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2. Strategies for Supporting Cooperatives and Economic Democracy

Len Krimerman is co-founder of the GEO Newsletter, and co-editor with Frank Lindenfeld, of When Workers Decide and From the Ground Up. He teaches Philosophy at the Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA.

Let me start with a distinction: “democratic community economic development strategies” include, but are not reducible to, “democratic workplaces.” There are many paths to a truly democratic economy, only one of which is the development of democratic workplaces (or networks thereof). I’ll return in more detail to this distinction later on.

As for why I advocate both democratic workplaces and other democratic economic strategies, my list of reasons is long and familiar: e.g., they extend the (now unfulfilled) promise of active democratic citizenry into the neglected arena of workplaces and work life; they provide a far more equitable and environmentally responsive form of economic life than does corporate capitalism, while remaining no less productive and innovative; they contribute to local self-reliance and the preservation of diverse forms of cultural life, in opposition to cultural imperialism and global homogenization, etc. I also believe that current anti-globalization efforts, e.g., anti-sweatshop and “clean clothes” campaigns, resistance to the IMF, World Bank, WTO, NAFTA, GATT, etc., can only succeed if they join forces with groups actively developing new and democratic forms of economic life, and together begin to take grassroots control over economic resources and opportunities.

We need, however, to supplement our focus on Mondragon-style (one owner: one vote, one share) economic development with an examination of other cooperative “working models”, e.g., the Seikatsu Cooperatives of Japan, SEWA, India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, the immense cooperative movement among rural and landless workers in Brazil coordinated by the Movimento Sem Terra, and the Canadian labour-supported investment funds, particularly in Quebec province. In different ways, these models are more interconnected with other progressive movements, e.g., labor unions, environmental initiatives, etc., as well as with other cooperative networks, than is Mondragon. Secondly, our failures to replicate Mondragon seem to me to suggest that worker owned co-ops and democratic workplaces may lack a wide constituency in this and other western societies, and that, to create a more-than-marginal democratic economy, we need to incorporate (partner with) other forms of grassroots and community-based approaches: local currencies and time dollar programs, the flexible manufacturing networks of northern Italy, organizations of socially and environmentally responsible enterprises, living wage and anti-sweatshop initiatives, various forms of local self-reliance and self-employment, e.g., those springing from the work of Ernesto Sirolli and his “small is beautiful” enterprise facilitation approach which “transforms people’s passions, dreams, and desire for self-fulfilment into viable and sustainable businesses.” Sirolli’s approach (see his web site, www.sirolli.com) has proven very successful in Australia and western Canada, and has now begun to work in the USA. Within a decade or two, Sirolli estimates, self-employment will become the dominant form of employment in western economies. Can workplace democrats and cooperative advocates learn from and “inter-cooperate” with this immense constituency?

Victor A. Pestoff is the author of Beyond Market and State: Social Enterprises and Civil Democracy in a Welfare Society and a Professor at Soderterns Hagskola, University College, Huddinge, Sweden.

There are three main types of cooperatives and demo-cratically managed firms or organizations that rep-resent divergent and sometimes conflicting interests of various stakeholders. Here we are not referring to the function of cooperatives, like purchases, sales, housing, credit, but rather to democratic decision-making. These main types of cooperatives include the user or consumer co-ops, the worker or producer co-ops, and other voluntary organizations providing goods and services.

Cooperatives normally promote the interests of a single group or stakeholder, sometimes at the expense of other interests or stakeholders. Consumer co-ops promote the interests of the consumer/members of the organization, but not always nor necessarily these of its workers/staff, and sometimes even at the expense of the latter. Worker co-ops promote the interest of the worker/members, but not always nor necessarily those of its clients or customers, and at times even at the expense of the latter. Voluntary associations that provide goods and services promote other social values, but not always nor necessarily those of its staff nor clients, and sometimes at the expense of both.

One alternative mechanism for promoting good democratic jobs is found in multi-stakeholder organizations or co-ops, which do not merely serve the interest of a single group in the community nor a single stakeholder. Multi-stakeholder co-ops provide recognition for the contribution of various groups to the success of the organization and representation of all the major interests or stakeholders in the internal decision-making of the organization. Examples of such co-ops can be found in Mondragon as well as elsewhere in Spain, Italy, and Canada. Another mechanism for promoting good democratic jobs is the process of making annual social audits of an organization’s activities. A social audit evaluates the total performance of an organization or co-op, not only in terms of economic or financial performance, but in regards to all their major social goals. Social audits have been developed and employed by a variety of cooperative movements in Canada, Italy and Spain.

Research in Sweden shows that social service cooperatives enrich the working life and improve the work environment of the staff by providing basic social services, like pre-school childcare, schooling, handicap care, elderly care and health and medical care. They can also empower the consumers of social services as co-producers of the various services they demand and find vital for their life-styles. This multi-stakeholder approach helps generate and/or rejuvenate social capital and to create new bonds and relations of trust between the consumers, workers, and financiers of such basic social services.

Grassroot democratic involvement, in both our roles as workers and consumers in managing basic social services, is also important for rejuvenating democracy at a time when globalization and multinational capital are whittling, if not withering, away not only the state, but also democracy itself in most advanced post-industrial societies. The growing democracy deficit needs to be taken seriously: greater democratic involvement as workers, consumers and citizens in the provision of basic social services is essential to ensure the survival of democracy. By employing cooperative forms of production of basic social services, the democratic form of decision-making will be promoted and mechanisms to generate good democratic jobs will be developed.

Frank Emspak is a Professor in the Department of Labor Education, University of Wisconsin-Extension, School for Workers, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.

One striking cause of job and race segregation is the creation of tax-free business development zones in industrialized countries. These zones are basically modelled after and seemingly in competition with the maqilladoras and so-called “free trade” zones found in Central America and elsewhere. The assumptions underlying them are the same. They include no responsibility on the part of employers to provide minimum work standards, tax revenues to the community, or basic democratic rights. Often free access by labor organizers to workers is restricted as these enclaves are considered private property. The job structures are thus the same: low skill, highly repetitive, low capital investment and hence dead end.

One mechanism to overcome this exploitive model of development is to prevent public funds from being used to support it. This strategy has the advantage of mobilizing a wider community in support of good jobs and against what amounts to public subsidies for sub-standard employers. The coalition that can be built to impede what Dan Swinney and others have called “low road,” low wage development, can also propose a different model, in which the community demands that in return for public financial support, employers must operate in accordance with certain standards. These standards could include worker participation in decision making including the design of the work place, meaningful production and quality decisions, and the development of training programs that make sense to those who are participating in them. Democratic control of a group of work places, provision of good worker-centered technical information to small and medium sized firms, and other forms of positive public intervention must be combined with self-conscious actions including but not limited to the unionization of firms that will benefit from public investment.

Chris Benner is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community, University of California, Santa Cruz, California, USA.

In the context of the divide between vibrant high-tech, high-skill jobs and industries on the one hand and low-paid service sector work on the other, a narrow focus on cooperatives, democratic ownership and democracy in the workplace is unlikely to fundamentally alter the distribution of good and bad jobs in the economy. I fully support efforts to promote democratic workplaces and cooperative ownership, which can improve working conditions for some people. These efforts are limited, however, unless they are linked to a broader strategy aimed at creating democratic influence over the structure of jobs in leading economic sectors, raising employment standards for workers in all enterprises (not just cooperatives), and building opportunities to improve people’s mobility from low-paid to higher paid career opportunities. Such a strategy requires broad political action, not simply creating democratic firms and co-operatives.

One inspiring recent example exists in the heart of the “new economy,” where the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council in Silicon Valley has helped build a broad labor-community coalition aiming to promote more democratic control over the regional economy. At the center of this strategy is the creation of a “Community Economic Blueprint”—a combination of a vision statement and a program of action. The vision statement lays out the goals of creating an economy in which the well-being of families and communities are given highest priority. The program of action lays out specific policy and organizing goals in a range of areas, including jobs, health care, housing, education and the environment. The Blueprint is not just a static document, but an active process that has been built over the last five years through a combination of community forums, focus groups, and active campaigns. Details of this initiative are available on the web at www.atwork.org, and are described along with other “high-road partnerships,” in a recent publication by the Working for America Institute that can be found on their website: www.workingforamerica.org.

The effort in Silicon Valley still remains limited in its ability to significantly influence development in the region’s high-tech industries themselves. These industries are strongly anti-union, have seemingly unlimited economic resources, and wield tremendous political and economic influence. Nonetheless, this initiative has shown significant ability to redirect economic resources, improve working conditions for many low-wage workers, and provides some improved channels for low-paid workers into better jobs. Some lessons that emerge from this experience include:

Unions have to be involved: Promoting democratic control over regional economies requires significant political clout. In the current economic climate in the U.S., no other progressive institution has as much influence or the ability to mobilize as many people as the labor movement. Despite their sometimes narrow parochialism and exclusiveness, unions are a critical strategic ally in improving democratic control of the economy. There are many examples around the U.S. of a newly reinvigorated union movement playing a strategic role in organizing low-wage workers, including immigrants and many ethnic minorities, and building powerful coalitions with other progressive partners. This only works, however, when unions recapture their role in a broad social movement, speaking for working families more generally, rather than focusing simply on contracts for their existing memberships.

Central Labor Councils can play a critical role. In promoting labor-community partnerships and democratic control over a regional economy, central labor councils are in a critical structural position. With the affiliation of the majority of local unions within a regional economy, they are well-positioned to work with all sectors of the labor movement. With the geographic perspective that accompanies their jurisdictions, they are also well placed to focus on regional governance issues, and promote coalitions with community organizations.

Promoting growth, mobility and standards requires networks. There are only three ways of promoting more good, democratic jobs: 1) promoting growth in good paying, high-skill industries; 2) improving access of low-income people to those jobs, through training, creating job ladders, and so on; and 3) raising employment standards in all jobs, e.g., through gaining greater representation, increasing minimum wages, and strengthening employment regulation. No single organization can hope to accomplish all these effectively. It requires working with a wide range of unions, non-profits, community-based organizations, and faith-based organizations, as well as partnering with community colleges, sympathetic local officials, and employers to solve collective problems of finding and training appropriate workers.

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