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Common Dreams

How to Think Outside the Big Box this Holiday Season

David Morgan, Taliesin Nyala, Andrew Stachiw, and Brian Van Slyke

Port workers in Los Angeles went on strike last week. McDonald’s and Burger King employees walked off the job and onto the picket line the week before. Last month, Walmart workers made waves with their strike against the giant retailer leading up to and through “Black Friday.” Workers across the United States are risking their livelihoods for a better workplace and an improved economy.

We have endured a deep recession that will surely impact the amount we spend this holiday season, but the renewed focus on fair treatment for workers should also create a discussion about where we spend our money.

Producers like Apple are trying to cut their losses and assuage concerns and waves of criticism regarding worker treatment in their facilities. Following the public pressure the company endured regarding their notorious Foxconn plant, Apple recently announced that it is bringing some assembly jobs back to the U.S. from overseas. At the same time he made the announcement, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, said "I don't think we have a responsibility to create a certain kind of job, but I think we do have a responsibility to create jobs."

Thanks, Tim. We should celebrate that some jobs are being created domestically, but those jobs should be a certain kind of job—fair jobs. We need ethical leadership, the kind that the striking workers around the country are exemplifying by putting it all on the line. To build a truly equitable economy, one that is rooted domestically, one that won’t just pick up and leave when consumer pressure relaxes, we do need a “certain kind of job.” We need jobs that companies like Apple are not prepared to offer. We need jobs that are owned by and directly responsible to their communities. Companies such as Apple, Walmart, and McDonald’s will never believe they have the responsibility to create jobs like these because such a move would shake the very foundation of those companies’ power.

The kind of job Apple, Walmart, and many other major corporations do create are exploitative, undemocratic, and devastating to their employees and the communities where they are located. Below is a brief snapshot of the day-to-day inequities carried out by these major corporations. As described in an Alternet article, the Fair Labor Act, a non-profit commissioned by Apple to investigate their factories stated,

...workers were largely alienated, in fact or in perception, from factories’ safety and health committees and had little confidence in the management of health and safety issues... if workers had more involvement with developing and monitoring health and safety procedures, many of the problems with implementation could be avoided.

Furthermore, while Foxconn insists that their student “interns” could leave work at any time, an investigative piece by the New York Times reported that these students “had been forced by the teachers to assemble iPhones.” According to China Labor Watch, as quoted in the NYT, students were told that “if they don’t work...they will not graduate, because it is a very busy time with the new iPhone coming, and Foxconn does not have enough workers without the students.” When the highly acclaimed documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price came out in 2005, Walmart was facing lawsuits in 31 states for wage and hour abuses. Changing timecards and adjusting full-time hour requirements is just the tip of the iceberg for Walmart:

A recent study by researchers at UC Berkeley's Labor Center has quantified what happened to retail wages when Wal-Mart set up shop, drawing on 15 years of data on actual store openings. The study found that Wal-Mart drives down wages in urban areas, with an annual loss of at least $3 billion dollars in earnings for retail workers.

While Apple will be moving some jobs domestically, and Walmart continues to proclaim that it offers reasonable retail wages and benefits to communities they are in, we shouldn’t believe all of their holiday whitewashing. Instead, we should dedicate ourselves to those jobs that really are making a difference and a new way forward—namely, cooperative jobs.  

A cooperative is a business owned and managed equally by a certain membership. There are cooperatives that are controlled by workers, by consumers, by artists, and so forth. In co-ops, each member has only one share and only one vote. These are democratic businesses that are owned by, directly responsible to, and dependent on community members.

There are thousands more co-ops than there are malevolent mega-corporations. Some 30,000 co-ops are registered with the IRS, and they do business in 73,000 locations. Wherever they operate, research shows that their more egalitarian way of operating provides a drastic improvement for local economies. When compared to big box stores, co-ops keep twice as much money in their communities. They also hire more local employees, pay them better, and offer greater benefits (such as health care) to more of their workers than other privately-owned businesses.

On top of this, workers who own and control their workplaces are much less inclined to fire themselves and outsource their jobs, contribute to their region’s environmental degradation, or abuse and rip off employees. In fact, not only are worker-owners less likely to do these things, but they regularly do the opposite.

Looking for co-op made holiday gifts will be a more ethical option, both for workers in your community and around the globe. Instead of purchasing beauty products from Ahava, a company that profits from the occupation of the West Bank, why not get a gift from Co-op 108, which offers 100% American-made plant-based cosmetics? Or, if you’re wrapping up gifts for a coffee lover, avoid the dubious labor practices at Starbucks and get fair trade beans from Equal Exchange. Maybe someone on your list is a bookworm with an wishlist a mile long—consider finding that same title at Food for Thought Books instead (they can deliver to anywhere in the country!). Competitive family games during the holidays can easily bring tension to any gathering, so why not try the co-op made Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives (created by yours truly)? You can find even more co-op holiday gift options here.

It can be hard to go co-op as an alternative during the holidays. This only suggests that the cooperative movement has room to grow and further challenge corporate dominance and abuse. Yet, when it is possible, even if it is slightly less convenient, the right choice is to go cooperative. We can use this holiday season as a means to springboard our commitment to the cooperative movement to build a new, just, and democratic economy.

The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA) is a worker-owned cooperative that creates educational resources for social and economic change. One of their primary projects is the highly acclaimed Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives. Their website features an entire line of cooperative products. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

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