workers

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…)

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…)

Time to Make Job Creation a Team Sport | Huffington Post

By Frank Islam and Ed Crego

The American jobs machine is broken. To fix this, we need to bring more cooperation to capitalism and make it a team sport.

In our previous two blogs we looked at the condition of labor and workers in the United States and recommended worker cooperatives as a means to address that condition. In our final blog in this series, we explore why this is an essential action at this point in time and what cooperatives of all types can bring to the table.

America has always prided itself on rugged individualism and the benefits of the free market system — as well it should for the contributions that many individual entrepreneurs and capitalism have made to advance the American dream over the past half century or so. Times have changed.

Now, we live in an era when self-centered individuals and extreme capitalism are extracting rather than adding value for society. As a result, the American dream is at risk for the vast majority of workers.

Stagnant wages, high unemployment and increasing income inequality have been the standard bill of fare for workers since the end of the Great Recession and the beginning of the ever-so sluggish recovery…

“It used to be,” as Jia Lynn Yang points out in a masterful article for The Washington Post, “a given that the interest of corporations and communities such as Endicott (birthplace of IBM) were closely aligned. But no more. Across the United States as companies continue posting record profits, workers face high unemployment and stagnant wages.

Driving this change is a deep-seated belief that took hold in corporate America a few decades ago and has come to define today’s economy — that a company’s primary purpose is to maximize shareholder value.”

Ms. Yang examines this transformation in detail in her article and traces its origin to Milton Friedman and the “Chicago school” of free market economists. We don’t know if the University of Chicago economists deserve the credit — or blame — for this change.

We do know that it used to be that workers bled IBM blue, John Deere green, or International Harvester red. Today, workers are “free agents” and disposable — they just bleed.

The question becomes what do you do to stop the bleeding? We don’t expect most large corporations to grow a conscience. We know that many small businesses can’t get loans or credit. We know that government at all levels is shedding jobs rather than creating them.

So, we need to turn elsewhere. One of the primary answers, as we proposed in our previous post, is for workers to take matters in their own hands by forming worker cooperatives and becoming business owners. In that post, we featured the Mondragon Corporation from Spain, the world’s largest industrial, worker-owned and run cooperative with more than 80,000 employees world-wide and revenue in excess of $14 billion euros.

Cooperatives may sound like an un-American or unrealistic proposal or solution. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are as American as mom and apple pie…

Read the entire article via The Huffington Post.

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.

New Legislation Helps Drive the National Cooperative Movement | PR Newswire

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The chief Congressional champion for the national cooperative movement, Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA), has introduced H.R. 2437, the Creating Jobs Through Cooperatives Act.

The legislation authorizes $25 million per year through 2017 to create the National Cooperative Development Program within the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. This program will provide assistance in a number of ways including:

  • awarding grants to nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities for technical assistance to cooperatives or groups seeking to form co-ops;
  • providing guidance, best practices and technical assistance to communities seeking to establish cooperatives;
  • creating a revolving loan fund to provide seed capital to groups attempting to form cooperatives; and
  • provide funding to train providers with technical assistance and support existing professional development for organizations engaged in cooperative development.

Read the whole press release at PR Newswire.

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.

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.

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.

Plant, projects help Napoleon earn title of ‘America’s Number One Solar Small Town’ | Toledo Blade

NAPOLEON — Michael Peck still finds it amazing that a tiny area smack in the middle of rural northwest Ohio can have such a large solar footprint.

Granted, since last February, the city of Napoleon has been home to a solar panel-making operation headed by Mr. Peck, chairman of Isofoton North America Inc., an offspring of Spanish solar panel Isofoton.

But Isofoton North America’s $30 million plant, which employs 30 workers, isn’t the only connection to the solar industry in Henry County, Mr. Peck noted. AP Alternatives LLC, which makes and installs racks to hold solar panels, is running successfully in nearby Ridgeville Corners. (more…)

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