economy

A Formula for Reawakening Labor: Capitalism, Communities and Cooperatives | Huffington Post

By Frank Islam and Ed Crego

Based upon the rhetoric at the quadrennial labor convention held in Los Angeles this week, it appears that the labor movement will be trying new things and working diligently to break out of the daze we described in our most recent blog.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in his keynote address at the convention declared, “We must begin, here and now, today, the great work of reawakening a movement of working people — all working people, not just the people in this hall, not just the people we represent today – but everyone who works in this country…”. Before the convention, Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times quoted Trumka as saying, “The crisis has deepened. It’s at a point where we really must do something differently. We really have to experiment.”

The coverage of the convention suggests that the reawakening and experiments will include: embracing “worker centers” — nonprofit groups that are not unions who organize low-wage workers, and building coalitions with other interest groups to achieve collective bargaining through ballot measures such as increasing the minimum wage and securing health care coverage.

What we haven’t seen reported in any great detail, however, is one of the most innovative and highest potential new initiatives to revitalize the labor and workers’ movement in the United States that comes to us from — of all places — Spain. That’s the entry and expansion of Mondragon Corporation (Mondragon), the world’s largest industrial, worker-owned and run cooperative, into the American market and workplace.

The Mondragon story is not well known outside of Spain and labor circles. It is one that deserves to be told, however, given the current conditions confronting the American worker and the footprint Mondragon is beginning to build stateside.

In March of this year, the Financial Times (FT) gave Mondragon its Drivers of Change “Boldness in Business” award. FT stated that Mondragon was given this prize “for what it represents in terms of a real proposal for a new type of business model, ‘Humanity at Work,’ based on cooperation, working together, solidarity, and involving people in the work environment.”

Read the entire article via The Huffington Post.

The Alternative American Dream: Inclusive Capitalism | PBS NewsHour

By Chris Mackin

In this 1987 MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour report, Paul Solman reported on workers’ attempt to buyout the General Dynamics shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, and spoke with Chris Mackin, a leader in the worker ownership movement.

Paul Solman: Worker ownership: When I joined the labor force in 1970, it was the dream of many an “alternative” business, including ones I worked for. Egalitarianism. Justice. Capitalism for all. A Boston weekly newspaper of which I was the editor, “The Real Paper,” was in fact entirely owned by its staff.

Chris Mackin, of the consulting firm Ownership Associates, has been a key figure in the worker ownership movement for almost as long as I’ve been a journalist. He first showed up in a NewsHour story of mine in 1987. He was advising a worker buyout of a shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, about which we were reporting.

When I ran into him recently, I asked him to tell me what has happened to the worker ownership dream. Here’s his report.

Chris Mackin: In the classic 1967 film “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman gets a single word of advice about the secrets of prosperity: “Plastics.” Almost 50 years later, as economic inequality gallops, compounds and then gallops some more, we need a similarly pithy intervention to address matters of economic fairness.

One candidate that may be equal to that task is a homely sounding economic noun that separates the wealthy from the rest of us. “Assets” are a seemingly magical set of resources that work for anyone who owns them. In conversations about economic fairness, “assets” are a resource that has largely remained outside the policy tent. President Obama has recently raised expectations about how economic policy might attack the problem of inequality. But he likely won’t get that far unless he too is ready to step outside that tent.

Accounting textbooks teach us that there are different categories of assets, both tangible (e.g., land, buildings, housing, corporate stock, minerals) and intangible (e.g., patents, goodwill, copyrights). Wealthy people own lots of these assets. So many that they often forgo that more pedestrian instrument that makes possible the accumulation of income, the paycheck.

Unwealthy people own few, if any, assets. Theirs is wage-dependent, income based universe. They live from paycheck to paycheck. If assets are the key discriminant that sustains the wealthy, why is it that the most commonly invoked solutions to economic inequality tend to focus on income enhancing measures such as minimum wage campaigns, payroll tax credits and job training? That’s not where the real money is. One could be forgiven for suspecting a plot. If the general problem of economic inequality could be likened to an overly deep bowl of soup that should be more fairly consumed, income-based solutions attack the challenge with forks. We need spoons, asset spoons. Let’s examine a few.

View/read the entire piece via PBS NewsHour.

The Reading Revolution

The debate over who lost Detroit and how to fix it rages on while Politico reports in “Break-up-the-big-banks fever hits the states” that legislators from “at least 18 states have introduced resolutions this year calling on Congress to split up banking giants by putting back in place a wall between commercial banking, taking deposits and making loans, and investment banking, the world of traders and deal-makers.” It turns out that quarantining the banksters and salvaging our cities have a lot in common in an America that currently ranks below Zimbabwe in global income inequality and social mobility.

The key issue facing America’s liposucked cities is how to monetize assets without giving up public sector control. (more…)

Our Broken Social Contract | The New York Times

By Thomas B. Edsall

Many Americans think that their country has lost its way. But when they try to make sense of what’s happening, they disagree about whether the problem is essentially economic or whether it stems from cultural and moral decay.

Charles Murray, the provocative author of “Coming Apart” and “The Bell Curve,” argues that the cultural insurgencies of the 1960s yanked crucial underpinnings out from the social order and undermined traditional norms of self-restraint, responsibility, family, faith and country. Murray’s latest portrayal of America’s social deterioration focuses on the long-term impact of these insurgencies, notably on a typical, though fictional, working-class community he calls Fishtown. Fishtown is made up of whites who “have no academic degree higher than a high school diploma. If they work, their job must be in a blue-collar, service, or low-level white-collar occupation.”

Murray continues:

Now let us return to the relationship of Fishtown’s decline with America’s civic culture. The decline of industriousness among Fishtown males strikes at the heart of the signature of America’s civic culture — the spirit of enterprise, stick-to-it-iveness, and hard work to make a better life for oneself and one’s children. The divergence in marriage and the rise of single-parent homes has cascading effects. The webs of civic engagement in an ordinary community are spun largely by parents who are trying to foster the right environment for their children — lobbying the city council to install four-way stop signs at an intersection where children play, coaching the Little League teams, using the P.T.A. to improve the neighborhood school. For that matter, many of the broader political issues in a town or small city are fought out because of their direct and indirect effects on the environment for raising children. Married fathers are a good source of labor for these tasks. Unmarried fathers are not. Nor can the void be filled by the moms. Single mothers who want to foster the right environment for their children are usually doing double duty already, trying to be the breadwinner and an attentive parent at the same time. Few single mothers have much time or energy to spare for community activities.

An eloquent description of American social dysfunction comes from my colleague David Brooks, writing about Edward Snowden, who leaked information on domestic surveillance. Brooks argues that Snowden is the product of an upbringing lacking “gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world,” who thus became party to a

rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

A very different assessment of where and how America has lost its ethical and moral moorings comes from Alan Krueger, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Krueger has argued in two recent appearances, at Oberlin College and more recently at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (of all places) that the uncritical worship of the free market in the 1980s allowed the nation’s corporate elite to abandon longstanding constraints in its treatment of labor, especially in shifting the rewards of rising productivity from employees to the owners of capital.

With the blessing of the new right, Krueger argues, corporate America has abandoned its commitment to the commonweal over the past three decades. It no longer honors norms of fairness and equality. To Krueger, it is in the economic sphere that American integrity has been eroded and its ideals corrupted.

At Oberlin, Krueger put it this way:

In considering reasons for the growing wage gap between the top and everyone else, economists have tended to shy away from considerations of fairness and instead focus on market forces, mainly technological change and globalization. But given the compelling evidence that considerations of fairness matter for wage setting, I would argue that we need to devote more attention to the erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the job market. We also need to focus on the policies that can lead to more widely shared – and stronger – economic growth. It is natural to expect that market forces such as globalization would weaken norms and institutions that support fairness in wage setting. Yet I would argue that the erosion of the institutions and practices that support fairness has gone beyond market forces.

As the point man for the Obama administration on economic policy, Krueger has become the leading opponent of those who believe that growing inequality and middle-class stagnation are the inevitable consequences of technological innovation and the disruptive force of globalization.

Read the whole op-ed at The New York Times.

Can co-ops remake America’s economy from the ground up? | Marketplace

Federal Reserve policymakers have generally relied on tweaking interest rates as a strategy for jump staring the economy. But in a country where wages adjusted for inflation have been stuck in place for almost a decade, some scholars think the economy needs a more aggressive overhaul.

Gar Alperovitz is a political economist and historian. His new book, called “What Then Must We Do: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution”, details systemic changes for the economy. He says co-ops are key to the nation’s recovery.

“Most people don’t realize that changing the ownership of wealth means one person, one vote. That’s what a co-op is. 130 million Americans are already members of co-ops — they are all over the country and people just don’t notice them,” he says. “It’s a different very American, down-home way to begin looking at democratizing ownership, starting at the bottom and working up from the grassroots.”

Listen to the whole interview with Alperovitz at Marketplace.

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.

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.

State-Wrecked: The Corruption of Capitalism in America | New York Times

By David A. Stockman

The Dow Jones and Standard & Poor’s 500 indexes reached record highs on Thursday, having completely erased the losses since the stock market’s last peak, in 2007. But instead of cheering, we should be very afraid.

Over the last 13 years, the stock market has twice crashed and touched off a recession: American households lost $5 trillion in the 2000 dot-com bust and more than $7 trillion in the 2007 housing crash. Sooner or later — within a few years, I predict — this latest Wall Street bubble, inflated by an egregious flood of phony money from the Federal Reserve rather than real economic gains, will explode, too.

Since the S.&P. 500 first reached its current level, in March 2000, the mad money printers at the Federal Reserve have expanded their balance sheet sixfold (to $3.2 trillion from $500 billion). Yet during that stretch, economic output has grown by an average of 1.7 percent a year (the slowest since the Civil War); real business investment has crawled forward at only 0.8 percent per year; and the payroll job count has crept up at a negligible 0.1 percent annually. Real median family income growth has dropped 8 percent, and the number of full-time middle class jobs, 6 percent. The real net worth of the “bottom” 90 percent has dropped by one-fourth. The number of food stamp and disability aid recipients has more than doubled, to 59 million, about one in five Americans.

So the Main Street economy is failing while Washington is piling a soaring debt burden on our descendants, unable to rein in either the warfare state or the welfare state or raise the taxes needed to pay the nation’s bills. By default, the Fed has resorted to a radical, uncharted spree of money printing. But the flood of liquidity, instead of spurring banks to lend and corporations to spend, has stayed trapped in the canyons of Wall Street, where it is inflating yet another unsustainable bubble.

When it bursts, there will be no new round of bailouts like the ones the banks got in 2008. Instead, America will descend into an era of zero-sum austerity and virulent political conflict, extinguishing even today’s feeble remnants of economic growth.

THIS dyspeptic prospect results from the fact that we are now state-wrecked. With only brief interruptions, we’ve had eight decades of increasingly frenetic fiscal and monetary policy activism intended to counter the cyclical bumps and grinds of the free market and its purported tendency to underproduce jobs and economic output. The toll has been heavy.

As the federal government and its central-bank sidekick, the Fed, have groped for one goal after another — smoothing out the business cycle, minimizing inflation and unemployment at the same time, rolling out a giant social insurance blanket, promoting homeownership, subsidizing medical care, propping up old industries (agriculture, automobiles) and fostering new ones (“clean” energy, biotechnology) and, above all, bailing out Wall Street — they have now succumbed to overload, overreach and outside capture by powerful interests. The modern Keynesian state is broke, paralyzed and mired in empty ritual incantations about stimulating “demand,” even as it fosters a mutant crony capitalism that periodically lavishes the top 1 percent with speculative windfalls.

The culprits are bipartisan, though you’d never guess that from the blather that passes for political discourse these days.

Read the full op-ed from The New York Times.

Social Democracy in the Age of Austerity | Renewal

by Joe Guinan

Democratic wealth-holding can give social democracy a new set of economic institutions and political power bases.

Social democracy at a crossroads

Historians joke that, no matter what the period, the middle class is always rising. In the same vein, social democracy seems perpetually at a crossroads. This may not be surprising, given the revisionist origins and protean political tendencies of a tradition whose leadership has always been prepared to hedge and trim and accommodate to the prevailing political winds. But today, more than a hundred years after the first of the parties affiliated to the Second International won a plurality in a parliamentary election (in Finland in 1907; Anderson, 1992, 307), social democracy may finally be running out of rope. All the main European social democratic parties are facing a crisis, registering at long last endlessly postponed questions about their fundamental purpose and programme. The strategic choices they make now and in the next few years could determine whether social democracy survives as the principal political force on the left or finally gives up the ghost, expiring not with a bang but a whimper and with scarcely a mourner at the funeral. (more…)

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