Commonwealth of Toil

union co-op network.pngAddress to Union Co-op Council event at the conference of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives in Los Angeles

Welcome, my name is Lisabeth Ryder and I co-chair the Union Co-op Council of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives with Mary Hoyer. We have done this for over 10 years now; the Union Co-op Council is the oldest council in the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. I am also one of the founders of LUCI: Los Angeles Union Cooperative Initiative.

LUCI is structured as a worker cooperative, democratic and horizontal, to walk the walk as well as talking the talk, so first I would like to ask some of the other founders and members of LUCI to stand up and introduce themselves. Paul Ahrens, Gary Holloway, Niki Okuk, and Molly Talcott.

I would also like to acknowledge, remember, and honor one in our number who is no longer with us, Leslie Gersikoff, Western Regional Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, tireless worker advocate and good friend to many, who passed away recently.

Worker cooperatives achieve 100% workplace democracy, so we founded LUCI to help develop union worker cooperatives and to build bridges between the labor and worker cooperative communities in Los Angeles. We will be asking you to become involved in LUCI but first let me tell you about our journey.

I come from a multi-generational union family here in Los Angeles and have been a member of multiple unions myself such as CFA at the CAL State University, UPTE at UCLA, USU United Staff Union – my staff union at AFSCME and the IWW. I have also worked for both SEIU in the 90’s and AFSCME since 2000.

I look around and I see in the audience other people involved in the labor movement and you are my heros. You get up everyday to wage war, because do not ever doubt the fact that we are engaged in an economic war, which seems to be a war without end. I often ask myself do we have a strategy to win.

Winning is important because the stakes are high. The fight for Economic Justice underlies other struggles for justice.

The assassination of Martin Luther King personally launched me into a lifetime of activism. Fifty years later, I am personally doing a assessment, and I’m sure many in this room are as well. Martin Luther King understood that racial justice and economic justice were inextricably tied and neither could be solved without the radical redistribution of political and economic power. He understood that our communities, especially black communities, are still colonized.

He goes on to say: “We must further recognize that the ghetto is a domestic colony. Black people must develop programs that will aid in the transfer of power and wealth into the hands of residence of the ghetto so that they may in reality control their own destinies.” MLK 1967

Historically, our entire capitalist economy was built on stolen land and stolen labor. Our strategy to win has to take back control of our economy from predatory Capitalists whose rapacious greed has impoverished nations, plundered our resources and polluted the planet. One simple formula comes to mind: we must return the means of production to the workers.

This is the cure for Capitalism. Returning the means of production, returning ownership of our economy to all workers.

My favorite labor song is the Commonwealth of Toil and I want to share:

In the gloom of mighty cities, midst the roar of whirling wheels
we toil on like chattel slaves of old,
as our masters hope to keep us ever thus beneath their heel
and coin our very lifeblood into gold
But we have a glowing dream of how fair the world would seem
if each one could live his life secure and free
If the earth was OWNED by labor and there was joy and peace for all
in the Commonwealth of Toil there is to be!

I spent a long time trying figure out what the Commonwealth of Toil – returning the means of production to the workers – would look like and why unions never seemed to get there. Unions increase workplace democracy and thereby economic democracy. Through unions we have won a greater share of the benefit of the economy for the workers. And with that greater share we built the middle class, bought homes and sent our kids to college.

But are we getting to anything that looks like winning? Are we any closer to the workers owning the economy?

We are in an economic war – and a war without end is a Nightmare

For too long we have been locked into an adversarial relationship, where the Capitalists create the jobs and we fight against the bad jobs they create. The battlefield is defined for us and military strategists like Sun Tzu’s in Art of War, repeatedly emphasize that allowing your adversary to define the battlefield leads to defeat. We need to open up new strategies and redefine the battlefield. The labor movement needs to take back agency for job creation.

Unions may not be able to own a business in a sector where they are also organizing against the competition. But workers forming worker cooperatives has been a strategy used by the labor movement throughout our history from the Knights of Labor to the Bagel Bakery strike here in Los Angeles that led to the formation of the LA Cooperative Bakery here in 1934.

Historically we have engaged in experiments in other forms of employee ownership, such as The Steelworkers formation of the Workplace Democracy Institute to convert steel mills into ESOP’s. However, there is an important difference between partial employee ownership and worker cooperatives. Worker cooperatives have a very specific definition: one worker, one vote, one share. Any other form of employee ownership lets the predators back in by the back door. If one person can get a controlling share, then the other workers lose ownership and authentic democratic control.

One Worker, One Vote, One Share. We want jobs with dignity and democracy, where the workers own the business, including the means of production, share the profits, and make decisions democratically. We want to take back ownership of our economy, and share in the wealth created by our labor.

YES – This has been tried before

Businesses come and go, although worker cooperatives are more stable and last longer than sole proprietorships. Sole proprietorships always have a crisis of leadership at some point in its existence – when the owner wants to retire or move on, and sells out or often just closes down and everyone loses their job. Worker cooperatives have system for changing personnel and leadership built into structure and therefore on average last longer and are more stable.

We have seen this in some of the places where worker cooperatives have gained traction such as in Mondragon Spain, a 60 year experiment in growing a cooperative economy owned by the workers. Mondragon was started cooperatively by an underdeveloped community pooling their resources to purchase and relocate a factory to their town. It has since grown into a group of over 250 companies that manufacture a variety of products like appliances and bicycles. They have their own universities and financial institutions, and they employ over 80,000 people.

Part of their structure is a social council that is tasked with representing the interests of the workers, essentially a union. This is why when they thought about expanding their model to the US, they reached out to the US Labor Movement, the institution in the US dedicated to growing workplace democracy.

Mondragon found that the upper limit in terms of size is 500 workers, which means this is a small business strategy. But they built a mutually supporting network which I believe is the key to stabilizing a regional economy based on worker ownership. 1worker1vote has begun discussions on a national network of union worker cooperatives in the US to help coordinate mutual support nationally.

Worker cooperatives are not a quick fix or panacea for the woes of today’s labor unions. We are in a phase, post Janus, that leads us to getting back to basics and reassessing our strategies. Building an economy owned by the productive members of society, the workers, is a slow, patient strategy but a lasting solution. Think about buying a house, it takes 30 years, but then you own it. You can control your housing costs and your destiny.

Worker Cooperatives should become part of our tool box, and a new organizing tool to grow union membership. Every union family has someone who is unemployed, looking for work, and possibly someone with the entrepreneurial spirit. Supporting the creation of worker cooperatives by bringing the discussion and education around worker cooperatives into the union hall and union strategy provides a vision for the future: ownership of our economy.

There is a Silver Tsunami about to happen where millions of baby boomers will retire and sell their businesses.

Labor has an opening now to address not just income inequality but also wealth inequality. This massive generational turnover presents an opportunity for the labor movement to shift significant ownership and control to working people. All while attaining or keeping union membership for the workforce involved.

What’s in this for the union?

The constant cycle of contract campaigns is expensive for unions. Converting already existing bargaining units within our unions to worker cooperatives as baby boomers retire and changes in ownership occur, can shrink cost for unions, allowing us to direct more resources to organizing new units.

Therefore today, in our break out groups among other things, we will discuss including contract language on the Right of First Refusal for the workers to buy if the sale of a business is considered. the British Labor Party, in preparation for their next national elections, has a platform plank in their economic plan that would mandate that all businesses above a certain size in the UK would be required to offer first consideration to the employees when any transition in ownership was about to occur.

For public sector unions this is a bit more complicated but rights guaranteed for prioritized bidding in case of privatization is feasible. For Public Sector unions, privatization is a constant threat. Units like laundries, food service workers, custodial workers, and parking meters are carved out and sold off to private contractors that slash wages, eliminate healthcare and retirement benefits, and flaunt labor law.

We fight the good fight to keep these jobs in the public sector because there they have access to good healthcare, retirement, and the bargaining power of our largest unions, but we do not always win. We fight to organize the private contractors, but in the private sector, we win less often.

The Living Wage Campaign utilized our lobbying power to create ordinances that required that private contractors pay a living wage, and this took the wind out of the sails of many privatization efforts. Organizing these units into worker cooperatives when we cannot stop their privatization could have a similar effect. I personally witnessed this in Tulsa Oklahoma where the parking meter unit was going to be privatized until we put together a business plan for a parking meter worker cooperative, and the privatization effort disappeared. Either outcome ended up with the workers remaining members in the union: remaining as public sector workers or becoming a unionized worker cooperative.

Transforming the unit into a worker cooperative that bids against the corporate contractor, we could use our lobbying power to influence the point system to give a greater advantage to locally, worker owned bidders that paid a living wage. The members of these worker cooperatives would become members of our unions again to maintain this solidarity and power to insure a level playing field for future bids. The worker cooperative community is small now but will be growing and is a natural ally in lobbying for workers’ rights.

We also want to look forward to bringing education about worker cooperatives into union halls. We need a worker cooperative curriculum that can be placed in and alongside Apprenticeship programs to include training for democratic management. In the union hall, we need to train our leadership in the strategic understanding of worker cooperatives.

A number of Unions are already working on creating worker cooperatives:

USW – has signed an Memorandum of Understanding with Mondragon in Spain and the Steelworkers have gone on to represent several worker cooperatives including, WorX Printing, Democracy Brewing, and the Vermont Gage Car Wash here in Los Angeles.

UFCW working with CUCI: the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative, Mondragon USA and 1Worker1Vote, their non-profit wing, has developed Our Harvest and Apple Street Market in Cincinnati.

SEIU represents one of the oldest and definitely the largest worker cooperative in the US: CHCA Cooperative Homecare Associates, with over 2000 members in the Bronx NY, plus an LVN Worker Cooperative in California called Nurses CAN, part of United Healthcare West.

UE – was the union assisting the high profile conversion of New Era Windows and Doors in Chicago and also represents Collective Copies in MA.

UAW, CWA, IBEW and the Teamsters also have worker cooperative units, including Red Sun Press in MA, Design Action Collective in Berkeley, Sustainergy and Community Printing (formerly Inkworks) branches in Santa Cruz and Berkeley. And you will be able to meet with many of the people involved in the break out groups today.

There have been three union cooperative efforts in Los Angeles: Pacific Co-op Electric, a unit of IBEW, the Vermont Gage Carwash, which was the first car wash organized by the Clean Carwash Campaign and a unit of Steelworkers Local 675, and a conversion attempt of a unit of the Steelworkers, RCO Tires.

In full disclosure, all of these efforts have had challenges and we have learned many lessons from these efforts. One of these consistent challenges comes from how the workers’ comp exemption is applied to worker cooperatives in California. We need to put our collective heads together to come up with the best strategy for advocacy on this issue. What we do not want to do is undo the accomplishments of the labor movement as we create worker cooperatives, so we need to work together.

The three union worker cooperative efforts in Los Angeles faced many of the challenges faced by all small business: development of management and leadership skills, access to capital, and being undercut by unfair competition.

In our breakout groups we can discuss where the labor movement can help with:

Leadership Development – Strategic Investment – Political Power

Leadership: The true definition of labor organizing is identifying and developing leaders. We train and develop our members to become leaders of our unions. Now we need to also identify, train and develop workplace leaders to be able to take over and run democratic workplaces. And yes they wIll need Cooperative Management and Business skills training made available to those members.

Investment: The Building Trades Trust invests in construction developments that are built with union labor and then house union jobs, think Las Vegas Casinos. The labor community should have investment strategies to build greater worker ownership in our economy. The labor movement can build institutions and adapt or repurpose already existing institutions to fill these gaps. Unions can help to move the worker cooperative movement to scale in our economy in a way that includes the workers most often excluded.

Politics: Through lobbying and the political power of unions, we can build and support private-public partnership to encourage growth of worker ownership, especially for women and minority owned enterprises.

The poor have long been tasked with bootstrapping themselves out of poverty and we all know that does not work. Bootstrapping is insufficient, and left without the support of the labor movement, worker ownership will remain out of reach of the workers most in need.

The way to win this war is to return the means of production to the worker so it doesn’t matter how many setbacks we experience, ownership of our economy remains the goal. This is the way to win the radical redistribution of political and economic power that Martin Luther King envisioned. Please join us in building a cooperative commonwealth: The Commonwealth of Toil.

Union Co-op Network Organizations.pdf

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