Democratic Worker Cooperatives: An Organizational Strategy Reconsidered for the 21st Century

Democratic Worker Cooperatives: An Organizational Strategy Reconsidered for the 21st Century

During the industrial revolution in the United States, labor organizations such as the National Trades' Union, National Labor Union and Knights of Labor endorsed the development of democratic worker-controlled enterprise as a strategy for fighting “wage slavery” and developing a democratic economy. A stated goal of the Knights of Labor was “to establish cooperative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a cooperative industrial system.” However, the creation of democratic worker cooperatives in a capitalist context proved exceedingly difficult. Capitalists attacked union co-ops, sometimes violently, but most often denied investment capital and limited access to markets. Repeated co-op failures, conservative labor leaders' acceptance of capitalist control over production, and the Marxist—Leninist emphasis on state control as the only means to power led labor to drop worker cooperative development as an organizing strategy. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, diverse social movements around the world are showing a renewed interest in organizing democratic workplaces. Promoting democratic work is a key tenet of the solidarity economy movement that seeks to build an economy based on democracy and mutual support from the ground up. Solidarity economy activists argue that instead of waiting for an apocalyptic revolution, it is necessary to start building the new society in the context of old one. In Europe, over 2 million people are employed in worker-controlled enterprising. There are several large worker co-op networks such as the Mondragon in Spain and legacoop in Italy each of which has tens of thousands of members. These unique networks have institutionalized mutual support between worker co-ops. They have created their own banks and business service co-ops to provide capital and technical services to primary co-ops with the aim of increasing the network. Interest in democratic work has exploded in Latin America in the context of a variety of popular movements. For example, in 2001, after years of neoliberal “reform,” Argentina’s economy plunged into depression. Instead of wallowing in despair, the people of Argentina took to the streets. More than just protest, some Argentineans began to rebuild their economy from the ground up. Workers took control over their factories, seized the machines and once again started to produce—without the boss. Argentina’s Recuperated Factories Movement and Unemployed Workers’ Movement (piqueteros) was dramatically documented in Naomi Klein’s and Avi Lewis’ movie The Take. While not abolishing capitalism, the Bolivarian constitution in Venezuela also outlines a vision for a self-managed and participatory society based on the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity. Venezuela’s economy depends heavily on oil exports. The government is working to diversify the national economy and move toward internal development including food self-sufficiency. New education programs offer courses in cooperation and self-management. Now, five percent of Venezuelan workers work in small worker co-ops. However, the economy still depends greatly on the state-controlled oil industry and it remains to be seen whether democratic governance will be implemented in larger, capital—intensive companies. In the United States there are approximately 400 worker co-ops in diverse industries. Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in New York City, Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco are some of the most successful worker co-ops in the United States. CHCA, a home care cooperative, was founded by community organizers. Their goal was to change the home health care industry by modeling it according to a philosophy expressed in “quality care through quality jobs.” CHCA now employs over 1,000 home care workers in quality jobs, generating over $30 million in revenue annually. They pay wages 20 percent higher than the industry standard. Equal Exchange specializes in the sale of fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate. They promote sustainable farming and farming cooperatives throughout the developing world by guaranteeing their partner co-ops above market “fair trade” prices for their commodities. Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco has over 200 worker—owners and specializes in providing high—quality vegetarian food to their community. Rainbow Grocery is organized without a hierarchy. Rainbow has fourteen departments (e.g. produce, cheese, checking). Each department governs itself. Yearly, each department elects a person to serve on a managerial team that coordinates day-to-day activity in the store. Workers also elect a board that oversees the store business and plans for the future. All worker—owners are paid the same wages amounting to approximately $50,000 each annually. Cooperation among co-ops on a national scale in the United States is in its infancy. The US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (www.usworker.coop) just formed several years ago. Their mission is to support the development of worker co-ops throughout the United States and facilitate mutual support between worker co-ops. For example, they have embarked on a project to make capital and technical expertise available throughout the country to potential new worker co-ops. In addition, the Federation sponsors or co-sponsors national and regional worker co-op conferences. For example the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy took place in July 2007 in Asheville, North Carolina. Many of the challenges to creating democratic work on a large scale in a capitalist society are similar to those faced by workers 150 years ago. For example, there is still limited access to capital and markets. In addition, worker co-ops do not have the same dynamic motive to grow maximizing profit that capitalist firms do. However, in the context of the current global discontent with multinational capitalism, experimentation is warranted. The pedagogic value of real-life examples of democratic workplaces and networks is enormous. They demonstrate that another world, in which workers organize themselves and control their own work without capitalists, is possible. Moreover, if a “niche market” for democratically produced goods could be established based in consumer solidarity with workers, it could serve as a catalyst for dramatic growth of a worker co-op sector. For more information on the workers cooperative movement in the United States visit the Grassroots Economic Organizing website: www.geo.coop.

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