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Union vs Guild vs Cooperative vs Collective – What’s the Difference?

Collective leadership graphic showing four people holding unique individual jigsaw puzzle pieces that will fit together.

How Striking Etsy Sellers and Gig Workers Can Get Organized

Before child labor laws and the 40-hour week, workers had to fight for the basic rights that we take for granted today. They achieved it by self-organizing themselves into a labor movement: through unions and cooperatives, guilds and collectives, political parties, mutual aid societies, fraternal organizations, and even secret worker associations.

Today, striking Etsy sellers and other non-employee gig workers and freelancers struggle to organize for their rights in the absence of an established and codified labor union structure that works for them. 

There are several different types of organizations designed to empower workers: unions, guilds, professional associations, cooperatives, and collectives. In this post, we’ll explain the differences between them.

Table summarizing the information in this article. Rows: Union, Guild/Professional Organization, and Cooperative/Collective. Columns: legal structure, URL ending, member types, representation, designated regulator, and example organizations.
Table credit: Artisans Cooperative

Trade Unions, Labor Unions, Guilds and Professional Associations

Unions (trade unions, labor unions) and guilds (including professional associations) — are all collective bargaining organizations. 

Collective bargaining is when a group of less powerful individuals who share similar goals unite in negotiations with a common, more powerful opponent. In most cases, we think of the opponent as an employer. In some cases, that “opponent” may be the customers, or even the market itself.

A union is different than a guild. One important distinction is in the worker’s relation to the employer: whether the worker is an independent contractor or a staff employee. The other important distinction is whether the organization is a third party elected to represent the workers, or the workers themselves.

Legally speaking, in the US they are all organized as charitable non-profit organizations under the IRS’s 501(c) umbrella. Their websites usually end in .org.


A union is a very specific kind of organization. It is the designated third-party representative of workers – not the workers themselves. 

In the US, a union must file a petition with the employer and a federal agency (National Labor Relations Board, NLRB) to be recognized as the bargaining agent for the employees. This level of formality is unique among the different kinds of organizations but gives workers the option to switch to another union or create a guild if they were to become unhappy with the union leadership.

Within the category of unions, there are two general types: trade unions and labor unions: 

  • Trade unions represent workers united by a “trade” or craft: they could be staff employees of many different employers such as nurses or aerospace workers, or they could be independent contractors such as plumbers. 
  • Labor unions represent staff employees hired by an employer, such as the Buffalo Starbucks store or the Staten Island Amazon warehouse.
Union graphic showing a line of five upraised fists in protest, in multiple skin tones. Image credit
Image credit:

Guilds and Professional Associations

In a guild, independent contractors or freelancers in a shared trade represent themselves. A guild is almost indistinguishable from a professional association, which also self-organizes its independent members in a shared trade. An example of this is the American Institute of Architects.

What’s the Difference Between Guilds and Unions?

Labor unions have a unique distinction (only for staff of an employer, and specially regulated by the NLRB), but guilds and trade unions would appear on the surface to be quite similar: both represent independent contractors in a shared trade.

In a Worldbuilding forum, one contributor cheekily explained the difference as this: “Guilds focus on setting the standards for goods produced by an industry (which was often, but not always, a cover for establishing a monopoly) while trade unions focused on setting the standards for how workers are treated (which is really just a cover for getting more money for the workers & power for the union itself).”

Can Tech Gig Workers “Unionize”? 

Are tech gig workers like Uber drivers and Etsy crafters acting functionally like employees or are they totally independent? It’s becoming a gray area as the work organized by technology companies in marketplaces gets increasingly micro-managed. The answer is being argued right now in the courts.

Cooperatives and Collectives

Unions and guilds organize against a business, but a cooperative is a business itself, designed to work for its members. Members own, self-manage, and profit from a cooperative business. 

A cooperative is a democratically-run “one-member, one-vote” business based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Cooperatives operate by a set of 7 universal cooperative principles (websites are .coop’s), which were first established by the cooperative pioneers in Rochedale, England in the 1800’s. 

Legally speaking, cooperatives are usually organized as businesses. In the US, they would be an S-Corp, LLC, or C-Corp, and the members are owners of the business, or “member-owners”. Their websites usually end in .coop.

A collective is a cooperative with a distinctive management structure. Collectives are non-hierarchal: they have a“flat” organizational chart. They operate by consensus-based decision-making, not majority votes. In other words, all collectives are cooperatives but not all cooperatives are collectives. 

Collective leadership graphic showing four people holding unique individual jigsaw puzzle pieces that will fit together.
“Collective leadership” copyright-free image credit:

There are many kinds of cooperatives, organized to suit the needs of its members, which may be the workers themselves, independent businesses and farms, customers, or any hybrid combination. 

  • Land O’Lakes and Tillamook Cheese are regional examples of agricultural cooperatives. They were created for the sole purpose of selling and marketing the member dairy farmers’ milk. 
  • ACE Hardware, one of the largest cooperatives in the US, is a purchasing cooperative for independently-owned hardware stores. ACE negotiates hardware store inventory in bulk and members are independently-owned hardware stores who take advantage of the bulk pricing to be competitive with the likes of Home Depot and Lowe’s. 
  • An example of a consumer-owned collective would be REI and many of the small local natural foods stores created in the 1960’s and 1970’s, such as Bloomingfoods in Bloomington Indiana or People’s Food Co-op in Portland Oregon. These co-ops sell hard-to-find supplies, like vegetarian groceries or quality outdoor gear, at fair prices to customers who want to buy them. 
  • Exit to Community (E2C) is a popular movement today that converts privately-owned businesses into worker-owned co-ops. This often happens when business owners want to retire, for example. Examples of these are Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour
  • Not all food co-ops are consumer-owned: Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and Olympia Food Co-op in Olympia, Washington are worker-owned cooperatives. Worker-owned co-ops take many forms, from graphic designers, to engineers, to taxi drivers.

According to the US Federal of Worker Cooperatives, worker-owned co-ops are “values-driven businesses (not necessarily a B-corp) that put worker and community benefit at the core of their purpose. The model has proven to be an effective tool for 

  • creating and maintaining sustainable, dignified jobs; 
  • generating wealth; 
  • improving the quality of life of workers; 
  • and promoting community and local economic development, particularly for people who lack access to business ownership or sustainable work options.”

This post explored the differences between these organization types. In the next posts, we’ll explain more about what a cooperative is, and why we artisans are self-organizing into a cooperative online marketplace

Resources and Further Reading

About Artisans Cooperative

We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
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