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Worker Owned Businesses Point to New Forms of Ownership


Can co-ops come out of the margins of the economy and be part of a larger political project to transform how things are owned? -   February 14, 2013
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Worker Owned Businesses Point to New Forms of OwnershipUNONS IN AMERICA ARE ON A DECLINE. IT'S A FACT --- AND ACCORDING TO THE BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS, TODAY ONLY ABOUT 11 PERCENT OF AMERICAN WORKERS ARE A PART OF A UNION. THAT'S A STARK DIFFERENCE FROM THE 1950s WHEN 1 OUT OF THREE AMERICANS BELONGED TO ONE.

BUT ALTHOUGH UNIONS ARE SUBMERGING, WORKER-OWNED BUSINESSES IN AMERICA ARE ON THE RISE.

TRADITIONAL WORKER-OWNED COOPERATIVES REPRESENT DEMOCRATIC WORKPLACES WHERE EACH EMPLOYEE HAS A STAKE IN THE FINANCIAL HEALTH OF THE BUSINESS. THAT MEANS EACH MEMBER HAS ONE VOTE IN MAKING COMPANY DECISIONS.

IN THE NEW DOCUMENTARY SHIFT CHANGE, WE SEE THRIVING EXAMPLES OF EMPLOYEE-OWNED BUSINESSES IN THE U.S., LIKE THIS BAKERY IN SAN FRANCISCO.

Tim Huet, Arizmendi Association: Too often I thought people who were working in progressive organizations that we were trying to protest other things, we were trying to stop other things. But we weren't trying to build an alternative to that. And to really have a democratic society we have to have people who have democratic values be able to produce bread, be able to produce bicycles, and books and the things that we need.

Madeleine Van Engel, Arizmendi Valencia: I like having a say in how the business is run. I think that when people share ownership, they take ownership.

OWNERSHIP IS THE KEY INGREDIENT IN THE CO-OP BUSINESS MODEL. SHIFT CHANGE TRAVELS TO MONDRAGON, SPAIN WHERE A 50-YEAR-OLD NETWORK OF COOPERATIVE BUSINESSES IS THE BACKBONE OF SOCIETY. WITH 84,000 EMPLOYEES AND 25 BILLION DOLLARS IN ANNUAL REVENUES, THIS REGION AROUND MONDRAGON HAS THE LOWEST UNEMPLOYMENT IN SPAIN.

Mikel Lezamiz, Director of Cooperative Outreach, Mondragon Cooperatives: The world has changed, but most businesses operate in an authoritarian way, that is centralized just as it was fifty or eighty years ago. It is possible to strike a balance - for a business to be profitable and to have as its highest goal to enrich the whole society. This is the future, not only for cooperatives but for any modern business in the twenty-first century.

AT THE AFL-CIO HEADQUARTERS IN WASHINGTON DC A PANEL OF GUESTS SPOKE OF THE IMPORTANCE OF SUPPORTING CO-OPERATIVES AS A WAY TO PROVIDE A PATHWAY TO LONG-TERM ECONOMIC STABILITY.

GAR ALPEROVITZ, COFOUNDER, DEMOCRACY COLLABORATIVE: So if you look around the country, there's the bank of North Dakota which is a public bank, there is a movement building up which is changing and democratizing wealth. And there is 130 million people involved in co-ops today, a large percentage of those in credit unions. One person one vote banks if you like. There are two things driving it, one is the large scale pain that people are feeling. Nothing else is working for many people. And I think that's why you're seeing the experimentation and the development. And I think that's why you're going to be seeing more of it. And at the other level, people tend to forget that nationalization has happened in the United States because of crisis. We took over the Chrysler company. We bailed out General Motors. AIG, the largest insurance company in the world, was nationalized by the United States government. So there are different forms of democratization popping up. In these cases, we sold them back as soon as they made a profit on the public money. But in the future, we may see such larger transformation of this kind as well. Famously, already in the state of Alaska, oil revenues are used by the state to give everyone a dividend as a matter of right. It's another form of democratizing ownership. So if you look below the surface, you'll see that it's not just co-ops but co-ops are probably the most developing form. It's not inevitable that this will move forward, positively and powerfully. But it's also not inevitable that it will stay at the margins. And I think that's partly a question whether people take it very seriously and begin seeing it strategically as part of developing the basis of the next wave of the American economy.

THE CALL FOR THE NEXT WAVE OF THE AMERICAN ECONOMY IS BEING HEARD BY SOME ESTABLISHED UNIONS LIKE UNITED STEELWORKERS.

INTERNATIONAL PRESIDENT LEO GERARD SAYS THAT HIS ORGANIZATION NOW HAS A STRATEGIC ALLIANCE WITH THE MONDRAGON COOPERATIVE.

Leo Gerard, International President, United Steelworkers: I think it's important to find a new way to do business that's going to have a greater reward to workers. Not just in the economics of work but to the dignity of work. And we think that's a really good model to work from.

NOW AFTER THE MOST RECENT "RIGHT TO WORK" LEGISLATION WAS PASSED IN MICHIGAN -- WHICH FURTHER UNDERMINES UNIONS BY ALLOWING WORKERS NOT TO PAY DUES. GERARD SAYS HE RECOGNIZES THAT TIMES ARE CHANGING.

Gerard: The unfortunate attack on workers and on trade unions has led us to the greatest income inequality since we've had since the Great Depression. And clearly that economic model has not been working for workers for more than 30 years now. So it's important that we experiment and look at difference models, including cooperative models.

THOUGH COOPERATIVES HAVE GOTTEN PEOPLE WORKING, PROFESSOR OF YORK UNIVERSITY IN TORONTO SAM GINDIN SAYS CO-OPS HAVE THEIR LIMITATIONS.

Sam Gindin, Author, "The Making of Global Capitalism": One of them, when you're operating within a capitalistic society. It puts severe pressure on you to compete on their terms. The other problem is that their still very marginal to take power where it is. If you're taking credit unions for example, they are taking leaving the financial system. Any major bank in United State is larger than any co-ops put together. Co-ops can only really only work in a sustained way, other than being marginal and doing some progressive things. But to really work they have to be a part of a transformative project. They have to actually be a part of a movement that is transforming society, and the co-ops themselves are only one part."

GINDIN WORKED 20 years in the Canadian Auto Workers Union AND ACKNOWLEDGES THAT UNIONS STILL HAVE NOT BE ABLE TO SATISFACTORY ADDRESS THE VACUUM IN THE LABOR MOVEMENT....IN SHORT, WORKERS HAVE TO LEAD THAT FIGHT.

Gindin: The public sector workers for example they are getting hammered today and they are not going to survive unless they can show that they are the leader for the fight for public services. And the private sector workers are getting hammered even when there are subsidies that workers support for companies. So workers have to think about alternatives how might we actually convert auto plants so that we use those skills to make things that we're going to need for the rest of the century around the environment. Once you start talking about those larger things and fitting co-ops into that kind of a model, then I think you're talking about what change really means and how these different pieces fit into it.


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