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

February 9, 2017

CICOPA’s Declaration on migrants and refugees

Since my last post on January 23, I had been wondering how to address some of the actions that have happened since in terms of the worker cooperative identity. Fortunately for me, my friends at the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation posted the following (adopted April, 2016) The International of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (CICOPA) put forth the following Declaration on Migrants and Refugees:

According to the United Nations, the number of international migrants increased by 41% over the last 15 years, from 173 million in 2000 to 244 million in 2015;1 the UN also point out that the main reasons for migrating include conflict, poverty, inequality and lack of decent jobs, and that the distinction between countries of origin, transit and destination is becoming increasingly obsolete.2

According to the UNHCR, refugees reached an estimated 15.1 million people in mid-2015, up from 10.5 million in 2012, 3 namely an increase of 40% in only 3 years, the vast majority being hosted by low or middle income countries.4

This massive increase in the flow of migrants and refugees is bound to increase over the next few years, both because the present reasons for such an increase have not been solved and because new phenomena are beginning to impact on migration, such as climate change.

Europe in particular is facing the gravest migration and humanitarian crisis since World War II, bringing into light its own paradoxes and inabilities to apply its constituent values such as solidarity, respect for human dignity and liberty.

It should be pointed out that, when they are able to survive during their exodus, migrants often face difficulties in accessing employment opportunities and basic social and health services. Furthermore, migrants are among the most exposed to working in low-paid precarious jobs and potentially exploitive conditions in the informal economy.

CICOPA is fully aware of the complex reality which migrants are facings around the world and that it is, at times, a difficult or perilous path.

As an organization active globally, CICOPA strives to change this paradigm through the development and growth of industrial and service cooperatives, in compliance with the first cooperative principle according to which “cooperatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination”.

Industrial and service cooperatives contribute to a decent and dignified life and to the social and economic integration of refugees and migrants in various parts of the world. 5 They are also used as a tool by migrants and refugees themselves for developing entrepreneurship initiatives together with other members from the community, thus increasing autonomy, solidarity and human development while at the same time contributing to a sustainable economy both globally and locally.

Industrial and service cooperatives are the natural allies of international organizations, regional organizations and national governments in carrying out inclusive policies that provide basic services and socioeconomic inclusion for migrants and refugees. Cooperative entrepreneurship is a valuable tool to maximize the developmental benefits represented by migrants and refugees for welcoming countries, in terms of human resources, competences and skills.

Through this Declaration, CICOPA wants to express its commitment to fight for an equal access to services and work opportunities provided by cooperatives, allowing for a decent life and increased opportunities for the entrepreneurial projects to be initiated by workers and producers in the migrant and refugee communities around the world.

Cooperatives are based on the principle of equality, whereby all human beings are equal in rights and remain at the heart of all policy concerns. This is why cooperatives in industry and services commit themselves to fight against discrimination, stigmatization and exclusion which refugees and migrants are facing all around the globe.

 

1 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2016) International Migration Report 2015; New York: United Nations, p. 5

2 Ibid.

3 UNHCR (2015) Mid-Year Trends 2015 ; Geneva : UNHCR

4 Ibid., p. 7 2 CICOPA – C/O European House of Cooperatives – avenue Milcamps 105 – BE-1030 BRUSSELS TEL. (+32/2) 543 10 33 – WWW.CICOPA.COOP– CICOPA@CICOPA.COOP 5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in

5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in New York in 2006, with the mission to bring together immigrant women to create a women-run, women-owned, eco-friendly housecleaning business. The cooperative Nor Bum, established in 2011 in La Plata, Argentina, groups 7 construction workers coming from Bolivia. Social cooperative Camelot established in 1997 in Ferrara, Italy, by

January 27, 2017

Stand in solidarity with HOTEL BAUEN workers

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 4:19 pm
Appeal for international solidarity with the law of expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN voted by the Argentine Congress on November 30th, 2016 and vetoed by President Mauricio Macri

After almost 14 years of struggle, the Argentine Senate passed a bill for the expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN in favor of the worker cooperative on November 30th, 2016. The existence of such law has consolidated workers’ self-management and has brought historical justice to this cause, given that former owners of the hotel built it using public credit facilitated by the genocidal de facto military government (1976-1983); this credit was never repaid. Beyond historical rectification, the expropriation bill recognized the Hotel BAUEN’s social purposes, including myriad solidarity-based initiatives, and cultural activities that regularly take place in this worker-managed hotel, making the BAUEN an emblem of workers’ self-management in Argentina and in the world. But Argentine President Mauricio Macri has subsequently vetoed the expropriation bill based on fallacious arguments that deny the social purposes of the cooperative, that reject the recovery of the public funds, and that will leave 130 workers unemployed and unable to provide for their families. We urge the members of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies and the Argentine Senate to reject the presidential veto and to confirm the law that expropriates the Hotel BAUEN on behalf of its workers in order to repair this injustice, avoid the eviction of workers from the hotel, and strengthen our democracy.

Hotel BAUEN constitutes one of the most emblematic worker-recuperated businesses in Argentina. Closed by its owners as part of a fraudulent scheme that left its workers out on the street by the end of the 2001, the 20-story building located in downtown Buenos Aires was asset stripped and abandoned by its owners for more than a year before a group of former workers occupied the space on March 21st, 2003. Thus began a process of 13 years of workers’ self-management that has created 130 jobs and witnessed the Hotel BAUEN’s workers make major investments in repairing and renovating the hotel’s infrastructure, all with very little external financing. Hotel BAUEN, which was once a symbol of corrupt power in Argentina, has now, under workers’ self-management, become a meeting place for social movements, unions, and workers’ organizations. Over the past decade, the hotel has hosted hundreds of organizing conferences and debates, as well as academic and cultural events.

Hotel BAUEN is not just an emblem of self-management. Its origins also constitute a symbol for the collective memory of the collusion and corruption between economic power and the genocidal dictatorship that ruled and bloodied Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Hotel BAUEN was originally constructed in preparation for the World Cup of soccer hosted in Argentina in 1978 and financed with loans from the national bank (BANADE) that were never repaid. Thus there still exists an outstanding public debt. The expropriation bill permits the Argentine State to regain the ownership of the building and subsequently have it transferred to the workers’ cooperative, which has, after all, recuperated it for the working class and Argentine society. The subsequent presidential veto, however, has impeded this historical reparation promised by the expropriation of the Hotel BAUEN, and has, instead, consecrated the impunity of the accomplices of the military dictatorship and punished the workers who have devoted their effort, their work, and their resources to the recuperation of this hotel.

The signatures in the petition represent those who stand in solidarity with the workers of Hotel BAUEN. They represent a call for the Members of Congress of the Argentine Republic to confirm the expropriation bill they passed, allowing the continuation of workers’ self-management, which is exemplary to the world.

To send an email of support to the Hotel BAUEN workers: solidaritybauencooperative@gmail.com

October 5, 2015

The People’s Ride: A Co-op Response to Uber

Filed under: Management,Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 11:23 am

I haven’t been a fan of the “sharing economy” primairlity because it really isn’t about sharing, it is about extraction. Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, TaskRabbit aren’t sharing anything, they are providing a technological interface for people to do menial jobs and extracting a huge percentage for the service.

In the case of cab drivers, Uber and Lyft disrupt a market that is closed and generally united against drivers and the passengers. The modern day taxi market is designed to maximize wealth for the owner of the company without regard for the people who generate the wealth or the public who need transportation. Uber and Lyft disrupt this by allowing basically anyone to be a cab driver and open up the market to make getting a ride as easy as it seems on tv (reality check: on TV the cab shows up instantly, but in reality it takes 15-30 minutes to hail a cab in New York City and up to 45 minutes during rush hour).

The thing is, Uber and Lyft aren’t changing the model. They have just found a way to beat the monopoly owners in most communities. They offer a high tech solution to ordering cabs, but this has already been offered in a number of cities (San Francisco and Madison are two that come to the top of my head). Drivers and consumers are still preyed upon and have their wealth extracted. One of the reasons that attempts by exisitng taxicab owners to defeat Uber’s growth have failed is that  most taxicab companies have already sacrficied any consumer or driver loyalty to their personal profit. The unknown devil of Uber is, at worst, going to be the same as the known devil of ABC Cab, but people might be able to get a cab quicker.

In general, Uber succeeds because it offers immediacy and convenience in an industry that has refused to modernize or focus on customer service and loyalty (in fact, most cab companies have moved away from hiring drivers as employees and made the driver the customer through charging them for the priviledge of driving which has removed the owner of the company from the people who use the company’s services–it was good for consistent profits, but horrible for customer service and loyalty from drivers and consumers).

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a new model is underway. Since Uber has spent millions of dollars to re-write laws to exempt their model from existing taxi ordinances, they created a new market for drivers through a “Transportation Network Company”. This new model is basically the old cab owner model created by cab owners to distance themsleves from any responsiblity to their drivers or customers; however, now that it also distances the owners of the TNC form local laws, it offers the ability for drivers to form new driver-owned and customer-focused cooperatives.

Matthew Bair is leading the effort. They are working for a better work environment for the drivers. In there GoFund Me Campaign he writes:

“I am a substitute teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  I believe in creating a new world for tomorrow’s youth.  Change needs to happen everywhere.  My whole higher education involved figuring out what that would look like.  People’s Ride is about creating a new economy and a better future.  It is about creating a different kind of job.  One where people are able to use both their brain and muscle together and be wholly human.  
People’s Ride is a worker co-op where those who drive also own and control the business.  If a work week is 5 days, a driver picks up people and collects fares 4 days while on the 5th sit in meetings to make decisions about the company.      
The co-op community here in Grand Rapids is growing.  Housing, live/ work co-ops, land, food, beer, bicycling, honey bee, ride sharing co-ops are working together in solidarity to bring about an alternative.     
People’s Ride has been up and running.  We have been following the Cooperative Development Institute’s guide to starting cooperatives.  As in the spirit of the cooperative movement, we collaborate and learn from other ride sharing cooperatives from around the nation.  We have the potential to grow very fast.  Right now we are focusing on putting in place a solid infrastructure.
We are raising money to pay for a car and to have a grand opening.  Any amount makes a difference!  Big or small, $10, $50, $100, $500, you name it.  A contribution of $50 makes you a consumer member and gives you 10% off, $100 gives you 10 rides for half off, $200 gives you 20 rides, $500 gives you 50 rides.   Help build the co-op community in Grand Rapids.  
People who do crowdfunding say that their success is owed to how many people are reached.  So please, after you make a contribution, send this to all the friends you can think of.  “

TNC’s may allow cab co-ops to thrive where previously they were shut out by shenanigans of the owners limiting the number of cabs in a community through medallions or out-right leglislation. TNC’s break open the oligopolies that exist in most cities. While I still dislike Uber and Lyft (and think that they need more regulation to protect workers and consumers), I can see the value of the TNC model in a modern technological age. I am hoping that the Grand Rapids project works and spreads to other cities. Ideally, with a collaboration between drivers in cooprativ TNC and cooperativ tech companies, a national or even international model of a collectivized TNC could take hold and propser benefitting drivers and customers alike.

 

 

September 25, 2015

Worker Development Brings a Better World

Filed under: Human Relations,Pensimientos,Reflections,Society — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:17 am

REFLECTION NO. 276

Work is the attribute that gives a person the highest honor of being a cooperator of God in the transformation and fertilization of nature and in the resulting promotion of human well-being. That people exercise their faculty of work in union with others and in a noble regime of cooperation and solidarity, gives them not only nobility, but also the optimal fertility to make every corner of the earth a mansion that is agreeable and promising for all. This is what work communities are for and it is them who are destined to make our people progress.


 

Work, in the modern era, may be seen as, and often is, as a drudgery. This is, I think, because work rarely has meaning for the individual (unless they are lucky enough to be in a profession). The effect of scientific managment (Taylorism) has been to deskill work to the point that there is little for workers to care about. It is an assembly line world and without ownership, it is no wonder that many feel like a cog in the machine. It places the individual worker alone and only motivated by self-interest.

Arizmendiarrieta saw work as an enobling act through worker ownership. It was a means to an end and the end was a fully developed human and community that would, in turn usher in world of peace and harmony. In acting in unision, collectively, people not only prosper but care for the environment in which they live. The pursuit of wealth includes a healthy ecological enviroment in which all prosper together. Lofty goals to be sure.

Today, Pope Francis, hit similar a theme in his speech to the United Nations. He said, “It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prduential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our pland and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women whove, struggle and suffer and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.” 

He also quoted his predescessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The econoligical crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. the baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismangement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for walth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflction on man: ‘man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Mand does not create himself. He is a spirit and will, but also nature.’ Creation is compromised ‘where we ourselves have the final word. . . the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognizes any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.'”

There are, of course, many contradictions within the Catholic church and the Co-operative movement. Despite the lofty values of solidarity, social responsiblity and caring for others, many co-operatives do not engage them. Even Mondragon, has its troubles from time to time. Likewise, co-operatives are willing to engage in unsustainable ecological practices as well.

The words of Arizmendiarrieta, on the hundreth annivesary of his birth, resonate today because his work is not done. As Pope Francis concludes his visit to the US, on the even of National Co-operative Month, it is worth taking into account the nature of co-operation and how our co-operative movment, especially the worker co-operative movement engages our values and principles. Are we just about “getting to scale” or do we want to create a just and ecologically sustainble world that allow workers dignity and opporutnity for growth?

 

September 24, 2015

We do not live alone, but in co-operation

REFLECTION NO. 42

There is something in the depths of the human spirit that is firm and eternal. And there is also something that needs to be moving towards a new and superior expansion, in consonance with the interior and social regeneration of human beings. It is for this reason that their social achievements must reflect this transformation.

 


I missed yesterday, but also took the time to read the transcript of Pope Francis’ speech to the American people through their elected representatives in Congress this morning.

In his praise of the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis said, quoting Laudato Si which he published this Spring:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation an distribution of wealth. The right of natural resources, the proper allocation of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of the enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. ‘Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.’ . . . Now  is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and an ‘integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Co-operation does seek to build financial wealth among its members, but it also strives for community wealth and social wealth. It operates within the values of solidarity and mutual self-help to build sustainable economic systems that bring all of the members of the community up together without destroying the physical environment upon which our collective economic and human lives depend.

I have seen many in the co-op world (especially in the worker co-op community) see the model as just another form of capitalism and that the only metrics that matter on the financial bottom line. However, co-operation is perhaps the most inefficient at maximizing personal wealth. Its aim, from the beginning, is to have a social bottom line.

The co-operative movement cannot stop at creating financial wealth, it must also reach the human and help them connect with their community to see that the financial wealth is, in our socio-economic model, a benevolent side-effect of the main effect of creating a community based on dignity for the human and respect for the world that provides its resources so that we can flourish.

September 22, 2015

Co-operation Isn’t For Everyone. . . (initially)

REFLECTION NO. 538

The radicalism of the cooperative proposal, in face of development, appealing to the economic, personal, communal and integral concourse of its believers, faces the alternative of success or complete failure. Cooperativism requires people with a strong spirit, or at least people who are willing to risk it all. Therefore, it is not a formula that fits everyone, but the biggest mistake that we could make would be to place our demands at the level of the weakest, since in such a case it would be impossible to reach higher levels.

From Reflections, the words of Don José María Arizmendiarrieta


 

Pope Francis has just wrapped up a papal visit to the island nation of Cuba. This country, long held under the sway of US foreign policy, has begun to reexamine its economic relationship with the world and with itself. For decades, it has followed the state-planned economic method but as the relations with the US thaw, and the demand of the contemporary generation for greater autonomy increases, the Cuban government looks to the co-operative economic model as a way to keep Cuba from returning to the playground of the US.

I think that this quote from Mondragon’s founder is quite fitting in that it bounces off of yesterday’s critique of radicalism by suggesting that the cooperative model offers a form of radicalism in that it forces people to reach within themselves and take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their organization. Co-operatives are not designed for followers, but for individuals who seek to express their humanity and identity while also engaging with others to create a synergy of the human experience that can only be obtained through interaction with similarly self-aware and self-responsible individuals.

We don’t often think of co-operation as an individual act (and it really isn’t of course), but it does require people who can engage it in a co-leadership manner. It takes personal strength to be able to co-operate and not everyone is up to the task as it will mean conflict. Hopefully, the co-operative has structures to create an environment in which conflict resembles more of a Hegelian dialectic than a kindergarten playground.

This shouldn’t suggest that co-operatives are exclusive to the already self-aware. Arizmendiarrieta speaks at length at the power of co-operation to empower people to develop their humanity and to create civilization based on the values that make us human. I think that the mistake that he refers to is to place people without these skills and qualities into positions of power and expect success.

September 21, 2015

Pope Francis and Co-operatives

Tomorrow, Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to the United States. This pope, hailing from Argentina, brings with him a message for all of us in terms of building our economies–the quest for wealth needs to be more than monetary. In this, the Bishop of Rome has found the co-operative economic model to be one that can go beyond materialism and help lift people up.

In March, as reported by  The Cooperative News, he spoke directly about the co-operative model:

“‘The leader of the Catholic Church also argued that co-operatives could enable people to achieve all their potential. He said: ‘A member of a co-operative must not be merely … a worker … but must instead always be a protagonist, and must grow, through the co-operative, as a person, socially and professionally, in responsibility … an enterprise managed by a co-operative must grow in a truly co-operative way, involving all’.”

This language resonates with those of us who have studied Mondragon and the teachings of Don José María Arizmendiarietta. It is the 100th anniversary of the Basque priest’s birth. In celebration of this centennial, I engaged his writings in my classroom. Each class, students were asked to bring a quotation from this collected musings Reflections” available on-line.

In the coming days and weeks, I wish to bring that experience on-line. The following is a quote from Reflections. I will add my comments below, but I encourage you, dear readers, to add your own reflections or to find quotes from the web site that resonate with you and share them here.

Let’s honor the visit of Pope Francis by honoring the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Mondragon’s spiritual founder and engage in a discussion about co-operation, values and the development of the human.


 

REFLECTION NO. 546

This experience corresponds to a new spirit of trust in human beings and in their capacity. It revives in this case the sense of freedom, dignity and justice, evidently accepted in the traditional and democratic institutions in our land, this acceptance being manifested in the idiosyncrasy of our people. One of our characteristics has been our practical sense, knowing how to act in the milieu of possibilities, without renouncing or being indifferent to our ideals. We have known how to muster and not waste our opportunities to improve the common good. Our processes of association are not viable without moderation and the consenting of all of our people, who usually have to sacrifice personal positions. Radicalizations are contrary to the human and social virtues as well as to the most constant qualities of our people.


I decided to start with a rather chunky quote and one that some might find a bit controversial. The first part that struck we was Arizmendiarrieta’s faith in the method (or experience) of worker ownership through co-operation. It is more than simply creating a job with slightly better pay or a retirement plan. Although those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, the current dogma or “getting to scale” with a focus on size and ESOPs rather than on worker control and teaching workers how to manage seems short-sighted to me and lacking the key thing that makes worker co-operation so exciting.

Co-operation must also be about creating new human relationships in which we learn to value each other as human beings, as individuals, even while engaging each other for our co-operative ends. It is about embracing the idiosyncrasies, being able to see disagreements as a pathway to development and consensus. Falling into the money chase and big is better camp seems counter-productive to me in that even if the organization succeeds as a business, it ends up looking and feeling just like any other large business. Co-operatives need to break up this isomorphism.

The second part of this quote counters calls for radicalization. I imagine many (regardless of political affiliation) will question the Don of Mondragon as the political environment in the US and many countries seem to have become polarized with calls for dramatic action (and even military action) to deal with political and economic frustrations. Yet, too often, the goals of these movements get co-opted by their leaders (see Greece for the most recent example) as the trappings of power for the leaders become more important than the cause of the followers. Is this because radicalism focuses on people frustration and anger instead of the human and social virtues? I think that is the message in this statement. Co-operation, especially that espoused by Arizmendiarrieta tends to avoid the limelight of the political debate and alignment with political factions by focusing on education, information, and communication among its membership. By focusing on humans, not as pawns for larger political moves, but as the central raison d’etre, co-operatives can keep plugging along even as the countries bounce from one ism to another (See Italy and Spain). A revolution of spirit is needed that sees all of us as connected–I guess to some that may be radical, but to me it is a key part of co-operation.

 

August 11, 2014

Can Worker Coops Engage True Rehabilitation?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 2:18 pm

Last May, I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Association for Study in Cooperatives. It was held at Brock University as part of the annual Congress of Social Studies and Humanities Research Council. There were, as usual, a number of exciting and fantastic papers matched only by the lively and open discussions.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating presentations was work by Isobel Findlay from the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan. I always enjoy her presentations as her work almost always examines how cooperatives can benefit and re-power the most marginalized populations in Western economics and culture. This presentation was no different as it considered the potential for worker cooperatives within the prison industry. This model would membership institutionalized women and provide them with the means to assist in the support of their families and maintaining a level of dignity during incarceration. It would also provide knowledge, skills and abilities that would be useful upon release.

People in the United States often see Canada as a euro-centric country that is “nice” and “pleasant’. Yet, far too often, it takes after the United States and its growing prison population is no exception. Canada’s prison population has increased 25% over the last ten years and the population of prisoners deemed “visible” minorities” has increased 75% (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada-s-prison-population-at-all-time-high-1.2440039). Findlay also noted that Aboriginal women make up the fastest growing population with an 85% growth rate. She argued that “Marginality is too often a life sentence that takes the form of invisibility or hyper visibility. Over-policed and under-protected, it will cost Saskatchewan $13 billion over the next twenty years that could be used for better things.” She continued that if all citizens were truly treated equally (and by this I would understand that the incarceration rate for all groups would be equal to that of white men and women), it would bring $90 billion to the economy over this same time period.

Prison worker coops exist in other countries (mostly Italy) where those who participate have significantly lower recidivism rates. In one (and artist cooperative), one member said that “it made me realize that there are still people out there who appreciate who I am.” In Puerto Rico, there are three men’s worker coops and plans to start a women’s coop. Members learn the values and ethics of cooperation especially that of mutual self-help. It is clear that they also gain self-worth and confidence that they can succeed. These coops allow the workers to earn a wage that can be used to support their family and keep those connections strong.

Worker coops could create the support structures that the prison system currently fails to provide especially once people are out although this might require some amendments to laws that provide felons from associating with one another.

Findlay noted that this research is difficult because it challenges the command and control of the prison system and she noted that the “state” bristles when academics “commit sociology.” Nevertheless, it seems that the coop model could provide a means for true rehabilitation. I realize that has long ceased to be the focus of the prison system especially for those areas where it has been privatized and the inmates turned into product for the benefit of shareholders and for-profit corporations. However, as people can show that cooperation does more than simply provide a paycheck, society’s rulers might see a real community value to changing how we treat all members of our community.

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February 24, 2014

The Big (Wide) Tent of Worker Ownership

Last month, I flew to Washington DC for a day to represent the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives as a member of the organization. The event was a series of meetings on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC)We met with staff from US Representative Chaka Fattah (PA-2), Senators Harkin (IA), Franken (MN), Warren (MA) and Bennett (CO) from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). We wrapped up the day with the main event: a meeting with Assistant Secretary of Labor (Employee Benefits Security Administration) Phyllis Borzoi. Along with me, representing my coop and the USFWC was Joe Rinehart with the USFWC, and representatives from Eileen Fisher, Dansko Shoes, and New Belgium Brewing. The latter organizations are all 100% worker owned Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) enterprises. We also had people from the National Coop Business Association and Mondragon USA.

It was, as the title suggests, a Big Tent for worker ownership.

It so happens that I am reading The Citizen’s Share (Blasi, Freeman and Kruse) right now. This book chronicles the varied and rich history of worker ownership in the United States from the earliest days of the revolution until today. It notes that 47% of US businesses have some sort of worker ownership from the 100% owned companies named above to Google and Microsoft in which all workers have the opportunity to participate in the risk of the company (apparently Bill Gates’ ownership stake is now only 6% of the company he founded).  The message of the day was to discuss the importance of worker ownership as a sustainable model for economic growth in the United States.

I enjoyed this group and the approach. Too often, the concept of sustainable business only gets used to discuss environmental issues such as climate change. The plight of modern day employees tends to be ignored. This allows organizations engaged in Union busting tactics to present themselves as good corporate citizens. I would argue that sustainability (both for the climate and the economy) can only occur if workers are treated well and get a share of the pie that they create.

ASBC’s role is to bring together the worker owned businesses and unite the ownership movement. One of the problems is that there are some bad actors that use the image of worker ownership without providing the benefits to the workers. This is not unique to our country, but the lack of Federal understanding of worker ownership and a corporation laws that vary from state to state make it difficult to understand when workers really benefit from worker ownership.

For example, the US government clearly recognizes ESOP, but has no understanding or definition for a worker cooperative. The USDA recognizes Producer Coops and this language tends to be used by the IRS to determine if a business is a cooperative for federal tax purposes. ESOP really aren’t a type of business as much as they are a retirement plan. That is an important distinction between and ESOP and worker cooperative (and an area where the two concepts could create a lot of synergy). Ass’t Secretary Borzoi remained skeptical from her experience policing ESOPs that have used the structure to evade the Fair Labor Standards Act, but was impressed with the group at the table.

In January, we began a discussion with the Federal Government about worker ownership in the modern economy. It was clear to all of us (at least in the practitioner world), that the Wagner model of industrial relations has become outdated. We need new rules and definitions that help guide a national economy in which cooperatives and ESOPs operate across state lines (thus triggering Federal oversight) and engage in worker ownership and control of the workplace. We need to create laws that address a large workplace in which the workers really control the means of production through a one-worker, one-vote method (regardless of the type of organization). We, in the coop world, also need to strengthen the social definition of worker cooperatives (promote the CICOPA Oslo Declaration) and raise our profile. We can’t and shouldn’t be constrained by the legal definitions of the individual states. A democratically run ESOP with 100% worker ownership (even with workers having different shares of ownership) is as much a cooperative as Ch. 185 coop in Wisconsin with only 60% of its workers as members.

My only disappointment was that we did not meet with any GOP connected staffers. I truly believe that our movement is non-partisan and resounds with all of the political parties in this country (major and minor). If we are building a big tent, it will be necessary to look beyond party labels.

October 28, 2013

Circling Around to the Beginning?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 1:34 pm

In my studies over the last two years, I have learned a lot about American politics and the attitude towards labor in these United States. It is a very interesting dynamic and one that helps to make Foucault’s concept of Genealogy quite relevant. The role of genealogy allows an examination of the history of labor in the United States and elsewhere. The concept of work and the employee as known in 2013 is significantly different from that in 1963 and even more from 1863. However, this does not suggest, nor should it, an evolutionary transition based on modern progress, but a running debate between competing discourses rooted in the concept of Republicanism on the one hand and aristocratic control and domination on the other (see Roy Jacques’s Manfuacturing the Employee).

In the earliest days of the US labor movement, the call for national unions coincided with calls for worker owned factories. The idea of the “wage” system was seen exactly for the trick that it has become. The wage creates a schism between the output of a worker and their ability to do the job. It led to the scientific management motto of Fred Taylor “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”. Of course, it is management, not the worker, who decides what each value becomes. The focus on wages then led to a small confined box for labor unions to negotiate: wages and benefits. This hampers the workers ability to negotiate conditions of labor and those conditions tend to be, with some minor exceptions, wrapped up into the rights of Management.

Now, however, after thirty years of destroying the power of labor union’s ability to provided living wages and benefits, we come back to the 1860’s and a greater call for worker ownership. However, there generally isn’t, except for the IWW, a call for abolishing the wage system. If we are going to create a better working environment for workers through ownership, can we do that by simply imitating the capitalist system?

The debate over worker ownership and the value of the worker has been occurring almost as long as the debate over the role of the federal government and the right of property owners. As we debate the sort of sustainable economy that we want, we should also debate the means of compensating workers for their labor. We should simply accept the wage and benefit system as the predetermined perfect way as it has barely existed for 120 years. If we are going to work in a different economic paradigm for the marketplace (cooperation), we need to consider holistic changes to our industrial relations.

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