Worker Ownership For the 21st Century?
It may not be the revolution’s dawn, but it’s certainly a glint in the darkness. On Monday, this country’s largest industrial labor union teamed up with the world’s largest worker-cooperative to present a plan that would put people to work in labor-driven enterprises that build worker power and communities, too.
Titled “Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model,” the organizational proposal released at a press conference on March 26 in Pittsburgh, draws on the fifty-five year experience of the Basque-based Mondragon worker cooperatives. To quote the document:
“In contrast to a Machiavellian economic system in which the ends justify any means, the union co-op model embraces the idea that both the ends and means are equally important, meaning that treating workers well and with dignity and sustaining communities are just as important as business growth and profitability.”
It might not sound like big news to members of their local food coop but it’s revolutionary stuff in the context of industrial production. The United Steelworkers represents some 1.2 million members; the average steel plant requires millions of dollars of investment, and there’s history here when it comes to worker ownership—some of it painful.
Thirty-five years ago, when local steelworkers and a statewide religious coalition put forward a plan to transfer the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill to worker and community control, the USW’s attitude was very different. As recounted by Gar Alperovitz in his (recently updated) "America Beyond Capitalism:"
“In the late 1970s the union saw worker-ownership as a threat to organizing, and it opposed efforts by local steelworkers to explore employee-owned institution-building in cities like Youngstown.”
This Monday, Leo Gerard, forward-thinking president of a very new kind of international USW, had this to say:
“To survive the boom and bust, bubble-driven economic cycles fueled by Wall Street, we must look for new ways to create and sustain good jobs on Main Street…. Worker-ownership can provide the opportunity to figure out collective alternatives to layoffs, bankruptcies, and closings.”
“The union’s gone through a huge transition,” Alperovitz told me when I reached him at his office shortly after the press conference. “This is a real declaration of a new direction for labor.”
It’s been a few years since the USW first became curious about the Mondragon cooperatives after they had a good experience working with GAMESA, a co-op friendly Spanish wind turbine outfit that opened up three plants in Pennsylvania. In 2009, with their Spanish colleagues' help, Gerard sent a delegation to the Basque region of Spain to investigate Mondragon, now a $24 billion global operation. Since then, the USW has worked slowly with Mondragon and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC) a university based coop-outreach center founded by one of the organizers of the Youngstown initiative, to fine tune the US version presented Monday.
For the details of the proposal, check out the model for yourself. The full text of the union co-op model is available at www.usw.coop or www.union.coop. The template is intended to be a living document, write the authors, “subject to continuous revision and improvement based on user feedback and applied experiences.”
The key elements of the plan are open membership, democratic organization; jobs trump profit margins, and worker participation in management. Also, social transformation: “A key part of the co-op’s mission is to support and invest in their communities by creating jobs, funding development projects, supporting education, and providing opportunity."
However the details are applied, the point is to get more experiments up and running. “The more we can do, the better,” says Alperovitz. “We'll learn and along the way legitimate the idea.”
There are political implications, says Carl Davidson, national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and a Pittsburgh local, who has studied Mondragon and attended the press conference Monday. “It’s a radical structural reform that produces not just a better contract but alters relationships of power.”
In an era of high unemployment, low levels of union membership and attacks from all sides on the political power of labor, US workers have less ability than ever to “check” corporate power through mass mobilization and traditional labor tactics. The worker-ownership model presents another way to exercise power. If workers can raise sufficient investment capital and find stable markets they can do better than “check” corporate power, they can (to use Alperovitz’s word) “displace” corporations.
At the very least, the USW/Mondragon move puts a new idea on the table. Will it change the equation the next time the federal government is bailing out an auto company, for example? What if, instead of pumping public money into the same-old private enterprise, public money powered up a new worker-owned operation, run by new rules for different outcomes? (Labor and community welfare, say, instead of profits to be skimmed off by top-level shareholders?)
The opening up of that question to serious public dialogue is a major step, but Monday’s announcement introduced more than a concept. The organizers also introduced workers involved in a new industrial laundry they’re calling the Pittsburgh “Clean and Green Laundry Cooperative” modeled in part on similar projects in Cleveland. Plans are afoot for union co-ops in Cincinnati, too. The Pittsburgh laundry’s slated to open in the beginning of June.
© 2012 The Nation