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Where unions and cooperatives meet: the example of Earthworker, Australia

Mark Tyler and Anna Boddenberg - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 7, 2015

We are currently facing two interrelated crises; catastrophic climate change, and massive economic collapse. Those in power are not responding appropriately to this reality. Earthworker, a worker-controlled cooperative movement based in Australia, is one creative response to this situation. In the face of climate change, Earthworker is building sustainable industry. In the face of economic collapse, Earthworker is building secure, dignified jobs in worker-owned cooperatives. In the face of inaction (or unhelpful action) from government and business, Earthworker is building a strategy that can be controlled and enacted from below, by workers and local communities. While the vision is expansive, it is starting the only way it can: from where we are currently standing, and with one step at a time.

At the end of 2014, Earthworker saw the mutualisation of Eureka’s Future in Dandenong, Victoria, Australia. This means a private business was transformed into a worker-owned cooperative factory, manufacturing high-quality hot water tanks. The transition from a traditional, privately-owned enterprise was facilitated by Earthworker, and has taken many years of leg-work. This is the first of a network of worker-owned cooperatives in sustainable industries across Australia that Earthworker will support and build.

Earthworker does not emerge out of a vacuum. The project is a result of years of struggle and draws from the lessons of both the labour and environmental movements. These histories inform and guide Earthworker. Three principles that are key to the project are; 1) a direct action approach of “show me don’t tell me”; 2) an insistence that workers have control over how our labour is used; and 3) a memory that struggles for the emancipation of labour and struggles for environmental justice are sister movements.

A Brief History of Cooperatives in California

By John Curl - Grassroots Economic Organizing, June 11, 2018

COLLECTIVITY IN INDIAN TIMES

For thousands of years the San Francisco Bay Area supported a population of thousands of Ohlones, Miwoks, and Wintuns living in a stable life system based on peaceful collectivity.

The basic societal unit was a tribelet of typically about 250 people. There were about thirty permanent villages scattered around the Bay and into the delta, alongside rivers and creeks. The typical village had about fifteen houses arranged in a circle around a plaza, with a communal sweat lodge. Their houses were dome-shaped, framed with bent willow poles, between about six and twenty feet in diameter, each housing an extended family; the sweat lodges were usually twice as big as the family houses. Besides these main villages, there were other settlements used at different harvest seasons, and families and tribelets moved about throughout the cycle. The bay was also shared with tribelets having their primary villages inland, who made treks here in regular seasons for particular harvests.

Most tribelets spoke different dialects, but all lived in very similar life patterns. Food was readily available, so they lived entirely by hunting and gathering; hunger was entirely unknown. Annual intertwined harvests were connected with rituals and social celebrations oriented toward maintaining balance in the natural world and among people. Among the tribelets there was a complex network of trade, marriage, gift-giving, and ritual feasts. There were occasional conflicts between tribelets or villages, but differences were almost invariably settled with gifts as reparations to wronged parties.

Most hunting and gathering was done by extended families, but periodically they worked in larger communal groups. Communal hunts were invariably followed by great feasts and celebrations. Catches were divided in a ritual manner, with different parts of particular animals going to designated family members, relatives and neighbors.

Each tribelet had an elder man or woman in a chief-like position, but this position held mostly moral authority, and a chief's power varied with the respect commanded by deeds. A new chief was chosen by a consensus of elders, always however from the same family. The chief's main job was to maintain the traditional balances within the village, and tribelet, and with neighboring tribelets. This included seeing to the general welfare of the community. It was considered a great personal shame on the chief if anyone in the tribelet was needy. Cooperation and sharing were virtues, and competitiveness was not. People gained status in the community through generosity. Private property in land was unknown. Families and tribelets had "collecting rights" to particular areas to gather foods, but were expected to be generous to neighbors; should a harvest in one area fail, the unfortunate tribelet or family could traditionally share in the resources of adjoining areas. It was virtually unthinkable to let a neighbor go hungry. The elderly, crippled, sick, and children were well cared for by the village. A person's goods were not handed down in the family after death, but were dispersed or destroyed.

Ecosocialism or Bust

By Thea Riofrancos, Robert Shaw, Will Speck - Jacobin, April 20, 2018

At this past February’s “Alternative Models of Ownership Conference” hosted by the Labour Party in London, party leader Jeremy Corbyn asserted the centrality of energy policy to his vision of socialism: “The challenge of climate change requires us to radically shift the way we organize our economy.” He outlined a radical vision of an energy system powered by wind and solar, organized as a decentralized grid, democratically controlled by the communities that rely on it, and — crucially — publicly owned.

Corbyn’s declaration laid out an exciting and ambitious vision of how socialists can press on climate change. But it also served as a reminder that socialists need to get serious about the politics of energy — lest disaster capitalism continue to shape energy policy. We must get involved in concrete campaigns to transform how energy is governed and push for a just transition to renewable sources. The terrain of energy politics is multifaceted, comprising the production, transformation, distribution, and consumption of energy. Energy sources such as coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, hydropower, sunlight, and wind each entail distinct social and environmental costs related to their extraction or capture, and their subsequent transformation into usable electricity. Electrical grids connect energy production and transformation to its sites of consumption. Grids encompass both the high-voltage transmission of electricity from where it’s generated to population centers, and the direct distribution of that electricity to homes and businesses. In the US, beginning in the early 1990s, energy deregulation encouraged a separation in ownership between energy generation and its distribution, resulting in an increasingly complex set of state-level markets of competing energy providers, which in turn sell energy to the private, public, or cooperatively owned utilities.

Reimagine, don’t (just) seize, the means of production

By Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel - P2P, January 16, 2018

One of the most difficult systems to reimagine is global manufacturing. If we are producing offshore and at scale, ravaging the planet for short-term profits, what are the available alternatives? A movement combining digital and physical production points toward a new possibility: Produce within our communities, democratically and with respect for nature and its carrying capacity.

You may not know it by its admittedly awkward name, but a process known as commons-based peer production (CBPP) supports much of our online life. CBPP describes internet-enabled, peer-to-peer infrastructures that allow people to communicate, self-organize and produce together. The value of what is produced is not extracted for private profit, but fed back into a knowledge, design and software commons — resources which are managed by a community, according to the terms set by that community. Wikipedia, WordPress, the Firefox browser and the Apache HTTP web server are some of the best-known examples.

If the first wave of commons-based peer production was mainly created digitally and shared online, we now see a second wave spreading back into physical space. Commoning, as a longstanding human practice that precedes commons-based peer production, naturally began in the material world. It eventually expanded into virtual space and now returns to the physical sphere, where the digital realm becomes a partner in new forms of resource stewardship, production and distribution. In other words, the commons has come full circle, from the natural commons described by Elinor Ostrom, through commons-based peer production in digital communities, to distributed physical manufacturing.

This recent process of bringing peer production to the physical world is called Design Global, Manufacture Local (DGML). Here’s how it works: A design is created using the digital commons of knowledge, software and design, and then produced using local manufacturing and automation technologies. These can include three-dimensional printers, computer numerical control (CNC) machines or even low-tech crafts tools and appropriate technology — often in combination. The formula is: What is “light” (knowledge) is global, and what is “heavy” (physical manufacture) is local. DGML and its unique characteristics help open new, sustainable and inclusive forms of production and consumption.

The Fortress World of Capitalism vs. the Beautiful Possibilities of Cooperation

By Cynthia Kaufman - Common Dreams, July 7, 2017

Our beloved world is entering an increasingly unstable period, full of dangers and also full of possibilities. In many countries, old political parties are crumbling faster and anyone thought imaginable. Old geopolitical alliances have come unglued as the US comes to exercise its role as world hegemon in new and unpredictable ways. The development of the internet, of mobile phones and of apps has led to incredible disruption of many aspects of many societies: from how we pay for and listen to music, to how we consume and propagate information and news, to how we shop for almost anything. All that is solid is melting into air.

At this crossroads it is possible that the global community will move in the direction that the dominant social forces seem to be pushing us towards. That possibility has been called “fortress world.” It is a world where we continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy the atmosphere; where climate refugees desperate to leave Africa are forced by military means to stay in a continent with a decreasing ability to produce food; where finance capital fashions a “market” that continue to squeeze working class people to into extreme poverty; where xenophobia rises in the wealthier countries and keeps masses of people voting for politicians who serve the masters of an extractive and unequal economy. That fortress world is a real possibility and the election of Donald Trump is certainly a sign that this worse future may be on the way.

But it is also possible to build a future where fossil fuels are phased out very quickly, where the political forces that oppose the domination of finance capital come to win elections, and where we work hard to create an economy where no one needs to work very hard.

The technical solutions to the climate crisis are already well at hand. Renewable energy is now economically competitive with fossil fuels, and alternatives to dirty technologies have emerged in virtually every sector of production. The problem of poverty and wealth is also an easy one to solve on a technical level. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, and our technology has developed to the point where we can meet our needs with very little work.

To give one simple illustration of how within reach a better life for all is: take the total personal income in the United States. Divide it by the number of people, and multiply by four. It turns out that the average family of four could have $220,000 per year to live on if we had income equality.  Imagine raising minimum wages, taxing the wealthy, and providing a guaranteed minimum income as ways of distributing that income. Imagine reducing work hours so that, as productivity when up, work time could go down, and work could be shared among those who needed an income. One of the main arguments against this approach is that without the profit incentive our technology would not develop. Imagine worker owner cooperatives developing better ways of doing things and sharing the wealth that comes from those developments with the people who work on them.

A new wave of automation is about to hit the world’s economies so hard that millions of service jobs will be lost in the coming period. People are starting to talk about the need for a guaranteed minimum income to deal with that displacement. If that wave hits the US with the current political consensus in place, it will mean another giant step toward the fortress world, as some people profit enormously while others have no access of the means to survive.

3 Steps to Building Just Transition Now with a Permanent Community Energy Cooperative

By Subin Varghese - P2P Foundation, May 9, 2017

Step 1. Start now

Don’t wait. That’s rule #1 for living in a world where we’re already feeling the impacts of climate change; millions of lives and livelihoods are at risk — or stand to benefit from solutions — in this and future decades. We needed a just transition of our energy economy yesterday. And while there are challenges to universal access and equitably shared benefits from clean energy, there are steps we can take today to start building projects, jobs, and improved health in local communities.

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Union co-operatives: what they are and why we need them

By Simon Taylor - New Internationalist, January 12, 2017

Trade unionist Jimmy Reid described alienation as ‘the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making’. This frustration is endemic in contemporary neoliberalised economies, and according to commentators, including George Monbiot, it contributes to the rise of populist backlashes and disempowerment.

Unions play a vital role in counter-balancing alienation and frustration, responding to organizations imposing alienating practices on their workers. However, neoliberal policies have contributed to a long-term decline of union membership and influence in the Anglosphere and elsewhere.

But workers and unions can counter alienation and other negative effects of neoliberal policies – such as outsourcing, precarity and union decline – in new and imaginative ways.

The United Steelworkers (USW) union in the US is one of many good examples, responding to decades of deindustrialisation and declining union membership. They are developing worker co-operatives that place unions at the heart of enterprises, a model known as union co-ops. They have modified the resilient Mondragon worker co-op model by replacing its social council in co-operatives with more than 50 workers with a Union Bargaining Committee. The committee represents the worker co-operators interests as workers, while other structures represent their interests as owners. Worker representation structures are important according to Mondragon and the USW because there is an inherent risk in worker co-ops that when enterprises achieve scale, workforce engagement in decision making is diluted.

The benefits of worker co-ops have been discussed widely elsewhere. They include empowering workers by involving them in the crucial decision-making processes affecting their working lives, overcoming the alienating factor of lack of control. Indeed, the USW believes that worker co-operators are unlikely to offshore or outsource their own jobs, to design precarity into their employment, or to make themselves redundant in response to business downturns – all tools that neoliberalism makes attractive options regardless of the consequences to workers and communities.

The USW also believes that the active involvement of unions in worker-coops will result in higher union membership within the enterprise, thereby contributing to trade union renewal efforts in some measure. After all, placing unions at the heart of the enterprise allows them to find potential members in a way that is impossible in other contexts.

In a recent study, I examined union co-ops in the US, and Britain’s experience of union involvement with worker co-ops. It sought to determine whether UK unions should be noting the example of their US counterparts, and considered whether lessons can be drawn that should be applied to Britain’s context (and elsewhere).

In the study, I found that the USW’s and other organizations’ efforts to establish union co-ops in the US are ongoing. They have considered the role unions can play in establishing and supporting enterprises to become sustainable, while forging an effective bargaining and representational role.

In Britain, I found that unions often struggle to carve out a role for themselves in worker co-ops, choosing not to engage with them and favouring their traditional role in conventional employment models. Despite sharing common historical roots addressing the iniquities of industrialisation, union and co-operative movements have often nonetheless been wary bedfellows.

The closest parallel to the union co-op model found in Britain was the relationship between Suma Wholefoods (a worker co-op wholefood wholesaler) and the Bakers Union (BFAWU). Suma is a long-established business, and operates a flat pay structure – meaning all its worker/owners are paid the same. They sought to recognise a union, and came to an agreement with the BWAFU, working collaboratively wherever they can, only moving to opposite sides of the table when a dispute or issue arises. I found that the arrangement is working well, suggesting that both the BFAWU and the USW have successfully defined a beneficial role for themselves in worker co-ops. The BFAWU cite Suma as a good employment model to others, and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other worker co-ops.

A sector that may be ripe for the union co-op model in Britain is adult social care, although it is noteworthy that the USW and others are developing union co-ops in the industrial sectors they organise in. Skills for Care, an organization working with employers to increase skill levels in the social care industry, report that the number of adult social care jobs in Britain in 2014 was estimated at 1.55 million, and since 2009 local authority jobs in the sector had shrunk by 50,000, while the private sector had grown by 225,000.

However, in my study I found that some unions seemed to be failing to target this growth area of employment in public services. Instead, they were choosing to adopt an ideological mantra that public services should be delivered by the public sector, or were oblivious to the opportunities presented by alternative models of work organisation.

Arguably their ideology or lack of interest flies in the face of the trajectory of the neoliberal assault on public services, and it abandons workers to largely non-unionised employers operating alienating work practises, and denying unions the oxygen of membership growth and innovative thought and action.

There are already examples in Italy, the US, Britain and elsewhere of how social care coops are successfully meeting rising social care demand in the private sector, often encouraging union membership and participation in the process.

Perhaps, it is time that the union movement in Britain and elsewhere took note of what the USW and others in the US are doing in respect of unionised worker co-ops. It’s worth considering how the union co-op model could be applied to their own context, how it may counter alienation amongst their members, and how it may contribute towards their renewal efforts.

Conceptualizing Cooperatives as a Challenge to Capitalist Thinking

By Pete Dolack - CounterPunch, December 16, 2016

As capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, and a world beyond capitalism becomes a possibility contemplated by increasing numbers of people, finding a path forward becomes an ever more urgent task.

That path is likely to contain a multitude of possibilities and experiments, not all of which will prove viable. Psychological barriers will surely be a major inhibition to overcome; possibly the biggest roadblock given the still ubiquitous idea of “there is no alternative” that has survived despite growing despair at the mounting inequality and precarious futures offered by capitalism. In short, a viable alternative to the capitalist structure of enterprises and society is urgently necessary.

Cooperatives represent a “counter-narrative” to the idea, inculcated in us from our youngest ages, that a small group of bosses are naturally entitled to exert leadership and thus are the only people with the capabilities of running an enterprise, argues Peter Ranis in his latest book, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy. Putting to use his considerable knowledge of Argentine and Cuban cooperatives, and combining that with a challenging argument about the possibilities of worker cooperatives in the center of world capitalism, the United States, Professor Ranis argues that the cooperative form can indeed posit a challenge to capitalist hegemony.

In his opening chapter, in answering his own question “Why worker cooperatives?,” in the context of working people building a Gramscian “counter-hegemony,” he writes:

“This requires a working class movement that moves beyond wages, hours and working conditions and into the realm of owning and maintaining production that leads to controlling local economies that demonstrate working-class capacity for impacting on societal economies and, by extension, politics and the concomitant public policy. Cooperatives would, indeed, be the key ingredient to a proletarian hegemonic outcome. … What worker cooperatives provide is a counter-narrative to the one that assumes that only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production.” [pages 15-16]

It is indisputably true that counterposing living examples of working people’s successful self-management is a prerequisite to breaking down current capitalist cultural hegemony. But, in contrast to more traditional ideas that state ownership should be the alternative, Professor Ranis argues that it is the cooperative form, because workers there assume all management functions, that can build an alternative. His argument, however, is not pollyannaish by any means — cooperatives face serious challenges at the hands of capitalist governments not to mention the direct hostility of capitalists themselves.

Transitions towards New Economies? A Transformative Social Innovation Perspective

By Flor Avelino, et. al. - Transformative Social Innovation (TRANSIT), September 2015

There are numerous social innovation networks and initiatives worldwide with the ambition to contribute to transformative change towards more sustainable, resilient and just societies. Many of these have a specific vision on the economy and relate to alternative visions of a ‘New Economy’. This paper highlights four prominent strands of new economy thinking in state-of-the-art discussions: degrowth, collaborative economy, solidarity economy, and social entrepreneurship.

Taking a perspective of transformative social innovation, the paper draws on case studies of 12 social innovation initiatives to analyse how these relate to new economies and to transitions toward new economic arrangements. The 12 cases are analysed in terms of a) how they relate to narratives of change on new economies, b) how they renew social relations, and c) how their new economy arrangements hold potential to challenge established institutional constellations in the existing economy.

Read the text (PDF).

Production for Use and the Cooperative Commonwealth: A Necessary Addition to the Sustainability Conversation

By Jim Senter - Resilience, May 28, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

"The natural scientist has found that he must examine the lower forms of life as a preliminary to the study of the more complex. It is equally necessary that any real adequate study of the complicated economic institutions of today be grounded thoroughly in the evolutionary process of which they are merely the latest stage. Cooperation is much too complex an economic and social institution to flourish on mere enthusiasm. It must be grounded on patient and fearless study of its past as well as its present manifestations and disinterested discussion of the issues on their merit."1

Edwin G. Nourse
The Cooperative Marketing of Livestock

READ PART 1: Self-Help by the People: A Short History of Cooperatives in Britain, With a Foray into the United States

In the wake of the economic meltdown of 2006-08, tremendous interest has been expressed in workplace cooperation as an alternative way of doing business. The Spanish cooperative network Mondragon has received a great deal of attention, including a working agreement with the United Steel Workers to develop worker owned enterprises in the U. S.. The Mondragon model inspired the Evergreen Cooperative network in Cleveland. Workplace cooperation has great benefits- the empowerment of working people, stabilizing and enriching communities, and breaking the stranglehold corporations have on our economy, society and politics. As beneficial and critical as it is, workplace cooperation only takes us part way to where we need to go.

Workplace cooperation is justified, in part, by the idea that labor creates value, and the belief that the creators of value should be the ones to benefit most from its creation. However, this labor theory of value doesn't tell the whole story. Production without consumption has no value at all. It is landfill. Producers and consumers cooperate in the creation of value and have a common interest in stable, sustainable economic processes. This common interest can be a building block of a cooperative economy.

Reviewing the two-hundred year history of cooperative economic development in Britain and the United States, one thing becomes obvious. While both consumer and workplace cooperatives existed in both countries in the nineteenth century, consumer cooperation dominated in Britain while the cooperative movement in the USA centered in workplace [aka producer] cooperatives. In Britain, lasting institutions were built in the industrial sector based on consumer cooperation; while in the United States, workplace cooperation failed, for the most part, to make lasting additions to the economic landscape. While longevity is not the sole consideration, the causes of this divergence have interesting suggestions to make about the design of sustainable communities. In this paper, I examine the lessons I believe can be learned from this history.

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