Back to the Cooperative Commonwealth?

I think a lot about the problems of building a labor movement for the 21st century.  And, as a long-time labor activist who now finds himself a member of a worker-owned cooperative (I work at Webskillet Cooperative, which is both a worker coop and a UE union shop), I struggle with reconciling the militant traditions that have shaped my outlook with the sometimes overly optimistic approach of the cooperative movement.

On Saturday I drove down to Glens Falls, New York, for an international meeting of union cooperative workers.  The newly-formed network of cooperative workers inside UE, which includes four worker coops and the organized workers at two food coops, was hosting a coop delegation from Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).

FAT coop delegation at UE Regional Council Meeting

The UE and FAT have a long and deep relationship.  Initially formed during the fight against NAFTA, when the “official,” government-controlled trade unions in Mexico supported the free trade agreement, the UE-FAT Strategic Organizing Alliance has included joint organizing projects targeting the same multinational employers, support for each others’ organizing — including the FAT organizing Mexican unions to file a complaint against the US for denying collective bargaining rights to public sector workers in North Carolina, and many, many exchanges of rank and file workers.

The UE’s semi-official slogan is “The Members Run This Union,” reflecting both a commitment to democracy and a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run their own unions.  The FAT’s slogan, “¡Por la autogestión de la clase trabajadora!” doesn’t translate smoothly into English, but it means, roughly, “for the self-management of the working class” — reflecting a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run everything about their lives.

The FAT, unlike UE, is not solely a union (the name literally means “authentic workers’ front”).  While the union sector is the largest, they have long had a cooperative sector.  In large part, this stems from the fact that Mexican labor law, in some cases when an employer cannot pay the settlements they owe to the workers, allows workers to take over buildings and equipment and either sell them or run them cooperatively.  However, it also reflects the FAT’s commitment to autogestión.

The FAT delegation we met with on Saturday included the director of the FAT’s cooperative sector, a leader from a state workers’ union which is forming coops to help its members build their own green housing, the general accountant of a credit union which was formed by the FAT in the wake of a strike 26 years ago, and a member of Bicicooperativa Urbana, a coop of young bicyclists in Mexico City who are sort of an incubator for bicycle-based businesses in the city, including a parcel delivery service, bicycle repair and bicycle parking lots.  This was the second UE-FAT exchange to focus on the cooperative sector, following a visit by UE coop members to Mexico in November of last year.

The cooperative movement and the labor movement, of course, emerge from a similar history of working-class organization.  The modern coooperative movement generally traces its history to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of weavers, Owenite socialists and other workers who started a cooperative grocery in 1844, in an area of England with a rich history of working-class agitation.  Not unlike the FAT credit union, the Rochdale pioneers started their cooperative after an unsuccessful weavers’ strike.

In fact, the principles of cooperation, as an alternative vision to capitalism, animated the vision of the first large-scale labor movement in the US, the Knights of Labor.  The Knights, along with many other radicals in the late nineteenth century, expressed their goal of an exploitation-free society as “The Cooperative Commonwealth.”  The fact that they used this term rather than being explicitly socialist, as most European labor movements were, combined with the fact that some leader of the Knights expressed distaste for strikes (stating that workers should instead form cooperatives), has not done wonders for their reputation among labor historians, who tend to be a rather left-wing and pro-strike bunch.

I don’t think cooperatives are the answer to everything (my UE brothers and sisters currently fighting a GE plant closure in Ft. Edward, NY are not going to be able to take over and run that capacitor plant as a worker coop — but I think they do have a shot at convincing GE to keep the plant open).  Nonetheless, I think the idea of the cooperative commonwealth, and of various forms of cooperative organization of social life, bears reexamining in a couple of ways:

1. I think we need more historical investigation of the Knights’ practical experience with cooperatives.  Did they actually try to form cooperatives, and if so what kinds (worker, consumer, producer)?  What challenges did they face, and how did they try to overcome them?  What was the organizational role of cooperatives within the Knights’ assemblies (their form of local organization), and what relationship (if any) did they have to groups of workers who engaged in more traditional collective bargaining?

2. The labor movement, and the left more generally, has been on the defensive about the public sector.  Partly this reflects ruling class strength, partly this reflects strategic weaknesses and mistakes on our part, but partly this also reflects the reality that for many people (especially, though not exclusively, poor and working-class people), dealing with the actually-existing public sector can be extremely frustrating.  Racist teachers, unhelpful bureaucrats and condescending social-service providers are not the rule, but they are not uncommon either.  While I think we absolutely need to close ranks to defend the public sector, and public-sector workers, we also need to think more creatively about ways to make the delivery of social goods more participatory and accountable to the people who are being served.

3. Finally, I think most people who care about such things realize that our currently-existing institutional labor movement (i.e., the trade unions) are at the very least not sufficient to defend the working class from the assaults of capital, let alone improve the condition of the working class and the people as a whole.  In order to “join the labor movement” in America right now, a group of workers needs to win legal collective bargaining rights.  This involves, at a minimum, overcoming a significant set of legal hurdles.  In almost all cases, the boss will hire professional union busters, a whole industry of people who are highly skilled at “persuading” vulnerable workers.  And there is a large and increasing sector of the working class who don’t even have access to these minimal legal avenues, because they are prohibited by state law, classified as independent contractors, working off the books or unemployed.

Yet there are no obvious answers to this problem.  “Alt-labor” groups are almost exclusively dependent on foundation funding.  “Non-majority” or “pre-majority” unions, while no doubt a crucial strategy, are extremely difficult to build and sustain, and so far few of them have either won majority status or become financially self-sustaining.  And it is hard to imagine how “associate membership” programs like Working America — where the “members” share little more than a general support for working-class political issues and the experience of being door-knocked — can do much more than build mailing lists and recruit a small handful of activists.

The FAT structure, bringing worker coops and other forms of coops into a democratic structure with unions, seems to offer a useful model to explore (as I understand it, in the FAT the coops affiliate with the FAT as coops — it’s not like the more transactional United Steelworkers-Mondragon agreement, where workers at coops are simply enrolled as members in the union).  It allows a way for working-class people who cannot otherwise “join” the labor movement to join together with others in a collective effort to improve their own material conditions.

Coops, like unions, at their best require their members to be accountable to each other, and have a direct, positive influence on their members’ day-to-day lives.  That is what creates the kind of loyalty, to each other and to the institution, that is necessary for sustained struggle.  And in this moment, the labor movement, the working class, and everyone who cares about social justice is clearly in for a sustained struggle.

This blog was also posted at the Labor Online blog.

Why Our Worker Co-op Is a Union Shop: Democracy

Democracy. A little over ten years ago, I had come to New York City with a van-full of my fellow union members, to join tens or hundreds of thousands of people who had come to protest the impending war against Iraq. A young white man on a subway car, berating us, explained how democracy works: “People voted for Bush, now he gets to do what he wants. That’s democracy.”

I think most of us like to think we have a deeper understanding of “democracy” than this young man did. But the reality is that, in our governments and, truth be told, in most of the organizations we’re part of, we accept that logic. As long as we’re allowed to protest the decisions of those we elect, we don’t really think that deeply about the process of democratic decision-making, about making decisions together.

This may be, in part, because the organizations where most of us spend most of our time and energy are, like it or not, the places where we work. Our workplaces may be better or worse, but very few of them are democratic. Worker coops, of course, are one of the few exceptions – in a worker co-op everyone who works for the enterprise gets to have an equal say in decisions.

Last weekend I attended the Owning the New Economy Summit at the University of Vermont. At the “Envisioning the Cooperative Economy” workshop in the morning, Keith Taylor, Director of the Coop Research Project, reminded us about the importance of learning, and practicing, democracy, pointing out that the highly centralized government and corporate structures that govern most of our lives neither teach nor encourage democratic practices.

Which got me thinking — where did I learn democracy? And the reality is that I didn’t learn it from school, I didn’t learn it from voting, and unfortunately, I didn’t learn it from the food and financial co-ops (credit unions) that I’ve been a part of. I learned it from my union.

To be fair, I’ve been a member of one of the most democratic unions in America, UE, for most of my adult life. The experiences of other union members are almost certainly different than mine. But here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned from UE democracy, lessons that have helped Webskillet thrive, and lessons that all institutions that strive to be democratic – and most co-ops – could learn from:

1. Be Inclusive. Actively. If you’re a union and the only way you engage your members is to encourage them to come for meetings or run for the board (and then complain about them when they don’t), or if you don’t pay attention to how certain demographics within your membership are alienated from the union, you’re going to be in a pretty weak position going up against the boss. Democracy isn’t just offering people the opportunity to participate – it’s actively encouraging (and organizing) them to participate, and asking (honestly) why they aren’t, and being willing to listen and change.

2. Own the Big Picture. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where the “ground rules” — either explicitly or implicitly — prevent us from talking about the broader social problems that underlie the specific issues we’re trying to address. I’ve never experienced this in the UE — and, in fact, a willingness to talk about broader issues (even if we can’t solve them immediately) has often helped us come to a better, and stronger, consensus. A contentious discussion of gay marriage at a UE regional meeting in 2004 was aided immeasurably by our collective willingness to address deeper philosophical questions about whether the government should be in the business of regulating private relationships at all.

3. Democratic culture and practice is at least as important as democratic rules. UE, formally, uses Robert’s Rules of Order for all of our meetings. But 70-plus years of collective experience trying to make democratic decisions — and having to live with the consequences when decisions made through formally democratic processes divide the membership — have created a culture in UE that encourages collective and consensus-seeking leadership, far more so than in many organizations that formally use consensus processes, but often develop invisible (and therefore unaccountable) hierarchies.

4. Democracy is hard. And that’s ok. Democracy is a lot of work. It takes time, it takes intellectual and emotional energy, and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we’re on the losing side. Sometimes — even worse — we’re on the winning side, and later realize that we were wrong. But the beautiful thing about (truly) democratic institutions is that nothing’s written in stone, that we get the opportunity to go back and fix it. Together.