unions

Breaking Good

In today’s economically class-cleaved America, ideological resistance continues unabated to the deployment of government as a force for good especially in contentious change scenarios such as solving growing wealth and opportunity divides and the future of organized Labor (to name just two). Too often, progress is facilitated mainly through the prism of trickle-down tax code set asides to inspire transformational behavior which doesn’t materialize to the desired extent.

This disconnect between theory and practice leaves out working class populations most needing more direct inclusion to uplift the starkly narrowing middle class consumer base that is threatening the end of commonly understood consumption-driven capitalism. As a result, there may be a small opening for policy innovation starting with the tax code (“Changing the tax code could help curb inequality,” Lawrence Summers, The Washington Post). (more…)

Union co-op group taking root in Cincinnati | Cincinnati.com

College Hill farm is first of several planned worker-owner initiatives to include pipe fitting, manufacturing

By Mark Curnutte

COLLEGE HILL — Zeke Coleman, laid off from his previous job in the food industry, has found a living wage and his passion in an emerging local jobs program that has attracted international attention.

Coleman, 33, of Hamilton, is one of 10 worker-owners of the Our Harvest Food Hub Co-Op, a food packaging and distribution center based on an incubator farm off North Bend Road in College Hill.

“I love vegetables, and I love this work,” said Coleman, who spent Wednesday packaging crops harvested this fall – turnips, cilantro, winter squash, kale – at the farm and delivering 51 bags or boxes to three distribution sites. There, some of the 200 consumer subscribers in the Community Supported Agriculture program will pick them up.

Our Harvest, which opened on the farm in April 2012, is the most advanced of the eight projects that are part of the Cincinnati Union Co-Op Initiative. Based on and developed with help of the Mondragon Worker-Owner Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, the Cincinnati Union Co-Op hopes to develop hundreds of family-sustaining union jobs in the next few years in multiple industries: railway manufacturing, energy jewelry, renter-equity housing, food service and home health care.

Read the article and watch the video from Cincinnati.com.

More Than Zucchini | AFL-CIO Our Values @Work

By Kenneth Quinnell

A couple of unions and a worker-owned co-op are teaming up to grow a new sustainable farming model in Cincinnati, and Stephen Dienger couldn’t be happier. An apprentice farmer at the Our Harvest Cooperative, he came to the co-op in 2012 after working at farms in St. Louis and Cincinnati, where he developed a specialty in sustainable agriculture. His supervisors say he’s enthusiastic and hard-working and that he is now a major force on the co-op’s farm team. In the warmer months you might see him working the farm, free of socks and shoes.

“The thing I enjoy most about my gardening job is being able to work barefoot,” Dienger says. “There is no better feeling than sinking your toes in the dirt and connecting yourself directly to the earth.”

Dienger is a member of the growing team at Our Harvest, a worker-owned sustainable farm in Cincinnati that serves as a distribution center for locally grown products for grocery stores, restaurants and area families. The Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI), a prototype union co-op incubator created by Mondragon International USA and the United Steelworkers (USW), sponsors the co-op. CUCI is based on a highly successful Mondragon cooperative in the Basque region of Spain. Over the past 57 years, Mondragon Corp. has developed a worker-owned and -run co-op that the company wants to replicate in the United States. The USW and other unions think the Mondragon model can work in this country, and the early successes of CUCI suggest they are right.

Read the story from the AFL-CIO’s Our Values @Work.

Corporate & Capitalist Transition & Transformation Models

Paper submitted by Michael Peck (Mondragon USA), Steve Dubb (The Democracy Collaborative, University of Maryland), and Rob Witherell (United Steelworkers Union) for the “Corporations in a Great Transition: Visions, Models, and Pathways for Transformation” event hosted by the Tellus Institute & MIT Sloan School of Management, in Boston on October 31st & November 1st, 2013.

Capitalism at a Crossroads

Although the theme of this roundtable is “Corporations in a Great Transition,” the authors would argue that corporations, especially those in the financial sector, mostly have not transitioned at all. Instead, the increasing wealth inequality and diminishing social mobility experienced by the United States reflects a capitalist system protecting shareholder-centric relics of past century technology and socioeconomic realities rather than the empowered stakeholder movements we see and in which we participate. In this anachronistic context, shareholder value is measured more on perception and popularity than on actual long-term performance and real wealth creation. Meanwhile, share ownership for the vast majority of people means little more than legalized gambling with an account balance.

  • Case in point: Apple’s market capitalization recently increased by $10 billion overnight simply because of a report the CEO had dinner with a prominent investor.

Alarmingly, the traditional capitalism concept of building value over the sustainable long term has been tossed aside and replaced with maximizing short term profits at the great expense of anything sustainable, starting with the basic right of people to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

  • Case in point: A major pharmaceutical company recently announced it would lay off thousands of its employees and abandon a number of research and development projects to focus on higher profit margin drugs because their profit margin wasn’t perceived to be high enough.
  • Case in point: Vulture capital firms scoop up undervalued, but profitable companies either to doctor their income statements so the acquired business can be resold at a higher price, or suck out as much cash from continuing operations as possible until the carcass of plant, property and equipment can be sold off for a few dollars more.

In these cases, the cure is visibly worse than the disease for those left disenfranchised and behind. Jobs are eliminated and shipped to whichever place can offer the lowest poverty wages for workers coupled with the least restrictions on safety and environmental conditions. This is because global labor arbitraging has become the predatory capitalist market mechanism instrument of choice. We have replaced “slavery based on race and color” with a new form of slavery based on lack of ownership, viable options and means. (more…)

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.

 

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.

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.

Why Unions Are Going Into the Co-op Business | Yes! Magazine

Yes Magazine Coop CoverThe steelworkers deal that could turn the rust belt green.
by Amy Dean

“Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollow out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants,” said United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo Gerard in 2009. “We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”

Gerard was announcing a formal partnership between his 1.2-million-member union and Mondragon, a cluster of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. (more…)

Restoring Worker Equity in the U.S. Economy | Blue-Green Blog

By Brian Lombardozzi

In Pittsburgh, PA, on March 26, 2012, BlueGreen Alliance founding members the United Steelworkers (USW), together with the global worker industrial cooperative leader Mondragon International, S.A. and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC) announced a new union co-op model for organizations wanting to combine worker equity with a progressive collective bargaining process. This template was created as a follow up to the original USW-Mondragon framework agreement launched in October 2009, in which the parties agreed to establish Mondragon-like industrial manufacturing cooperatives that adopt collective bargaining principles of the “one worker, one vote” ownership model within the United States and Canada.

“To survive the boom and bust, bubble-driven economic cycles fueled by Wall Street, we must look for new ways to create and sustain good jobs on Main Street,” urged Leo W. Gerard, USW International President. “This union co-op model, created through our partnership with Mondragon and with the assistance of the OEOC, provides a viable road map on how we might begin fielding these sustainable jobs. Worker ownership can provide the opportunity to figure out collective alternatives to layoffs, bankruptcies, and closings in hard times, rather than having the rug pulled right out from under struggling communities to the benefit of a few at the expense of the many.”

Read the post from the Blue-Green Blog here

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