissenting cooperatives saw it as an opportunity to crush the competition. Curtis and Bachelder’s own The North Star not only didn’t join, but undermined the association by stealing contracts for their own profit.
Distrust and resentment rose among the ranks of coopers. Ultimately, the Cooper Association could not maintain control over the barrel market and tensions between the Knights and the North Star were often mediated but never resolved. Between these strains and some cooperators destructive independence, the Minneapolis barrel industry highlighted the weaknesses of a cooperative philosophy. Their agreed-upon rules fell by the wayside, the number of activists in the Knights of Labor diminished and the labor movement was weakened.
It was a long, slow road to the end of cooperative barrel shops in Minneapolis. Market pressures convinced cooperators to reduce membership, buy out shareholders and hire nonmembers to run machines in their place. They undermined the craft. Curtis, once one of the most prominent and vigorous labor activists and a champion of cooperative experiments, abandoned the cooperative cause to become a patrol driver in the police department. Bachelder remained a member of the North Star and saw it prosper, but his firm’s success was largely to blame for the disintegration of cooperation among barrel makers.
Yet for a few years in the 1880s, the vision of cooperation thrived and the cooperative coopers of Minneapolis dominated an industry and served as a champion of craft workers.
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