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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.

Challenging a Giant

By Mark Dudzic - Jacobin, January 5, 2017

One of the few bright spots in this year’s election was the victory of the Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates and RPA-endorsed rent control initiative in Richmond, California, a predominantly black and Latino, gritty (though rapidly gentrifying) industrial city of 110,000 in the East Bay.

The alliance, a coalition of community groups, unions, liberal democrats, Greens, environmentalists, and leftists of various stripes, had participated in the governance of Richmond for the previous twelve years despite formidable opposition from the Chevron Corporation, the city’s largest private employer, and the political establishment beholden to it. That the RPA triumphed once again in 2016 was a tribute to its staying power and capacity to mobilize a broad constituency around a working-class agenda.

Company Town

Richmond is a company town. The company in question, Chevron, is not only the city’s largest but also its dirtiest employer. Chevron practically founded the town in 1905 when it opened what was, at the time, the world’s third-largest oil refinery. Other industrial development followed, peaking in World War II with a giant Kaiser shipyard, Ford plant, and dozens of other industrial companies employing tens of thousands of workers. (Richmond is home to the Rosie the Riveter national historic park commemorating the role of women industrial workers during World War II.)

Those workers included many black migrants from the American South squeezed into substandard and segregated housing. The city rapidly deindustrialized after the war, leaving large swathes of abandoned factories and toxic residue. Chevron stayed.

There are few corporate entities more reprehensible than large oil corporations. The prototype, Standard Oil, was created by John D. Rockefeller in 1870 and by the 1880s controlled close to 90 percent of US oil refining and distribution. Broken up by trustbusters in 1911, it spawned dozens of new companies. Three of them (including Standard Oil of California, later Chevron) were part of the “seven sisters” which dominated the world political economy throughout the twentieth century. They have an unmatched record of environmental degradation, political subversion and corruption, and contempt for workers’ rights and government regulation.

Half of the members of my old union, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (now part of the Steelworkers), worked for these behemoths. The in-house history of the union was called Challenging the Giants because our union’s identity was forged in struggle with them. Their arrogant unilateralism was the secret behind OCAW’s surprising militancy and internal democracy. Big oil never accepted the post–World War II consensus that unions ought to be integrated as junior partners into a tripartite class-conflict management team.

Company unions persisted at Standard Oil properties into the 1990s, and all the big oil refineries were run as open shops, forcing the union to engage in continuous “close the ranks” internal organizing that, perversely, built rank-and-file power and kept union density above 90 percent at most refineries.

The industry extracted a huge toll on its workers. One refinery worker described his twelve-hour shift as “eleven-and-a-half hours of extreme boredom, thirty minutes of swimming in a pool of toxic shit, and thirty seconds of sheer terror.” Their daily exposure to “thirty minutes of toxic shit” condemns refinery workers to high rates of occupational cancers and other illnesses. The “thirty seconds of terror” has subjected them to over 500 fires and explosions in the nation’s 141 oil refineries since 1994.

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.

Localism in the Age of Trump

By Richard Heinberg - Post Carbon Institute, December 9, 2016

2016 will be remembered as the year Donald Trump—a wealthy, narcissistic political novice with a strong authoritarian bent—was elected president of the United States after campaigning against economic globalization. The events are fresh enough in many people’s minds that feelings are still raw and the implications are both unclear and, for many, terrifying. For those who have spent years, in some cases decades, denouncing globalization and seeking to build a localist alternative, this is surely a vexing and confusing moment.

When the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in 1999 erupted into “the Battle of Seattle,” demonstrators voiced arguments that might resonate with the average Trump voter. They asserted that, for the United States, globalization was resulting in the offshoring of manufacturing that would otherwise have occurred domestically; that while American consumers were gaining access to cheaper consumer products, the hourly wages of workers were stagnating or falling in real terms due to competition with foreign labor; and that the investor class was benefitting significantly while the wage class was losing ground. All of these points were more recently driven home, to great effect, by The Donald.

However, the localist critique of globalization went much further than anything Trump himself has articulated. Anti-globalization activists decried a “race to the bottom” in environmental protections with each new trade deal, as well as the global loss of thousands of indigenous languages and locally-adapted forms of architecture, art, agriculture, and music in favor of a uniform global commercial culture dominated by corporate advertising and centralized industrial production methods. Further, teach-ins organized by International Forum on Globalization (IFG) beginning in the 1990s; books by the movement’s intellectual leaders (John Cavanagh’s and Jerry Mander’s Alternatives to Economic Globalization; Kirkpatrick Sale’s Dwellers in the Land and Human Scale; Michael Shuman’s Small-Mart Revolution and The Local Economy Solution; Helena Norberg Hodge’s Ancient Futures); and thousands of on-the-ground locally rooted cooperative efforts scattered worldwide promoted a vision of a green, sustainable, equitable bioregionalism.

Throughout the last couple of decades, some on the political left argued against localism and for globalism. Returning to a politics and economics centered in the community, it was said, would undermine the grand liberal vision of a borderless world with protections for human rights and the environment. Liberal globalists argued that climate change can only be fought with international treaties. It is by becoming global citizens, they intoned, that we can overcome ancient prejudices and fulfill humanity’s evolutionary destiny. Localists responded that, in practice, economic globalization has nothing to do with moral elevation or with worker and environmental protections, but everything to do with maximizing short-term profit for the few at the expense of long-term sustainability for people and planet.

That philosophical dispute may continue, but the context has shifted dramatically: the commanding new fact-on-the-ground is that the American electorate has for now sided with the anti-globalist argument, and we face the imminent presidency of Donald Trump as a result. Should localists declare victory? As we’re about to see, the situation is complicated and holds some opportunities along with plenty of perils.

True, voters rejected a predatory trade system that, in Helena Norberg Hodges’s words, “put ordinary people in permanent competition with each other.” However, Trump is not a one-man government; nor does he stand at the head of an organization of people with a coherent critique of globalism and a well thought-out alternative program. His administration will reflect the ideas and ideals of hundreds of high-placed officials, and Trump’s key appointees so far consist of business leaders, Republican insiders, and former lobbyists. They also stand to be the wealthiest cabinet in the history of the U.S. government. Crucially, not even Donald Trump himself has a clear idea of how to actually implement his stated intention of bringing back jobs for American workers. His first stab at the task, persuading the Carrier company not to move its air conditioner manufacturing operations to Mexico (actually, fewer than half the jeopardized jobs were saved), entailed doling out huge tax breaks—a tactic that Bernie Sanders rightly points out will simply lead to other companies announcing outsourcing plans so they can win similar concessions.

Let’s be clear: Trump’s ascendancy probably represents not a victory for localism or even populism, but merely a co-optation of legitimate popular frustrations by a corporatist huckster who intends to lead his merry band of cronies and sycophants in looting what’s left of America’s natural and cultural resources. This would be the antithesis of green localism. Indeed, we may see an activist federal government attempt to trample local efforts to protect the environment, workers’ rights, or anything else that gets in the way of authoritarian corporatism. Congress may train its gun sights on local ordinances to ban fracking and GMOs, and on firearm regulations in states with the temerity to stand up to the NRA. Trump’s message appeals as much to tribalism as to anti-globalization sentiments—and only to members of certain tribes.

Community-Driven Social Change in the Age of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

By staff - Murphy Institute, November 22, 2016

How can we make sense of the organizing coming out of today’s social change and resistance movements?

In a new article coming out in the Fordham Urban Law Journal, Professor Michael Haber connects many of today’s most important movements—from post-Occupy community organizing to the rise of the worker co-op movement to parts of the Movement for Black Lives—by looking at how activists’ growing understanding of the non-profit industrial complex has led to the creation of a new framework for social change practice, what he calls the community counter-institution.

Community counter-institutions have grown out of a decades-long tradition of anti-authoritarian activism, one with roots in women-of-color feminism and the service models of the Black Panther Party of the late 1960s and early 1970s, growing through the radical pacifist, anti-nuclear, LGBTQIA, and environmental movements of the 1970s and 1980s, continuing through the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and getting perhaps its greatest boost through the Occupy Movement in the early 2010s. The article traces this history, focusing on how activists in recent years have come to develop an alternative model for community-driven activism, one that breaks from the dominant non-profit forms of community organizing, service provision, and community economic development.

The article, CED After #OWS: From Community Economic Development to Anti-Authoritarian Community Counter-Institutions, describes how community counter-institutions have grown out of this tradition of anti-authoritarian activism, making three shifts away from conventional non-profit practices:

  1. From hierarchy to horizontalism and intersectionality. Community counter-institutions move away from hierarchically-structured non-profit forms toward horizontalism and intersectionality, shifting away from conventional non-profits to new ways of structuring our group relationships that strive to overcome all forms of domination, including those that have led once-activist groups to embrace certain structural traits of the business world.
  2. From community economic development to prefigurative politics. Community counter-institutions move away from traditional, market-based community economic development projects toward an embrace of prefigurativism, the use of processes in organizing and building a social change movement that are themselves already constructing the world we want to see.
  3. From empowerment to autonomy. Community counter-institutions move away from a focus on empowerment, in which community dialogue, group cohesion, and compromise are top priorities, and instead they prioritize autonomism, organizing and taking action toward shared goals through small groups connected with one another through decentralized networks.

In these bleak times, clear visions for community-driven social change activism, and thoughtful analyses of our current models are essential. Haber spells out challenges that activists and organizers to overcome, analyzing a wide range of projects including the Common Ground Collective, Hands Up United, Mayday Space, Occupy Sandy, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and is full of hundreds of footnotes for further reading.

If Nature Is Sacred, Capitalism Is Wicked

By Jake Johnson - Common Dreams, October 3, 2016

In his remarkable study When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten recounts a meeting he attended ahead of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The meeting was led, Korten notes, by indigenous leaders who were anxious about the direction in which global environmental policy was being steered. They were also, quite justifiably, worried about who was doing the steering.

"In the conference's preparatory meetings," Korten writes, "corporatists...proposed that to save nature we must put a price on her."

It's a familiar story: Capitalism, we are often told, can be made green. Incentives can be established. The corporations previously leading the way in pollution, plunder, and exploitation can, with a few adjustments, become the world's leaders in the development of clean energy and pave the way to a sustainable future.

As is often the case, it is those who have seen up close the harm done by corporate greed who most quickly see through the facade.

"These indigenous leaders recognized that this proposal would accelerate the monopolization by the richest among us of the resources essential to human life," Korten observed. "Their position was clear and unbending. Earth is our Sacred Mother and she is not for sale. Her care is our sacred responsibility. Her fruits must be equitably and responsibly shared by all."

This conflict between capitalism and the environment is not, of course, uncharted terrain. Naomi Klein, in her bestselling book This Changes Everything, argues that an economic order predicated on the relentless pursuit of profit is incompatible with a world in which natural resources are used with the necessary care and restraint.

It truly is, as the subtitle of Klein's book notes, "capitalism versus the climate." Terrifyingly, capitalism is winning.

A New Economic System for a World in Rapid Disintegration

By C.J. Polychroniou and Lily Sage - Truthout, September 8, 2016

We live in ominously dangerous times. The world capitalist system -- having fueled colonialism, imperialism and the constant intensification of labor power exploitation for roughly 500 years -- now threatens the planet with an ecological collapse of unprecedented proportions. Unsustainable resource exploitation, water pollution (the transformation of lakes, rivers and oceans into garbage dumps) and massive economic inequality are at the root of the possibly irreversible collapse of industrial civilization. Meanwhile, however, too many of us remain caught up in abstract and ahistorical predictions of collapse that fail to offer an alternative realistic vision of a future socio-economic order.

Simultaneously, the phenomenon of global warming, driven mainly by the dynamics and contradictions of a fossil-based economy, has prepared the soil for the eruption of new sources of conflict with the manifestation of historically unique destabilizing social forces. Climate change directly threatens billions of people and most other beings -- besides the occasional cockroach, diadem or tardigrade -- with outright extinction brought on by droughts, floods and other "natural" disasters.

Nonetheless, the catastrophic scenario sketched out behind the operations of global capitalism does not merely represent the other side of a wild socio-economic system bent on constant and abstract growth in pursuit of ever greater rates of profit. The so-called Golden Age of capitalism ended decades ago and the system has now run into a brick wall, as it appears to have reached a point where it is no longer capable of sustaining a constant momentum of growth to keep the economy reproducing itself at a pace that generates higher standards of living for the next generation.

Indeed, the productivity rates in the advanced industrialized regions of the world (such as the US, Europe and Japan) since the eruption of the financial crisis of 2007-08 are far slower than those of previous decades, thereby confirming the claims of various experts who argue that we have reached the end of the age of growth.

Moreover, in spite of all the talk about the marvelous and awe-inspiring accomplishments of the high-tech revolution, these innovations pale in comparison to the innovations of the Industrial Revolution. The new technologies reach billions of people, generating mythical fortunes for founders and investors, but increasingly employ only a handful of privileged workers. In the meantime, the problems of massive unemployment, increased inequality, growing economic insecurity, and dangerous levels of public and corporate debt are mounting.

In this context, the present crisis facing the world economy as a whole "consists precisely in the fact," as Antonio Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks, "that the old is dying and the new cannot be born," and all of the above represent the "morbid symptoms" of this antinomy that the great Italian revolutionary underscored as being part of this interregnum.

Welcome to The Anthropocene, are Environmentalists Equipped to Respond?

By Roger Annis - CounterPunch, September 14, 2016

Capitalism has run so amok, producing so much waste and life-destroying pollution, that scientists now say that Earth has entered an entirely new epoch: The Anthropocene

Notre-Dame-des-Landes (France): Defend the ZAD: a call for international solidarity

By Defend the ZAD - Anarkismo, September 2, 2016

October 8th-9th, 2016

For over 50 years, farmers and locals have resisted the building of a new airport for the French city of Nantes (which by the way already has one). Now in these rich fields, forests and wetlands, which multinational Vinci want to cover in concrete, an experiment in reinventing everyday life in struggle is blossoming. Radicals from around the world, local farmers and villagers, citizen groups, trade unionists and naturalists, refugees and runaways, squatters and climate justice activists and many others, are organising to protect the 4000 acres of land against the airport and its world. Government officials have coined this place “a territory lost to the republic”. Its occupants have named it: la ZAD (Zone À Défendre), zone to defend.

In the winter of 2012, thousands of riot police attempted to evict the zone, but they faced a determined and diverse resistance. This culminated in a 40,000 people strong demonstration to rebuild some of what had been destroyed by the French State. Less than a week later, the police was forced to stop what they called “Operation Cesar”. For the last three years, the zad has been an extraordinary laboratory of new ways of living, rooted in collaborations between all those who make up the diversity of this movement. There is even a set of 6 points (see below) to radically rethink how to organise and work the land without an airport, based on the creation of commons, the notion of usage rather than property and the demand that those who fought for the land are those who decide its use.

Now, the entire zone is due for evictions to start the construction of this absurd airport. Prime minister Valls has promised a “Rendez-Vous” this October to evict everyone who is living, working, building and farming on the zone.

On October 8th, tens of thousands of people will gather on the zad to demonstrate that the determination of the movement is as strong as ever. Honouring farmers struggles from the past, we will come with wooden walking batons and leave them on the zone, as a sign of the commitment to come back and pick them up again if necessary. We will also raise a barn, built by dozens of carpenters during the summer, which will be used as a base, should evictions happen.

We are calling on all international groups and movements to either come to the zone on October 8th or show their solidarity with the zad through actions directed at the French government or multinational Vinci in their own towns and cities on that day.

The airport will never be built. Life on the zad will keep on flourishing!

The centrality of externalities to economic understanding

By Brian Davey - Credo, July 31, 2016

What economists call “externalities” are not unusual or a special case, they are ubiquitous. They are rooted in private property and the relationships of market society. The way in which non market societies protect bio-diversity through totem arrangements is described.

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