Interview With Rob Witherell: Representative, United Steelworkers (USW) | Truthout

By Steve Dubb

Rob Witherell works for the United Steelworkers union at its headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In addition to working on contract negotiations, benefits analysis, research and organizing, Rob has also led the United Steelworkers’ efforts on developing union co-ops and is the union’s lead liaison with the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation.

Could you tell us a bit about your history in labor organizing and what has led you to dedicate your career to the labor movement?

When I was an undergrad at the University of Massachusetts, our tuition and fees doubled in the years I was there, and so I got involved in student organizing and student government. That experience led me into politics and working on political campaigns, which eventually led to the opportunity to earn my Master’s degree in Labor Studies. As a graduate research assistant, I was a UAW member and our union contract allowed me to attend grad school full time with full health insurance for a whopping $300 per semester, and earning the best pay rate I had ever had. Since my undergrad degree is a Bachelor’s in Business Administration. I am probably one of very few people around who has both a business and a labor degree.

Could you discuss what put co-op organizing on the Steelworker agenda, given that employee-owned cooperatives are not exactly the typical way unions today go about organizing new members?

In the late eighties and early nineties we put a lot of efforts into ESOPs [employee stock ownership plan-owned companies] as a way to rescue troubled companies. In some cases, that meant complete worker ownership. For most of them, it meant minority worker ownership.

And what we found is that where things didn’t change at all, the ESOP wasn’t successful. Where we had some success — and where the ESOPs still exist — the companies are typically 100% employee-owned. A key to these successes was that there was a change in the culture of the workplace, so that the ownership of the company means more to the workers than the value of their shares.

Could you elaborate on the differences between the successful and unsuccessful ESOPs?

In a lot of the cases, we were dealing with cash-strapped companies. Doing these buyouts were a way of exchanging shares for concessions. So the business stayed open, but nothing really changed in terms of the product, market, business structure or business plan. Eventually those shares got bought out. So while it save those companies in a lot of cases, our members didn’t feel any sense of ownership.

So the ones that have been able to survive as employee-owned companies are the ones that started functioning more like a cooperative — that is, they were companies which had an active union and a company management that listened to its workers. In these companies, there was more of an emphasis on having a partnership with the union and in talking and listening to employees and respecting employees as owners.

How did the Steelworkers become aware of Mondragón?

In 2008, I was in Bilbao at an economic development meeting there to convince or help convince suppliers of one of our employers here in Pennsylvania to expand their supply operations into the United States. And while I was there, thanks to Michael Peck, who is Mondragon’s North American delegate, I had the opportunity to talk with Jesus Herrasti who was the President of Mondragón International division at the time. And so it was a good conversation. We found that we had a lot in common. And that led to a lot more conversations with [United Steelworkers President] Leo [Gerard]. And that led to the point when we announced our collaboration in 2009.

Read the rest of the interview from Truthout.

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