The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

February 13, 2017

Our Worker Co-ops Have a Unique Role to Play

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:14 am

We are living in very interesting times.

It can be difficult to figure out a coherent strategy with which to negotiate the next 1,237 days (or more). We almost need an individualized strategic plan to manage all of the areas of resistance to understand when it is vital to be on the streets or in the workplace or with friends and family.

Worker Co-operatives have a key role to play during this era, but it will only be meaningful if they embrace their identity as worker-owned and operated enterprises. False co-ops, those who use the co-op label more for marketing while ignoring the principles, really aren’t needed. They do damage to the rest of us. I am talking about employer co-ops masquerading as worker co-ops or solidarity co-ops. Some of these, like cab “co-ops” that have only 3–4 owners and hundreds of workers. They use the co-op model to escape double-taxation and should really be Limited Liability Corporations. They don’t engage in the principles or values of co-operation.

The rest, the worker co-ops who strive every day to live their principles and values, to engrain the co-op ethics into the operations, to demonstrate the resiliency and power of worker control need to step up and do more. This is not the time to be insular and withdraw behind the doors of your meeting room. The nation needs to learn about worker co-ops, and more importantly, worker co-ops need to expand and build the movement.

Mondragon provides lessons for how to develop and succeed in a hostile political climate. I want to talk about two, that I see as key to navigating the new normal of the political landscape in the U.S.

The first lesson: control our capital and keep it inside the movement. Worker co-ops need to create full service banks owned by worker co-ops to support and develop worker co-ops. While credit unions have a role, they can be hampered by antagonistic legislation that favors banks. Let’s use that legislation to support co-ops.

The second lesson of Mondragon: expand the movement by investing in new co-ops and incubating them if necessary. Mondragon recognized early on that more worker co-ops would make their lives easier. With enough worker co-ops, the supply lines and financial support could keep the money in the co-operative sector and economies of scale could be reached in ways that kept the democracy alive in the workplace. When a co-op needs something that it doesn’t produce, and can’t find an affordable source aligned with its mission, it should create a new co-op to meet its need. This engages the intellectual capital and capacity of its membership. Larger co-ops may have people working for them because it is a co-op, not because they want to drive a taxi, provide home care, or engage in bike delivery. These members provide a great expansion opportunity for the co-op and the movement.

This might be a state by state, city by city effort with each community finding its own path. Some cities, such as New York, Cleveland, and Madison, are able to use taxpayer dollars to support and build a co-operative solution to meet city needs. Others cannot and need to find other methods. In either case, it is important for existing co-ops to step up and help create strong co-operative economic ecosystems.

Creating nodes of economic democratic organizations throughout the U.S. over the next four years might not be the showiest or strongest form of resistance, but it will build stronger communities that will allow more people to engage in other forms of resistance since they will have free themselves of wage slavery. It is a passive revolution of a sort, although it can easily succumb to the hegemony of the dominant capital model if the values and principles fall to the wayside of our work.

If we could quadruple the worker co-ops in terms of number and employees over the next four years and develop them into real economic democracies through strong governance strategies that overcome gatekeepers and philanthropic saviors, we would create not just an answer to Trumpism, but also to neoliberalism.

As we train our members to engage within our co-ops, we are also training them to engage within their communities. This will create leadership on neighborhood councils, city committees, county committees and even State boards and commissions. We can create a new form of community leadership to fill the current vacuum that only sees a dichotomy between the conservative and liberal factions of Wall Street. Some co-ops, of course, are already doing this and their efforts have paid off substantially (see New York City and Madison), but we need to make this a bigger and broader movement that reaches beyond traditional liberal strongholds and into cities throughout the country. By focusing on the values of co-operation and putting the practice of solidarity and cooperation among cooperatives into practice, we can build an incredible future that delivers on the American Dream.

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