Archive for May, 2013

Can Unions and Cooperatives Join Forces? | Truthout.com

An Interview With United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard

By Amy Dean

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard talks to Truthout about the challenges and opportunities of a new labor model: the union co-op.

As the economic crisis festers for many long-term unemployed and underemployed people, the idea of worker-owned and worker-run cooperatives has become ever more appealing as a possible pathway toward an economy that works for everyone. Theorists such as Gar Alperovitz have argued for the importance of cooperatives in providing a nuts-and-bolts alternative to dominant methods of economic production: They offer an example of a different way of doing business that people can see and experience in their own lives.

As someone who loves to see organized labor on the move in any form, I am interested in the role that unions can play in promoting co-ops – and I have been excited to see the United Steelworkers take an especially proactive role in bolstering the cooperative movement. I spoke with Steelworkers President Leo Gerard about how union/co-op hybrids could change the experience of work for those who clock in every day and about the depth of vision it will take to make union co-ops a serious part of the American economy.

Given that cooperatives currently make up only a tiny percentage of our economy, I first asked Gerard whether he thought co-ops could be viable at a larger scale.

“People don’t realize there are millions of people in the United States and Canada that are already members of co-ops,” he said. “When I was a kid growing up in northern Ontario, my parents used to shop at a food co-op. I think that there are already a lot of these businesses; people just don’t know it.”

Gerard next discussed the structure of “union co-ops” that the Steelworkers have begun, in partnership with Spain’s Mondragon cooperatives. Here’s how it works: Employees can join the union of their choice, and they are guaranteed a living wage, benefits and a collective bargaining agreement. In some of the new union co-ops, workers get ownership shares in the enterprise, which they pay for a little at a time out of their paychecks and which accrue equity over a period of six or eight or 10 years. Workers vote on the composition of the management team and collectively bargain with that team to set workers’ wages, benefits, and procedures for handling disputes.

Read the full interview via Truthout.

 

C-W Interview: Rob Witherell | Community-Wealth.org

Interview of Rob Witherell

Representative, United Steelworkers (USW)

Interviewed by Steve Dubb, Research Director, The Democracy Collaborative, March 2013

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, Robhas 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.

Read the whole interview at Community-Wealth.org.

CUNY Law Community Economic Development Clinic Partners with Mondragon Corporation on Union Coops | CUNY School of Law

New York, NY – The City University of New York School of Law’s Community Economic Development (CED) Clinic has launched a new partnership with the Mondragon Cooperatives, the largest worker-owned cooperative in the world.

Under the new partnership, the CED Clinic, in collaboration with Pennsylvania-based Regional Housing Legal Services, will help launch the Pittsburgh Clean & Green Laundry, an eco-friendly laundry based on Mondragon’s cooperative model. Pittsburgh Clean & Green aims to re-employ 100 primarily minority laundry workers, who were laid off when their Sodexho Corporation laundry closed. They will work in a new state-of-the-art facility in Pittsburgh’s Central District.

CUNY’s CED Clinic will provide legal support for a new model of unionized worker cooperatives—called “union coops”—recently launched by Mondragon, the United Steelworkers union (USW), and the Ohio Employment Ownership Center (OEOC).

“Union coops can create well-paying, democratically run workplaces in communities hard hit by the economic recession,” explains Carmen Huertas-Noble, associate professor and director of the CED Clinic. “The union component of the model provides front line worker-owners with the security of a collective bargaining agreement and leverages the organizational expertise and economic power of the labor movement.”

By partnering with Mondragon USA, the CED Clinic aims to become a national leader in the integration of cooperative and labor law and to help union coops like Pittsburgh Clean & Green Laundry get off the ground.

The CED Clinic will collaborate with Mondragon USA to:

  •  Develop the legal framework for the USW-Mondragon-OEOC union-coop model nationwide
  •  Support other ongoing union-coop projects following the USW-Mondragon-OEOC model
  •  Connect with key sources of U.S. financing, such as the National Cooperative Bank, foundations, advocacy groups, and public sector labor departments
  •  Contribute to union-coop project strategy and roll-out
  •  Ensure union-coop model legal standardization in both design and execution

“We are inspired by the news that CUNY Law’s CED Clinic will be working with us to develop the union coop model legal framework,” said Michael Peck, Mondragon’s North America Delegate. “Professor Huertas-Noble and CUNY Law students bring to this project a wealth of ‘hands-on’ experience and a deep commitment to community service and economic justice.”

Read the press release from CUNY School of Law.

New Michigan Energy + Technology Center to focus on developing Muskegon’s port and B.C. Cobb site | M Live

CHICAGO – The Michigan Energy + Technology Center consortium of companies announced a formal partnership Monday and outlined plans to work on two initial projects including development of Muskegon’s port facilities.

The agreement joining Consumers Energy, Rockford Berge, Michigan State University and other Michigan-based energy-related companies was outlined at the first day of the American Wind Energy Association national conference in Chicago.

METC will begin working on port development in Muskegon by branding the state’s only deep-water port on Lake Michigan “43 Degrees North@Muskegon.” Muskegon’s port will be developed for alternative energy logistics and manufacturing – especially with the wind turbine industry, METC members said.

Jump starting Muskegon port development is Consumers Energy’s commitment to allow METC and its members access to the coal dock facility at the B.C. Cobb Generating Plant on the east end of Muskegon Lake. The Jackson-based public utility’s 1,800-foot dock, which can handle the largest Great Lake freighters, now serves a coal-fired power plant the company plans to “mothball” beginning in 2015.

The other project METC will begin to develop is a “virtual” technology center called METC@MSU. This pilot program brings MSU into the alternative energy consortium for the first time.

MSU faculty will be connected with METC members through the Internet to begin working on research that would include the university’s ongoing work with composite materials, logistics and advanced energy storage, METC members said.

Besides MSU, Consumers and Rockford Berge – a partnership of Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction Co. and a Spanish global logistics company formed to work on wind energy issues in the region – METC also includes Energetx Composites of Holland, Sand Products Co. of Muskegon and Verplank Dock Co. of Ferrysburg.

Read the whole article from M Live.

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