Can Co-ops Save Unions? | In These Times

Labor-cooperative partnerships may herald a new strategy for labor–if they can get off the ground.
BY REBECCA BURNS

What has 18 owners, no bosses and high hopes for fostering workplace democracy in America? New Era Windows LLC, a worker-owned cooperative formed last year by members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110.

After occupying their factory to save their jobs—twice—workers at a closing Chicago windows plant decided last year to try a new tack: running the business themselves. They purchased equipment from their former bosses and are now setting up a new factory they believe will create good jobs in the city’s depressed economy.

New Era is one of a growing number of union-backed cooperatives nationwide that could herald a new strategy for labor. In his survey of existing cooperatives, economist Gar Alperovitz has calculated that the number of workers in partly or wholly employee-owned companies now exceeds those who belong to private-sector unions—a statistic that speaks both to the perilous state of the labor movement and the promise of reviving it through new structures.

In the case of New Era, the decision to form a cooperative was the result of a long battle with management. In 2008, upon being told that their factory would be closed and they would be fired immediately without severance pay, workers staged a six-day occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory and emerged victorious. Their stand, coming at the height of the financial crisis, was celebrated nationwide. It also emboldened them to occupy once again in February 2012, when new owner Serious Energy announced that it, too, would be closing the plant. The workers’ journey from occupiers to owners was paved in part by UE’s tradition of militancy, which some progressives hoped would inspire other unions fighting mass layoffs.

The labor movement at large hasn’t reprised the 1930s-era tactic of occupying factories in order to regain a foothold in existing workplaces. But a growing number of unions, led by the United Steelworkers (USW), are exploring creation of new worker-owned cooperatives as a strategy for contending with the offshoring of U.S. jobs. Like the workers who formed New Era Windows, USW began experimenting with cooperatives partly out of necessity—as job losses mounted amidst the financial crisis, “there seemed to be an opening to consider how we might create a better model, because everything was falling apart,” says Rob Witherell, USW’s cooperative strategist. USW decided to partner with Mondragon, Spain’s famous group of cooperatives, to create a template for union co-ops.

Now, USW is helping launch several pilot projects, including a green laundry in Pittsburgh that could replace some of the 100-plus jobs lost when an industrial laundry in the area closed several years ago. Members of United Food and Commercial Workers are currently employed in an urban farming cooperative in Cincinnati, with more projects planned under the behest of the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative.

Read the whole article from In These Times.

Learn more about the union co-op model from the United Steelworkers.

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