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

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.

 

 

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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Please note–I have never done “ads” on this site, but I do want to point out that I have a “go fund me” campaign right now to assist me in finishing my PhD. You can read more about it on that site and there is a link right on this page! If you can provide any assistance (including promoting my go fund me site through your social networks) I would greatly appreciate it.

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.

October 21, 2013

Can Coops Bring a Renaissance in Detroit?

Over the weekend, I had the honor of being part of a panel discussing worker cooperatives with the Southeastern Michigan Jobs with Justice organization. About 35-40 people ventured out on a cold rainy day to ask questions and listen to the experiences of myself, a worker from Madison’s Nature’s Bakery, two leaders of the New Era Worker Cooperative and a representative of The Working World.

It was a lively discussion as all three coops developed through slightly different methods, are of different sizes, and have different structures. Despite the differences, we all talked about the difference between ownership and control. There was a commonality in how workers engage as owners to move the business forward. A lot of the discussion focused on the importance of communication, education, and information.

I grew up in Toledo, Ohio which remains part of the larger auto industry. During my high school years, I would make a monthly trip to Port Huron in the summer with a scuba diving club. The members of the club were working men and women from the region (at the AMC plant, and other factories). A large number were union members and the ones that weren’t didn’t really talk about it. Making the drive up I-75 some thirty years later was more than depressing. Starting with the site of the old plant on Willy’s Parkway and all the way to the UAW Vote Center on Livernois Ave, it was a trail of broken concrete, vacant overgrown lots, and crumbling buildings that spoke to a different era of vibrant activity. It felt as if I was travelling through the ruins of a lost civilization.

Behind the scenes is the government of Michigan attempts to force bankruptcy on the City and steal the pensions of city workers. It is a city in a major crisis.

Can the worker coop model help? I think it is possible, but people will need to forget about the Detroit of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In using the cooperative model, the community should focus on the needs that currently aren’t being met (either because of the failure of the State and local government) or the lack of people willing to enter the market without a guaranteed profit. This might include groceries, daycare, and even charter schools using the worker coop model.

In some ways, Detroit provides a great opportunity to build a Mondragon-style” cooperative community. By starting small, and siphoning off development funds and solidarity funds along the way, the cooperatives could start building a larger development fund. With assistance from groups such as The Working World, Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund, and other sources (perhaps some investor angles who don’t mind settling for a 5% return), they could rebuild Detroit as a truly Cooperative City.

One of the key concepts that we spoke about was building sustainable communities. This isn’t about maximizing pay, but creating a decent life with jobs that won’t be shipped to the lowest bidder. It means earning enough to be able to afford good, wholesome food, quality clothes and decent housing. It also means that this generation needs to make a sacrifice to get it started. As the president of the New Era Windows noted, he could have gone to work at O’Hare and made a decent wage, but this struggle is about more than wages, it is about  working with each other to build a strong community. In the end, that will benefit all of us.

 

October 7, 2013

Be the Change You Want to See

Bob Cannell presented some challenging ideas about the nature worker cooperation in the English-speaking world last week. He noted the disparity in the rise of worker owned and controlled businesses in Spain, Italy, France, Brazil, Argentina and a number of other countries that he deemed “Latin”. What cultural barriers exist in our Anglo-Saxon based cultures that prevent the sort of acceptance of worker ownership.

I don’t want to suggest that this post is a “response” to Bob in the sense that I am providing a counter argument. I, too, see the disparity. I think that it is a good place to have a discussion because too often I see that the idea of worker ownership is a tool that may community organizers want to use, but they don’t seem to see worker control as being part of the deal. This allows social structures that might improve job and working conditions, but don’t teach workers how to engage in a democracy. There are some reasons for that, and ultimately, it is what separates the Latin/Anglo-Saxon views of work and humanity. These differences create limitations and I offered a discussion on this topic a couple of years ago in a post-entitled Roadblocks on the Path to Mondragon.

Of course, each cooperative has its own unique spot in history. Mondragon was aided, to a large degree, by the Falangist Party in that the country was isolated from the world and the workers of Mondragon were not seen as a threat to the fascists in the way that the anarchists of Barcelona and the Communist Party in southern Spain were seen to be. In Italy, the coops managed to navigate Mussolini’s world and WWII and came out strong enough to create a legal framework for their existence. All that aside, Bob’s discussion of culture is one that we must address. We cannot depend on market failure and depression to build our movement.

Schism

A key difference that needs to be discussed is that the Reformation divorced a certain segment of Europe from the Catholic Church. The English Reformation (with their allies in the Netherlands and Belgium) occurred just a couple of hundred years prior to the rise of capitalism. This meant that Europeans who largely rejected or ignored the teachings of the Catholic Church took over North America displacing the existing civilizations. While I don’t consider myself to be religious, I do recognize that the Catholic Church has played and will continue to play a key role in cooperative development. Rerum Novarum, the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor created the basis of the distributist movement and led its expression in the form of the Antigonish Movement, Mondragon, and liberation theology promoted South American priests. Written in 1891, Leo XIII expressed official Church support for labor unions, but more importantly dignity in work and the ability of working men and women to be able to better themselves intellectually, spiritually and financially through mutual self-help and self-responsibility and solidarity—three values of the modern Cooperative Identity. Of course, Rerum Novarum as a response to the growing popularity of socialism that threatened the holding private property and the Catholic Church had and has a lot of private property.

Father Jimmy Thomson and Father Moses Coady led the Antigonish Movement in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (the area still has a strong Acadian population of native French speaking Canadians). In Spain, Don Arizmenidaretta led Mondragon and his writings clearly espouse the teaching of Leo XIII. The use of worker cooperatives by the Sandinistas (Nicaragua) and Chavez  (Venezuela) revolutions come directly out of Rerum Novarum and liberation theology. Even today, Catholic organizations work diligently to promote cooperatives world-wide.

Work, in the English experience is not held to the same standard or is seen as a communal act. Neither is commerce. The origins of the word “competition” came from rivalry between merchant classes of Italy. Cum Petere, according to cooperative economists Stefano and Vera Zamagni, expressed the desire of the merchants of one city to work together in competition against other cities (Milan vs. Florence, for example). The Reformation changed this concept and made the individual owner, not society the center of one’s efforts. Roy Jacques argues in his work, Manufacturing the Employee, that pre-industrial US saw employment as either a means to become an owner or a personal failure of the individual. By the end of the 19th Century, the ideas of Scientific Management (Taylorism) were starting to take hold in the US, Canada and the UK, which infantilized workers leaving them untrusted for either ownership or control.

Thus the divide between Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures has led to different concepts of worker ownership and control. I think that the difference results from a lack of ideological, if not spiritual, basis for the value of work. This allows many in the US to see ESOPs as equivalent to worker cooperatives. It allows well-meaning affluent social workers to create worker coops in name but with structures that limit worker control. The infantilization of the US worker has become so deeply embedded in our culture that many workers may not even be able to emotionally handle ownership without significant training on what that really means or worse, people may actually believe that workers cannot emotionally handle ownership.

I will be focusing primarily on the US experience. This is because of another schism that took place in 1783. When the United States divorced themselves from the United Kingdom, they also forsook common law that dates back to the Magna Carta. This has played out in a country in which work and labor is largely devalued. The role of Common Law may be a minor one, but it does have an effect as the number of “right to work” states and “at will employment” states continues to grow. In terms of Union households, the US is hovering around 9%–one of the the lowest of OECD nations (lower than South Korea) while Canada and the UK hang in at 32 and 33 per cent respectively. The US, in its puritan, Jacksonsian democracy simply doesn’t value labor unless it is one’s own personal labor. The American Dream is a solitary one.

So What Do We Do About This?

As a movement, we need to talk about repowerment not “empowering” people. How is that different? I see repowerment as developing the sense within today’s working class that they have power and that power isn’t something given to them by benevolent wealthy people it is something that they already have and they need to use it. Repowerment means seeing ownership as something that has, to a large extent, been stolen from the working class by the employing class (or investing class). The infantilization of the modern worker through Scientific Management (Taylorism) and Human Relations (Taylorism with Mayo) is a leftover effect of slavery and indentured servitude that creates a culture of workers that don’t believe that they are capable of managing their own affairs.

Culture change needs to be front and center in our movement. We need to create the ideological, if not spiritual, basis for worker ownership as we organize workers. We can do this by working with like-minded groups such as pro-worker coop labor unions such as the US Steelworkers. We need to create a consistent message that the worker coop movement isn’t just about decent jobs, it is about creating human dignity and allowing workers to reach their full potential as a human being.

To some extent this may mean pushing back a bit on those seeking to use the worker cooperative model in community organizing. We need to hold them to standards of worker control as well as ownership while also providing the tools to help teach worker control.  Some may see this as being too ideological, but if we simply allow worker cooperation to be co-opted by ESOP style models (in which control stays in the hands of a super board, social workers, or an investing class), then we will be relegated to being a small movement.

Bob suggests that we can expand our movement if we can find governance models that make sense to the Anglo-Saxon mindset. However, given the population trends in the United States, I think that we would do better to change the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Due to globalization and post-colonial migration, our societies are becoming much less monolithic and mono-cultural. The era of Anglo-Saxon dominance in the world has been relatively short-lived, maybe 150 years and in the US the Anglo-Saxon culture may become a minority culture within the next fifty years. Fortunately, one aspect of Anglo-Saxon mindset is the ability to quickly adapt and appropriate other culture’s norms.

Worker Coops and Labor Unions

One of the great opportunities for a cultural shift is occurring right now. As the US labor movement comes to realize that the tiny box known as the National Labor Relations Act (aka The Wagner Model) no longer holds that full potential of organizing workers in a factory-less economy, it is also seeking repowerment by redefining what it means to be a labor union in the United States.

Labor Unions have already attempted the ESOP model only to see some fairly massive failures (United Airlines, for example). They are also seeing a shifting labor movement in terms of language, cultures and industry. In many areas, worker cooperatives and labor unions are working among the same group of workers. The experiment of the US Steelworkers and Mondragon shouldn’t end there. The Mondragon model works for Basque culture but it can’t be simply transplanted onto US workers. We need to create our own model built on our own culture and the first thing to do is to start defining that culture by working with groups to demonstrate that repowerment will be stronger than empowerment. A number of these ideas have already been put into motion due to the determined opportunism (the good kind) of the US worker coop leadership; however, we also need to develop a consistent message that goes beyond “teaching people to fish”, we need to say that worker control doesn’t just feed people’s bodies, but there minds and spirits as well. We aren’t just interested in decent jobs, but in creating a strong society of fully-realized human beings who will be present in their lives and create sustainable health communities. We don’t want a nice playground (workplace) for children (workers). If our worker coops don’t have the ability to make stupid decisions and learn from them then it is just another playground.

Some practical steps:

  • Read Arizmendiaretta’s Pensamientos
  • The US Federation of Workers Cooperatives should consider joining the AFL-CIO when that membership becomes available;
  • Attend and participate at events such as Jobs with Justice to promote the worker ownership and worker control model of worker cooperation (I’ll be in Detroit for one such meeting on October 19).
  • Work with groups such as Interfaith Center for Worker Justice to promote worker cooperatives.
  • Within our cooperatives, take the time to teach about the coops that have successfully flattened their hierarchy or engage real control over the workplace (i.e. they don’t hire a non-member manager to tell them what to do).

Don’t be afraid of a secular spirituality or even a religious spirituality. No one is asking anyone to convert.

Of course, before we can change the culture, we need to agree that it needs changing and on what to change it to. Without having conversations such as the one started by Bob Cannell, we will continue to operate within the Anglo-Saxon paradigm that privileges consumerism over labor.

Workers, in the United States and perhaps in the UK, Canada and other WASP dominated nations have allowed themselves to be defined by the employer which has created an infantilized workforce unable to function without a parental manager leading the way. It is a sick culture that usurps our humanity. If we really want to see our movement grow, it needs a cultural basis (if not an ideological basis) that makes it more than just another arrow in an organizer’s quiver.

September 16, 2013

AFL-CIO-NGO-TBD?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 7:00 am

At the recent convention of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization’s, the members spent a great deal of time surveying the reality of the labor movement in the United States and the significant changes since the last meeting of this group in 2009.

Not only has the number of households with a wage earner working under a collective bargaining agreement dropped, the full onslaught of the Koch Brothers funded war on labor has taken a dramatic toll on unions in the public service sector and new laws further restrict the ability of labor unions to function on anything resembling an even playing field. Unions may have been in an orderly retreat in 2009, today it might be better to call them scattered remnants.

Scattered remnants, however, can still be powerful and can be reunited into a stronger labor movement. On the plus side of life since 2009, the US Steelworkers have discovered worker ownership and partnered with Mondragon to establish industrial unionized worker cooperatives in the United States. The Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative has been working to get a number of projects up and running.

While I am really excited about the activity around worker cooperatives in the labor union world, I also realize that it isn’t enough. According to Gary Chaison, in his book Unions in America, labor unions need to recruit almost 1,000,000 new members every year just to account for retirements, business closings, and decertification campaigns. It is estimated that Unions add only about 20-60,000 new members each year right now.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka proposed a new strategy for this year’s conference: allow people to join the AFL-CIO who aren’t members of labor unions. This would allow organizations such as the Sierra Club and the NAACP to join the AFL-CIO as well as individual members. One the arguments for this radical proposal, reported in the New York Times argued that when a union loses a collective bargaining vote by 49-51%, why should the 49% of workers who wanted a union be ignored by the union? Shouldn’t the AFL-CIO find a way to keep in contact with those pro-union workers and help them build a majority?

A similar idea was put forward in 1985, but it didn’t go anywhere. The buy-in by locals wasn’t there and the reality is the the full effect of Reagan’s PATCO action and the looming effect of globalization hadn’t become evident. The unions were able to believe that the world wasn’t changing around them. Thirty years later and the number of labor leaders in denial about the state of the movement has dropped as fast as membership.

As the convention concluded, the proposal was limited to only allow organizations in solidarity, not individuals, the ability to join, but the delegates also passed a resolution stating: “The labor movement consists of all workers who want to take collective action to improve wages, hours and working conditions. Our unions must be open to all workers who want to join with us.”

I understand the concern of just letting individuals join without some structure or understanding what they are joining; however, I also think that the idea of a “solidarity membership” would be invaluable to the labor movement. I imagine that depending on the range of dues, millions might join and be a great resource to assist locals in their area by pressuring businesses to bargain in good faith and helping business owners and marketers recognize that treating workers well is good business, not just an expense line.

In the end, the challenges facing the labor movement won’t be wished away with new membership categories. The iron cage of the Wagner Act, written for a very different labor environment, and the over-regulation of the various amendments (Taft-Hartely, etc) have created a legal framework that hampers the ability of workers to organize. Of course, labor’s historic unwillingness to change tactics, embrace emerging industries, and spend resources on organizing have as much to do with a pathetic 6.6% union households (maybe just over 10% with public sector unions) as the actions of management and globalization. Nevertheless, creating alliances with social movements can only help labor unions if for no other reason than the AFL-CIO can gain allies in modernizing the National Labor Relations Act by connecting mass movements that often represent the same individuals.

In my mind, Unions in the US have spent the last 30 years in retreat and doing the one deadly thing in politics: allowing their enemy to define them. Hopefully that is starting to change. Although they didnt take the plunge to accept individual solidarity memberships, they have started to engage non-union movements. The movement that brought us the “weekend” and created the “middle-class” needs a re-boot and it looks as if the current leadership has learned a lot watching the people act over the last couple of years. It will be interesting to see where the AFL-CIO convention  finds itself four years from now.

 

 

January 16, 2012

All Work Has Value

Filed under: Pensimientos,Worker Rights — John McNamara @ 10:46 am

On Martin Luther King, jr. Day, one the administrators of Union Cab’s facebook page posted this quote:

“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Memphis Sanitation Strike, April 3, 1968

Dr. King was murdered the day after giving this speech. It is a great sentiment from a great leader. One perfect for today. Of course, the sanitation strike was about more than labor, it was also about human dignity and the continued efforts to force the south of the United States to shed its racist past. It was also part of Dr. King’s recognition that the issues facing America were more than racism, but that class and global economics played a role in the oppression being felt in Memphis.

It reminds me of a quote from another great leader: Don Arizmendiaretta. His translates roughly as:

“The world has not been given to us simply to contemplate it but to transform it and this transformation is not accomplished only with our manual labor but with first with ideas and action plans.”

and

“The human person that proceeds to cultivate his or her ideas with the only objective of being productive, insensibly and fatally, becomes a slave to the productive machine.”

It is not uncommon, I have found, in our larger worker cooperatives for the division of labor to breed animosity and distrust. This is especially true when it involves those workers who either have cultivated their skills and talents, or simply have an affinity for managing the governance of the organization.  Because we come from a larger economic community where the role of the “boss” is suspect, it seems easy for us to distrust anyone in our cooperatives who might actually take on some of the necessary tasks look like the work of the boss. I don’t know how many times I have heard the tired analogy from Animal Farm expressed whenever a worker is upset with a decision of the board or a committee (I generally wonder if the person making the comment has actually read the book or has merely memorized the Cold War anti-communist mantra).

The point of all of this is that all work has value. As Dr. King points out to the sanitation workers, it doesn’t matter the job may be, it has dignity and worth. Ironically, it is a lesson that we often need to re-learn in our co-ops (which often tend to be in the small job industries). The members who engage in planning and moving the co-operative towards its goals and vision, should earn just as much dignity and worth as those who operate in the revenue producing segment.

I think that both Dr. King and Don Arizmendiaretta would agree that, at the heart of it all, all work is worthy of dignity and worth because it is performed by human beings. It is really the human, that makes work worthy and dignified. In a world that determines success by the bottom line, that point gets lost quickly; however, in our co-operatives (which exist specifically to create human and dignified workplaces), it must be embraced.

September 26, 2011

Would You Hire You?

Filed under: Human Relations,Worker Rights — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 3:40 pm

“To have faith in solidarity means to believe in others as much as we believe in ourselves and to measure others’ actions with the same yardstick we use to measure our own.” (Arizmendiaretta, p. 126, 305)

The other day, I was listening to different members crab about the work habits of other members. We have a peer review system in place that holds workers accountable to one another, but not everyone wants to use. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from talking.

It got me to thinking about my work habits. Would I hire me? Would I put up with my idiosyncrasies?

The quote above speaks to this dynamic, we need to approach each other in our co-operatives as adults and with the spirit of mutual self-help. This means more than simply holding each other accountable but also helping each other develop as human beings. Of course, as the quote suggests, it also means adhering to the Golden Rule as well.

We need to hold ourselves, first, to our own standards before we can expect others to meet them. More importantly, in a cooperative, we need to break away from the idea that our standards are the correct ones. The standards that we hold came to us through a social network involving our families, neighborhoods, and schools (as well as all of the work places in our lives). It shouldn’t surprise us that workers from different backgrounds might have different work ethics. I was raised with an Irish-American identity and often bristled at the idea of  “Protestant” work ethic (as opposed to the lazy Irish and Italian).

Creating an accountable membership requires that we define accountability. In doing so, we need to recognize that being an owner in a worker co-operative does not make anyone “the boss”. In fact, when we mimic the bosses in our past life while passing judgement on our co-workers, we aren’t expressing a worker co-op ethic, we are simply being jerks. The very jerks that we joined the co-operative to get away from.

Accountability in a worker co-operative is vital. However, our sense of solidarity requires us to put aside our learned assumptions of what accountability means and work with our fellow members to define it for our co-operatives. This isn’t a one-time process either, but a continual dialogue that will change with generations of members

It may seem like a lot of work, but I think it is one of the more exciting aspects of worker co-operation.

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