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

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 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.


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 30, 2013

Governance of Worker and Producer Cooperatives

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

Earlier this month, I had the honor of representing US worker cooperatives on a panel about governance at the International Cooperative Governance Symposium held at the Sobey School of Busines, St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Bob Cannell of SUMA and CooperativesUK moderated the panel discussion that also included Dr. Fabio Chaddad from the University of Missouri and my fellow Wisconsinite Jerry McGeorge of Organic Valley.  Rather than discuss our panel discussion from memory (since I was presenting in an open format, I did not take notes), I would like to present the opening commentary from Bob Cannell. Unfortunately, this commentary did not actually get distributed to the audience prior to the panel’s convening so we had to wing it a bit. Nevertheless, I thought that Bob’s comments were very intriguing (and some might even say inciting). I will develop my response to Bob for next week’s blog, but am interested to hear what folks think. While this was for public distribution, I did ask Bob if I may post this to my blog and he agreed, so hopefully, he will jump in to clarify points or to continue the discussion. Any typographical errors or emphasis are mine.

Bob Cannell’s Opening Commentary

“The aim of this session is to challenge our assumptions about governance in worker and producer coops. What models and tools of governance do we default to without critical assessment?

“Traditionally, in Anglo-Saxon cultures at least, worker and producer coops are lumped together. Because we are the ‘other’ type when we prioritise consumer and financial coops. In the UK traditionally, producer co-ops were the ones that made things rather than being retail businesses. These days producer coops encompass agri-coops, marketing coops, bulk buying coops and other coops where small business people join together to increase their market share.

“This lumping together ignores the specific governance needs of worker owned coops. It assumes the same modes work for both. Indeed in the UK we have a serious ‘one type fits all’ problem where generic model constitutions have to be force fitted to worker coops. And they don’t work in practice.

“We have a governance gap. Legal constitutions that tell worker coops how they should govern themselves which do not work in practice in the special circumstances of a worker coop where the workers are owners and are also often the managers as well. Three hats to juggle. The old ways to govern are too slow, too cumbersome, too bureaucratic to fit modern business needs and the needs of small start up worker coops.

“Francophone, Italian, Spanish and Brazilian traditions keep worker coops separate and so think about their specific govenance issues.

Accidents of History.

“Are the governance needs of worker coops really distinct from those of producer and other coops?

“Are we habitually using the worng governance tools for workers coops just because we haven’t looked for better and fit for purpose tools?

“Governance. What is it? It’s the legal constitutions (andin the UK worker and consumer coops share the same legal constitutions) but it is also the management tools used in the coop to take decisions and resolve disagreements. We call these ‘cooperative working skills’. They can range from full executive management pyramids to flat hierarchy collectives. Skill needs in these are obviously very different.

“Worker coop governance traditions are very different in different countries and cultures. The relative success of the worker cooperative model is very different also.

“I am from the 1970’s anarchist worker coop tradition. My coop Suma is a radical collective with no CEO, no MD, no permanent chair. Indeed almost no executive management. It relies on the cooperative working of 140 largely self-managing members. Coordination is by consensus mostly. Yet we are very successful paying very high wages, big bonuses and out competing multi-nationals despite our small relative size. There are a few other successful worker collective in the UK but most just survive haphazardly.

“Our traditional worker coops from the 19th century were castasrophically unseccessful. They were run using orthodox executive management structures and failed enmasse either as businesses or being privatised if successful. Indeed the 1890 Cooperative Congress decided that the worker owned cooperative model had failed and cooperative production (for coop stores) should henceforth be owned by the consumer owned retiail coop socieities. Thus we moved from a cooperative commonwealth to a cooperative federation.

“Enough of the history lesson. Today we have only 400 small worker coops in the UK, the same as in the USA. There are no official worker coops in Germany or the Netherlands. More or less none in white Australia or white New Zealand.

“Why is the worker coop model so much more successful in so many Latin cultures: French, Italian Spanish, Brazil (but not Portugal) than Anglo-Saxon cultures? 2000 and rising in France, 25,000 in Spain plus Mondragon, 30,000 in Italy, many thousands and increasing fast in Brazil. Compare Quebec to the Anglophone parts of Canada.

“Is there something culturally specific about the governance needs of worker coops? Something they do right in Latin countries and regions and we don’t do properly in Anglo-Saxon ones? Something which some ouf our radical collective in the UK such as Suma and Unicorn Grocery have hit on but many others have missed? What is it that we can’t see?

“I have ideas which I’ll touch on in the discussion and cover in detail tomorrow in my presentation on complexity thinking and worker coop governance.

“Let’s look at Employee Ownerships. Very successful in the USA, 13% of business have either significant, majority or 100% employee owned but not employee controlled. UK has a  long tradition of employee owned business (John Lewis Partnership) and currently a big government push to expand the employee ownership sector. There is big competition between worker coops and employee ownership ideas in the UK.

“In the USA, worker coops only have had a federation since 2006.  Why is employee ownership ok in Anglo-Saxon countries by employee control is not?

“Does the distinction matter? It doesn’t seem to in Spain. COCETA and CONFESAL work together. What are the strengths of the worker coop model that the Latin countries use and the Anglo-Saxon countries do not?

“Clearly the opportunities to grow the worker coop sector in Anglo-Saxon countries are enormous if we can define goverance models that make sense to the Anglo-Saxon mindset. So what are they?

“Let’s enjoy speculating about those differences, about the weaknesses and strengths of thw worker cooperative model and how it should be governed.”

Thus ends the opening commentary that wasn’t.

I hope, that like me, you found yourself wanting to respond to Bob’s comments. Please do–I have thoughts that I will post next week, but hope that this is the beginning of a discussion.

November 9, 2010

The Three Dimensional Business Integration

Filed under: Education,Human Relations — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 7:26 pm

The people who work in our businesses are not two dimensional, why should the structure be?

If you have studied business, or even US history, you have likely heard the term “vertical integration”. This concept was developed by US Steel as a means of controlling the industry through control of the supply lines and distribution networks. It allows a company a lot of control and the ability to benefit from making expenses profit centers since the different parts of the supply and distribution chains can be used for non-competing products as well.

Another common concept is that of horizontal integration. This allows economies of scale as the company can create similar products within a market. General Motors was a great example of this format with the Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Chevrolet nameplates have a number of common designs with slightly different features.

Well, those of the two external dimensions which notably ignore depth. Is there an example of a company engaged in depth integration? What would that look like? Further, what would a company look like if it engaged in all three forms of business integration to create a three-dimensional business model? There is a great example–Mondragon.

The depth integration develops from something that few US corporations would really care about (or it they did, it would likely end up as The Company Store). Depth, after all, creates an internal dynamic and this means attending to the needs of the workers and sustainability of the business. Of course, this is exactly what Mondragon has done.

First, however, they do have a fairly vertical integration in which they develop co-operatives to handle supply lines and distribution lines. Horizontally, ULGOR has been working hard to keep their place in the market by buying the smaller companies (most recently was the Brand corporation which was just behind ULGOR in market share). So far, Mondragon looks like a standard corporation operating on the global scale. This is where the third dimension arrives:

The Depth integration of Mondragon involves creating co-operatives to provide the social and human needs of the workers. This area of integration means a K-University school system, a Social Security system that provides a horn of plenty in terms of benefits and services, a banking system to meet the members needs and soon assisted living communities for the aging population. All of this works together to provide the basic needs of the workers and families.

Depth integration does more than simply keep the money in the Mondragon system. The presence of a university, management institute and trade school allows workers in unemployment to return to school and learn new skills. this not only benefits the worker, but helps Mondragon keep the correct number of workers to maintain decent wages and benefits. It provides other avenues for workers to use their knowledge and skills. A worker who can’t do the physical labor in the plant may transition to a teaching position. It allows workers to develop themselves as human being through their work. This was the ultimate idea of Mondragon’s spiritual founder, Don José María Arizmendiaretta.

In the US, we often marvel at Mondragon and people fall over themselves to either create Mondragon in the US or to expose every chink in the armor. Fortunately, there are plenty of grad students up to these tasks! However, something that we should consider is this revolutionary form of integration. We don’t need to re-create Mondragon in America, but we should consider how to develop a three-dimensional integration in our existing co-operatives. We need to see where we can partner with existing institutions and create the institutions that we don’t have.

September 23, 2010

A Vision of Our Movement (or a beginning of a discussion)

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

Today, as this goes to post, I am about to start the first day of a two-day retreat for the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives board. The last several posts had a lot to do with this event as the Federation enters it sixth year. We have zero turn-over on the board and an opportunity to develop some clear vision and institutional infrastructure this year. It also marks the end of the original five year plan drafted back in Minneapolis in 2004.

Yesterday, I ended my post with this short comment: “Externally, we as a movement, need to create the basis for seeing a syndicalist worker movement as a viable means of managing the economy. We need to use our institutions and our co-operatives to present a true alternative to the dominant paradigm of capitalist and theft of labor. In this regard, we need to turn away from the rather insular Mondragon model and borrow a tactic from a very different guide and trailblazer: Milton Friedman.”

Yes. Milton Friedman has something to teach us. Under his leadership, he corrupted Breton Woods, turned the International Monetary Fund into a tool for economic extremists, destroyed Keynesianism, led the Chinese Communist Party to enroll entrepreneurs and created a thirty-year legacy of expanding the gap between rich and poor. Obviously, I think that his ideas are bankrupt and, to be honest, it would be hard for anyone to show where they have truly succeeded without the force of a military behind them. But, I am not here to discuss Disaster Capitalism. Naomi Klein has already written an incredibly power (and very well documented) book on this topic: The Shock Doctrine. You should add it to your list if you haven’t read it yet. I am more interested in how Friedman managed to expand his teachings from the University of Chicago to take over the world.

Friedman wasn’t interested in mere academic arguments. He believed in direct action. He put his ideas into practice. More importantly, he created plans and ideas. He made himself and his “Chicago Boys” a force in the world by showing up at Congressional sub-committee meetings and countless other functions. He realized something very important.  Economic movements cannot relegate themselves to being merely social movements. They must also be political movements. The Fabians understood this as well. Both the Chicago School and the Fabians churned out papers and proposals, attended meetings, and pushed their cause. The result is that when the opportunity struck, they had the ability to act. The Fabians took a long-term evolutionary approach, however, and really only succeeded after their big guns (George Bernard Shaw) had passed away leaving little legacy for the next generation. Friedman, on the other hand, acted quickly. While at first he operated in conjunction with US Foreign Policy and Cold War politics, he quickly understood that creating change at the end of a bayonet could never produce lasting changes (most of this discussion comes from The Shock Doctrine). Of course, I bring Friedman up mostly for the shock value, but he knew how to push his message.

What does this mean for our movement? At the National Worker Bi-Annual Conference held in Berekely last August, Executive Director Melissa Hoover noted that her hope is for worker co-operatives grow to the point that they are no longer considered the “alternative” but the “model”. So, how do we really get there?

In Haiti, after the earthquake, the proposals for rebuilding came from the usual neo-liberal sources with former US President Bill Clinton invoking their anthem: “Don’t let a good disaster go to waste.” In the rebuilding of Haiti, the discussion in the press was about privatizing government controlled businesses and services. Where was the worker co-operative plan for rebuilding the country along a democratic worker friendly economy? Well, it doesn’t exist yet. A couple of years ago, I asked Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz why co-operatives aren’t even mentioned when the city discusses development plans. He said, because you don’t show up.

We need to start creating plans and finding places to implement them. We need to engage our academics and help them become secular missionaries along the lines of our Co-op Priests from yesteryear. In Canada, they have that tradition and are working to put their ideas into practice. Isobel Findlay from the University of Saskatchewan presented work that she did last spring on creating co-operative options for single women. The Canadian Cooperative Association in conjunction with several research partners (led by Sonja Novkovic) are expanding St. Mary’s work on the Co-op Index to the larger community called Measuring the Co-operative Difference. We, as a movement, need to join them and start creating the programs, the plans, the position paper, and the buzz.

  • We need to develop “Best Practices” for worker co-operative in the United States that give our movement and identity and common language. Best Practices that combine the co-op identity with the distributist and syndicalist models. Best Practices that support us as workers and create solidarity with our external stakeholders (consumers, family, community).
  • We need to develop urban and rural planning guides for using worker co-operatives to meet community needs in a sustainable manner.
  • We need to develop a true alternative to neo-liberalism that provides a real plan of economic and environmental sustainability for communities and honoring the labor of the men and women who create the wealth of this country. Plans that generates wealth and distributes it among the people who create it.
  • We need to find communities that will work with us to implement our plans and see them to fruition (like Cleveland and the Evergreen Initiative only with a stronger sense of worker control). There are a lot of people doing this now–some are getting paid, a lot are not. The work of John Logue was certainly along this line and we need to continue that.
  • We need to create spokespeople for our movement in every major community who can speak a common economic language of worker co-operation and support these ideas at City Council Committees, State Government and even Congressional Subcommittees.
  • We need to be able to show up when the disaster strikes with our plan. We need to develop our larger ideas and models so that they are seen as a legitimate challenge to the status quo even without the pedigree of the University of Chicago or the Harvard Business School.
  • We can do most of this in bits and chunks, but I fear that has been our path and the result is that we get bits and chunks, we get people re-creating the wheel, and we get into a lot of long, drawn out debates over process and semantics. For all of these reasons, we really need to an institutional structure to help collect and then sift and winnow the ideas. Then we can debate them, take them out for  a spin and start creating our “ism”. The other side has a lot of these groups: Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institute.
  • We have the UW Center for Co-operatives, which does great work, but they are grant driven and have limitations placed on them as a tax-payer funded entity. We need something for worker co-operatives and for building our model. We need our policy wonks to be able to come together with the time to develop. We need our community organizers and co-op developers to help put those ideas into action. We need our charismatic folks to bring that message to the politicians and get them to start seeing us as a viable alternative. Mostly, we need to create a national definition of ourselves so that others don’t define our movement for us and there are already plenty of people trying to do just that.

Is this were the Democracy at Work Institute should go? How would we create a non-profit worker co-operative institute to further our movement and development along the distributist and syndicalist lines? More importantly how do we fund it so that the institute can actually do more than have phone conferences every quarter?

I’m ending this series of thoughts with a lot more questions than answers. While writing, I took a quick break and went for a walk. While walking, I was reminded that February will mark the 20th anniversary of my first election to the board of Union Cab. At the time, I was still planning on being an English professor. In 1995, as president, I answered a survey on worker co-ops from a Canadian researcher. When I asked him later for results, he said that there weren’t any. It turns out that he couldn’t find enough worker co-ops in the US to conduct valid research. Nine years after that, the first national worker co-op conference was held in Minneapolis and next year, just seven years later, the first North American Worker Co-operative Conference will be held in Quebec City, Quebec. There are almost 300 identified worker co-ops in the US with about 1/3 of them members of the US Federation. We are about to certify the first cohort of Worker Co-op Peer Advisors.

We have the momentum right now, but we need to find a way to channel it. We need to find a way to push our movement to the next level. We have to find a way to help our co-ops educate their members on the co-op difference and, in turn, help create the energy needed to maintain the momentum and extend it. I intend to spend the next thirty years, if I have to, to figure it out and I hope that you join me–and I now I have to go join a meeting.

Thanks for getting through this five-day post–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

September 22, 2010

Can Syndicalism Help Worker Co-ops?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

If you talk to a lot of co-operative developers and community organizers in the United States about Mondragon, you will likely hear them extol the virtues of the Caja Popular (former the Caja Laboral Popular). The bank owned and controlled by Mondragon played a major role in the development of the Basque co-operatives and many see it as the key to creating Mondragon in America.

Well, who wouldn’t want a bank that caters especially to worker co-operatives? But is this really the secret to Mondragon success? It certainly played a key role and provided a method of developing new cooperatives, creating strong business plans, and otherwise ensuring the financial viability of the co-operatives. However, keep in mind that the banking system of Spain in 1959 was hardly a modern system and it really wasn’t able to grow due to the isolation of the nation under the heel of the Phalange. The CJP gave Mondragon access to capital and that is something that any worker co-operative can use.  I would argue, based on experience, that successful worker co-operatives have no problem accessing capital from today’s financial institutions and we do have several development funds available in the United States including the Northcountry Co-operative Development Fund’s Worker Ownership Fund*. Granted, the availability of start-up capital has been much harder to come by and there are few, if any, Angel Investors in the worker co-operative world. A worker co-op bank can be started at any time. All that needs to happen is for the co-ops who want to create our version of the CJP to simply pool their assets and hire a bank manager (yeah, I know that it isn’t THAT simple, but bear with me).

I think that the stronger part of the Mondragon model is the Social Council. Unlike the social committees of most co-operatives, this group doesn’t plan the summer picnic and winter party. The Social Council represents workers as workers. It is essentially a watch dog on management and the governing councils. This body within Mondragon provides a model for our co-operatives as it infuses the distributist structure of the worker co-operative with a definite syndicalist voice.

Syndicalism was made popular in the United States by the Industrial Workers of the World. The Syndicalist rejected both the capitalist and socialist world views. They sought, instead, to create a world in which the basic political unit was not the dollar or the voter, but the worker. They saw a structure that is quite similar to Mondragon’s structure with individual worker collectives connected by industry and sector into a regional, national and international alignment. A colleague of mine discussed his view of neo-syndicalism on this site back in December of 2009. While Fred speaks about direct action along the lines of the Buenos Aires workers featured in the excellent documentary, The Take, the structural concept of syndicalism already exists. It involves pulling our workplaces together and creating a strategy. It also means making sure that our worker co-operatives really have a syndicalist basis and aren’t simply capitalist partnerships trying to sneak in to good party.

Arizmenidiaretta would have been quite familiar with the logic and ideas of the Anarcho-Syndicalists of Barcelona as they were heavily involved in the fight to save the Republic in 1936. Certainly, Mondragon arose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the Republic. So, we should not be surprised to see that the Mondragon co-operatives developed  distributist and syndicalist institutions. Both offered third ways between the state socialism of the the Fabians and the “invisible hand” of the Free Marketeers.

It is in this juncture that the distributists and the syndicalists converge. To me, that is the lesson of Mondragon and what should be imported into the United States worker co-operative movement. This also appears to be the pathway for co-operative development as envisioned by Mondragon and the US Steelworkers. A renewed syndicalist movement in this country could well be the pathway to creating a distributist society and overcoming the culture of wage and chattel slavery. The IWW’s great slogan, after all, was “Instead of saying ‘A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work’ we say ‘Abolish the Wage System!'” We need to start changing the world to one that values the worker. We need to bring back syndicalism as not just a counter-weight to ne0-liberalism, but with the goal of it displacing neo-liberalism as the preferred economic model for sustainable communities.

The creation of a new syndicalist movement should be quite natural to those of us who have chosen worker co-operation, but it is an easier thing to think and blog about that to actually create. For one, my guess in that only one in a hundred of the workers in our co-operatives could define syndicalism, let alone distributism or any of the other economic models. Given the amount of neo-liberal arguments that I hear in my own co-operative and other debates, I can tell you that many worker co-operative members do not see a significant difference between capitalism and co-operation.  Just recently I talked to a fellow member who supports keeping the Bush tax cuts because “I want to rich some day.” <Heavy Sigh> In this environment, spouting the slogans of the IWW from a hundred years ago will likely generate more eye-rolling than anything else.

How do we create what we need without sounding like we time traveled from 1967? or 1907? Another lesson from those Co-op Priests: Tompkins, Coady and Arizmendiaretta:  we need to create educational programs that are modern but still promote the differences between the “one-dollar, one-vote” of capitalism and “one-worker, one-vote” of co-operative syndicalism. We need an education programs and we also need to create incentives for people to participate in them. We need to act internally and externally.

Internally, we need education programs and a constant focus on how we are different. How does Rainbow differ from a traditional grocery store? How does Union Cab differ from a traditional cab company? How does Co-operative Home Care differ from a traditional home care service? You and I might easily answer that question, but can every member of your co-op answer how their co-op really differs from the capitalist competitors in your industry? I don’t mean simply describing the structure (which would be great) but the underlying concept of the organization. Does the analysis stop at “We own it!”, if it does, then the understanding may be a mile wide, but it is only an inch deep.

In addition to the educational process, we need to create the social committees. We can call them Steward Councils, or Member Advocates, or any language that our community knows and understands. However, we need to create real syndicalist functions within our co-operatives. These councils need to do more than simply help members file grievances and present ideas, they can’t simply mimic the antagonistic labor relations from the factory. They need to educate people on their history as a worker in addition to the former educational process of the co-operative. They need to create solidarity among the entire workforce (not against management or any other group, but among all those who work including the leadership) and they need to be the voice for the workers while the board speaks for the members and management speaks for the business.

Externally, we as a movement, need to create the basis for seeing a syndicalist worker movement as a viable means of managing the economy. We need to use our institutions and our co-operatives to present a true alternative to the dominant paradigm of capitalist and theft of labor. In this regard, we need to turn away from the rather insular Mondragon model and borrow a tactic from a very different guide and trailblazer: Milton Friedman.

More on that, tomorrow.

September 21, 2010

The Agency Dilemma in Worker Co-operatives

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

Last week at my other blog, Breathing Lessons, I discussed the Rochdale cul-de-sac as it applies to consumer cooperatives. This week, as part of this discussion over the future of US worker cooperatives, if not the labor movement in the United States, I want to put the spotlight of the Agency Dilemma on our movement.

It would be a mistake to presume that worker cooperatives, by their nature, enjoy an immunity to the agency dilemma. Race Matthews notes that even Mondragon has its issues. In the US, we have a lot of issues that arise from our culture as well as from the Agency Dilemma.

A More Critical View of Mondragon

First, while I am impressed with Mondragon and loathe to point out the cobwebs up in the corners, it is worth mentioning that perfection is a goal that we strive for, but can never attain. Thus, the criticism of Mondragon (and our own co-operatives) should be accepted in the effort to make them better.

The single biggest criticism of Mondragon has been their outsourcing labor to the developing countries without developing worker co-operatives. This not only runs counter to their principles but invokes the legacy of Spanish imperialism especially when they are engaging the South American economy. However, even within their co-operatives, Mondragon can succumb to elitism and a class separation among their workforce. Matthews cites research conducted by groups within and without Mondragon. Specifically the work of Cornell University anthropologist Dayvydd Greenwood and the ethnography of Sharyn Kasmir . Matthews also taps the work of Mondragon insiders José Luis González (at the time, the Director of Human Resources at FAGOR), and  Mikel Limenez. The work that Matthews uses is from his 1990 position as the Director of Sociological Research for Ikasbide, the predecessor of Otalara Institute. Mikel generally leads the tour groups.

While the workers love their co-operatives and appreciate them, they also recognize that there are “those above” and “those below” (Matthews, 1999, 225) They also speak of issues that should resonate with those of us in the United States, “we are less equal among ourselves than the workers in a capitalist firm; being members, many of us often have to put up with things that workers in other firms would not tolerate.” (Matthews, 1999, 225) Certainly, the 1974 strike revealed a very real rift along gender lines in the co-operatives. While the official discussion of the strike resulted in limiting the size of co-operatives (the factory co-op that suffered the strike had over 2,500 members), it did not talk about how the strike leaders were treated. According to Kasmir in The Myth of Mondragon, twenty-four leaders from the strike were fired (2/3’s of them women). Twenty-two were re-hired except for two women. They were unable to find decent employment in the Basque country for almost five years (public pressure finally forced their re-hiring). (Kasmir, 1996, 110-120) Kasmir’s work provides a Gramsci-esque critique of Mondragon. I can tell you that it is not well received by academia and considered flawed. It is an ethnography so her work does have certain limitations, but I think that it does raise some issues that shouldn’t be ignored.

The point is that our co-operatives can easily succumb to the dominant paradigm of capitalism. Even Mondragon can create an environment where mental and physical labor has separate value within the organization. We are not immune from creating agency theory. If our Human Resource department only has the corporate world of human resources to use for educating itself, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our HR departments talk and act like other corporations. Unless we create a structure that either flattens hierarchy or contains and channels its power, we are susceptible to it overcoming our democracies. If Mondragon cannot eradicate it despite their principles and culture, then it will be doubly hard for our US Co-ops.

The US Agency Dilemma

Our coops have few, if any, resources as worker cooperatives. While the Worker Co-operative conferences offer some skill sets and workshops, it can be difficult to translate between industries. We often have to turn to our industry and their “best practices.” As I have mentioned before, we need to critique the “best practices” rather than simply accept them. In whose interest are these practices best? My guess is that they work best for the managers first and the stakeholders second. The workers are far down the pecking order.

Because US culture bases itself on control and power, it creates an environment where it can be quite easy for our worker co-ops to mimic them. We often haven’t the time or energy to explain and debate every detail of the operations to the membership. It is easier to let individuals specialize in their area and run it. However, that needn’t take away from the democracy of the organization. For the smaller co-ops, it is easier to maintain a collective attitude; however, as co-ops grow, they cannot always follow the Rainbow Grocery or the Arizmendi models due to the needs of their industry. These co-ops do need some level of structure and we shouldn’t see hierarchy as an automatic failure or example of Agency. We shouldn’t simply hire managers to run our co-ops and then complain about their decisions.

The Danger of Agency

One of my current fears regarding the Agency Theory and US Labor Movement comes from the two sources. First, the traditional labor movement has largely given itself over to Agency long ago. Corporate officers and union leaders make as much as the CEO and have little in common with the rank-and-file. SEIU’s growth strategy has resembled Wal-Mart more than a people’s movement. In our movement, we are seeing social workers and “community developers” find ways to co-opt the movement to include well-heeled consultants and advisers. Elsewhere, worker co-operatives are being created to outsource unionized government services with lower paid and benefit-poor positions.

The Cleveland Model offers hope, but also offers dangers. It is an agency development model that focuses on good jobs and keeping the neighborhood intact. However, it is based on the benevolence of a couple of large institutions and has a control structure that will fill the key decider roles from the established philanthropists (at least initially). Capital, in Cleveland, is creating worker co-ops to serve it, but doesn’t really adopt the concept of the sovereignty of labor or the subordinate nature of capital. This might end up being a revolutionary act and greatly aid the development of large scale co-operatives, or it might be a wonderful act of charity that really can’t be replicated (and subject to the goodwill of the benefactors). The real test of this project will come when the primary financiers step aside and allow the workers complete control over their destiny.

How Do We Move Forward?

We need to create a set of best practices for worker co-operatives regardless of their industry, size, and structure. Certainly, the CICOPA Declaration on Worker Co-operatives can provide a lot of guidance in this effort. Worker Co-op Best Practices need to be aimed at diffusing the control and power of elite groups within the organization as well as preventing cliques and informal processes from overcoming the democracy of the organization. This can and should be a role for the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives or its “project” the Democracy at Work Institute.

We need to recognize that few workers come to our co-operatives with the illumination of the co-operative movement. We need to create the means for them to understand and develop. We need to follow Arizmendiaretta’s belief that our movement is an educational movement with an economic basis. We can’t simply teach people how to read a balance sheet or write a cash-flow statement and think that we are done. We need to teach critical thinking an analysis. We need to develop a work force where every member has the knowledge and intellectual skill to engage as a fully vested member of the co-operative.

This means working to overcome our culture of treating people and labor as mere machinations of the marketplace. We need to find a way to develop a new path through our co-operatives that provides a real answer to neo-liberalism. If we only try to democratize capitalism, then we really fail. We can only be a parody of our capitalist competitors: children playing dress-up as opposed to engaging as a true adult and providing a counter-weight, a true Third Road to Socialism and Capitalism.

To overcome our Agency dilemma and develop a true Distributist society, we will need to challenge our institutions and our co-operatives to step forward, to be leaders of the labor movement. My next post will discuss the idea of how to do that and creating a neo-syndicalist movement to counter the neo-liberals.


Kasmir, Sharyn The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, State of University of New York Press, Albany, 1996

Matthews, Race Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society (Alternatives to the Market and the State), Comerford and Miller and Pluto Press. Syndney and London. 1999

September 20, 2010

Roadblocks on the Path to Mondragon: The Theft of Labor

Filed under: Society,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

The three English countries (UK, Canada, and the United States) have, at their core, a culture that promotes and accommodates the theft of labor in a way that simply didn’t exist in Euskera (The Basque Country). Really, it is a problem for all of North and South America, but for this discussion, I will limit to North America; however, the effects of slavery culture and US imperialism have certainly caused its share of problems in worker development in the south as well.

The most obvious example of this theft was the slave trade and US slavery that was ended with the Civil War. The United States economy and society was built on slavery and the white form of it: indentured servitude. All of English society benefited from this theft of labor). In fact, this can be said for the entire Americas as all of its modern nations were based on the slave trade. In Paraguay, they even call their currency the Guarni (the name of the indigenous peoples who served as slaves).

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, has an excellent blog post on this subject called The Big Machine. Go read it and then come back. . I’ll wait. While Coates comments on race relatons, my focus is one economic class.

With the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, the theft of labor became a matter of principle. David Ricardo, an 18th century economist, even argued for The Iron Law of Wages which suggested that it was part of a natural economic order that workers only earn enough to sustain them to continue to labor. It was this point when the value of work was divorced from humanity and made to be simply another marketplace. Of course, as in most of the propaganda regarding “free markets”, it was a rigged system in favor of those who held capital. In the UK, workers who attempted to unionize or organize for better wages were deported or jailed. In the United States, they were murdered and blacklisted. Even Canada has its history of shooting and jailing workers.  Capital, in the English speaking north, has always trumped labor.

It would be nice to think that our culture of subsidizing our society through free labor was a quaint artifice of the past. However, it isn’t. Every summer, college students are expected to work for free (to better their future prospects). In the taxi industry workers are deemed “independent contractors” and expected to pay for the ability to work (NYC cab drivers often average only about $30 a day through this system). Of course, in college and professional sports, millions are made off of the labor of the athletes. Only a small percentage (the superstars) ever sees a share of that profit and in the college, the system takes extreme steps to ensure that the player doesn’t see a dime. A friend of mine who did legal work for migrant farm workers has dozens of tales of wage theft and outright chattel slavery in Ohio during the 80’s and 90’s.

This idea is so embedded in our culture that even the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives uses the apprentice/internship model for its Democracy at Work Network of peer advisors.

I don’t want to say that all volunteerism is wrong. Don José famously refused any compensation for his role as “advisor” to the Mondragon co-opeative. The workers even had to steal his bicycle so that they could justify buying him a new one that was motorized! Volunteerism has its place in truly fair and cooperative society, but in our society, we need to understand the fine line between volunteerism and exploitation. (Dr. Laurie Mook has a great book–What Counts? Social Accounting for Non-Profits and Cooperatives–on how to quantify volunteer hours with an expanded value statement that every coop should use).

The key point: The devaluation of labor in the US makes it a lot harder for the distributist model to take hold. Our culture establishes a base of distrust between the worker and the organization that uses their labor. It creates an environment where workers express solidarity with each other by enabling them to “get one over” on the machine. We can create worker cooperatives, but to change the culture of the workers from the asymmetrical survival strategies that they have spent a lifetime learning requires more than simply writing some by-laws.

We need accountability structures because we have a society based on theft. The original theft is from the worker who can then justify behavior as a means of fighting for their rights. We can’t really divorce ourselves from that culture without taking some extraordinary steps or developing our cooperatives from a different paradigm and working to only accept workers who have achieved that level of understanding (this might be why Cheeseboard and Rainbow Grocery can operate as they do). In the US, we had a strong labor movement until the neo-liberals under Reagan went on the attack. While they destroyed private sector unions, what replaced it was an Intifada of assymetrical class war that involves slacking, cigarette breaks, and Facebook. I’ve read some estimates where close to 25% to 30% of the work week (or white collar workers) is spent doing non-work things (chatting, smoking, web surfing, etc). On the other hand, blue collar workers at the lowest end are expected to wear diapers to work so as to keep the line moving. It is really a messed up work culture.

A Long Term View

As I will be writing over this week, we need to take a long-term view. We need to keep in mind that Mondragon was not created overnight. It started with the creation of a poorly funded school. Arizmendiaretta spent a dozen years educating students who then went to University. They then took jobs with the large employers and finally returned to Mondragon to establish their own company based on the values that they learned at their Priest’s school. Arizmendiaretta famously argued that theirs was an educational movement with an economic structure, not the other way around.

If we want to create something that looks like Mondragon and makes us feel good, we need to do more that simply try to model Mondragon. We need to first develop a legitamate belief in the value of humans and the value of work—not the false Work Ethic along the lines of Ragged Dick and the myth perpetrated by Horatio Alger that lures people into supporting capital with false promises of becoming rich themselves. We need a humanist ethic—one that has already been written down by the International Co-operative Alliance and Mondragon. We might even need to create a different pathway to a Distributist society. While the Spanish (and even the Maritimes) had their common religion and inspired priests to guide the people, we don’t. To create a culture that honors work, we need to create a means of honoring the human doing the work. Fortunately, there is already a model for that as well: syndicalism.

September 13, 2010

Is It Time for Neo-Distributism?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 3:01 pm

One of the joys of not actually being enrolled in a graduate program arises in the ability to actually read the assigned books from some of the classes! It isn’t that I didn’t complete my assisgnments, but often only a chapter or two were intended for the class. For instance, No Logo by Naomi Klein is a must read for anyone interested in how globalization really changed US manufacturing (and marketing).

The most recent book that I finished Jobs of Our Own by Race Matthews. This 1999 treatise (re-released in 2009 with a new forward) discusses the ignored ideas of G.K. Chesterton and his distrubists allies providing a nice history of the discourse between this group and the Fabian Society of George Bernard Shaw. Ultimately, the Fabians won the hearts and minds of the people and ushered in a remarkable 30 year period of economic stability under the prodding of Prime Minister Clement Atlee that saw the creation of the National Health Service, the Breton Woods Accord, and the dominance of Keynesian Economics.

It is a bit hard to argue that the Fabians had it wrong. The idea that the three legs of the stool (Trade Unions for Workers, Co-ops for consumers, and the Labour Party for citizen control of the commanding heights of the economy) still has a certain appeal. **  However, the Distributists had more far reaching ideas. They didn’t trust the State to control the economy. Led by their religious dogma and the Pope Leo XIII’s ecclesiastical, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour), they sought a society of small owners in which power could not be concentrated into the hands of few, but distributed throughout the society. They never really go much further than this general idea largely because of their egos, untimely deaths, and an appalling antisemitism and racism that would eventually cause their movement to be disregarded.

Outside of England, however, this idea did take hold. Matthews work takes off when he discusses the work of the Maritime Canadian priests Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady. Together, these community organizers helped build a strong and powerful cooperative movement as well as a culture of adult education. Although, the movement did crash in the mid 1960’s due to systemic structural problems and was re-born as Co-op Atlantic.

One of Coady’s goals which he never lived to see was the idea of delivering education to working men and women in their homes. He saw that it was impossible to expect people to leave their jobs to attend classes. I am sure that he would be quite proud that Tom Webb, one of his successors as Director of the Extension Department at the University of St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia would create exactly such a program at the sister school of St. Mary’s University–the MMCCU. (I was surprised to see this footnote in the book as I consider Tom a mentor to me and never knew that held Coady’s position prior to St. Mary’s).

The book then turns to its true focus. The Antigonish Movement discovered what has come to be known at the rochdale cul-de-sac. Essentially, that co-operatives grow to a point where the membership must give up control to hired management. The co-op then begins to behave and act like any other store and the uniqueness of the co-opertive model becomes lost. It is Matthews argument that distributists can overcome the problems brought about through Agency Theory by engaging in a slightly different model of co-operation, namely the worker co-operative.

So it is, that Matthews ties the work of our favorite priest Don José María Arizmendiaretta to the distributist movement of Chesterton and Coady. The rise of Mondragon and its redefining the relations between capital and labor fit nicely into the edict of Rerum Novarum without creating the tyranny of the the worker over the consumer that the Fabians so feared. By giving workers a voice and participation in the management of the co-operative, the problems of the cul-de-sac get eliminated. In some of the Mondragon coops, there are mutli-stakeholder modes that provide space for several voices in the discussion. At a few years past 50, Mondragon has outlived the Antigonish Movement and remains a strong and fervent co-operative model.

Distributism, according to Matthews, works. It works exceptionally well provided that the workers enjoy a strong voice as workers in the organizations. Mondragon distributes the wealth throughout the basque region of Spain to its 180,000 members (I think that is the correct number). By creating a true ownership society, they created a sustainable marketplace that focuses on the value of the human being.

Is it time for us to take a second look at distributism? I’m still not quite sure. I think that Mondragon could also be considered an excellent example of syndicalism even if there isn’t a labor union involved. The point, however, is that capitalism displaced a workerable social contract without establishing a new social contract. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand replaced the Noblesse Oblige. Keynes sought to soften the hand. The Fabian sought to re-invent the social contract through government ownership. Distributists and Syndicalists, in my opinion, seek to rewrite the social contract based on the individual civil and human rights. Perhaps the ideas of the Distributists could be folded into a Neo-Syndicalism creating a movement that uses both worker ownership and industrial unionism to meet the needs of the community and society by creating an ownership society of small owners, and recognizing when the scale of a project is too big for worker co-operative alone and requires an industrial union presence. Such a linking with Mondragon and the US Steelworkers may be the beginning of this new ideal.

But this time, we really need to document what it is!

**Thanks to Bob Cannell for that imagery.

December 19, 2009

Neo-Syndicalism: A Path Toward Reimagining Socialism

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , , , , — Fred Schepartz @ 6:27 pm

In Barbara Ehrenreichs groundbreaking essay, “Reimagining Socialism,” which appeared recently in The Nation, she states that we on the Left need a plan, but we don’t have a plan.

Well, I have a plan, albeit a small one.

My plan is something I like to call Neo-Syndicalism. This may sound familiar to longtime Mobius readers; I have written about this before.

Just to quickly review, Neo-Syndicalism, like Classical Syndicalism, is the notion that we can change society through economic means rather than political means. In terms of Classical Syndicalism, this is most elegantly expressed in the old IWW slogan, “one big union, one big strike.”

Neo-Syndicalism takes an updated, more pragmatic, and perhaps more cynical approach in that we acknowledge that perhaps we can’t overthrow the Capitalist system. However, within the Capitalist system we can create liberated zones through organisms like worker cooperatives, collectives, and other forms of worker-owned businesses, along with economic alternatives such as fair trade, community supported agriculture, and, in general, sustainability.

Essentially, this is about building our own economy brick by brick.

The movement, the plan, is out there. It just doesn’t know it, at least not yet. That is why I have given it a name. Giving a movement a name pulls together diffusive elements and helps provide a conduit for people with different interests to work together toward a common goal.

Or to put it another way, if you are involved in an activity that falls under my heading of Neo-Syndicalism, you are doing something greater and more significant than you realize. You should take this understanding, talk to the other members of your group, and discuss your work in this greater context. You should network with other groups that do the same thing your group does. And then you should network with groups you may not have much in common with if these groups share the strategy of Neo-Syndicalism.

It’s about building our own economy brick by brick.

In these desperate times, there’s interesting and radical things going on. Last year in Chicago, workers at Republic Windows and Doors staged a sit-in after the company was forced to close when the bank, which had received TARP funds, refused to extend a line of credit to allow the company to continue production. The worker’s refusal to let the plant close was rewarded. Another company came and in bought the plant thus saving a few hundred jobs.

In Latin America, there have been numerous instances where factories abandoned by the companies that owned them have been taken over by the workers. As one worker commented, the company came into our community, took our subsidies, took our tax breaks and then left. We are claiming ownership.

My favorite story is in France, there have been instances of boss-napping. Of course, the French being the French were rather civilized about the whole thing. While holding bosses as they waited for corporations to consider their demands, they stuffed the bosses with moules et frites.

I remember way back in 1979, when I first moved here to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend the University of Wisconsin. Somebody handed me a copy of the very last issue of the radical newspaper Takeover. I remember the slogan: “Are you going to take orders or are you going to take over?”

Granted, I’ve always found the sentiment a bit simplistic, but in this case, I think it’s quite apt. I look at the shuttered GM plant in Janesville, and all I can think is “are you going to take orders or are you going to take over?”

These corporations are afforded the same rights as individual human beings. We give them tax breaks. We give them tax subsidies. We give them tons and tons of public money so they can come into our communities to provide jobs. In these harsh economic times, we give them stimulus money so they can stay in business and continue to provide jobs.

And then they close. They either simply shut their doors or they move to other countries.

As far as I’m concerned, the GM plant in Janesville belongs to the people of Janesville. They should take over the plant and run it as a worker-owned cooperative or perhaps as a community-owned cooperative of some sort. They could produce anything they want, though perhaps it might make the most sense if they produced cars. Perhaps they could contract with one of the surviving auto companies. Or maybe they could actually start their own auto manufacturing company. Or maybe they could take over Saturn once GM officially discontinues that line.

One might think, automakers designing cars? Ridiculous?

Well, of course they’d hire design engineers and whatever brain power they need, but just imagine what kind of cars such a plant would produce when the workers who produce the vehicles and drive the vehicles actually have a say in the design of the vehicles. Gee, they might actually be vehicles people want to drive!

And yes, I do understand this is a pipe dream without a massive infusion of cash. After all, as a character in The Right Stuff says, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

If the government can bail out the banks and the auto companies, they can provide money to facilitate the formation of worker-owned-and-operated cooperatives at abandoned manufacturing plants. This would comprise a real economic stimulus package. It would save and create jobs. It would be great for the communities that die long, slow, painful deaths when a manufacturing plant closes.

And it would help get us back into the business of building stuff the world wants to buy.

The Obama Administration should call for an initiative to provide grants and low interest loans to abandoned workers who want to form worker cooperatives. In fact, the Obama Administration should encourage abandoned workers to take over shuttered manufacturing plants.

Of course, there’s a chicken/egg aspect to this. Workers should view this tactic strategically, that if more and more workers take over abandoned manufacturing plants, it could be a way to force the Obama Administration to take positive action. We saw this during the FDR Administration, and it’s equally true now: radical change comes from the bottom up. Remember, FDR himself said, “Make me.” Obama has pretty much implied the same thing, urging people to organize, to basically give him political cover to be able to move in stronger directions.

But let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Neo-Syndicalism is not merely a tactic to push government into a more radical direction. It’s a strategy. Again, it’s about rebuilding our economy, brick by brick. It’s about telling the corporatocracy that we will no longer play their little reindeer games, that we can find a path toward a real and lasting prosperity without them.
Neo-Syndicalism is just a term I came up with, but as I’ve said time and time again, words have great power. What we’re talking about is defining a movement that’s out there, working hard and doing good work. By identifying this as a movement, we create a synergy that will make it stronger through greater numbers and more comprehensive exchanges of information and, in general, people power.

Powered by WordPress