"The Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) held its biannual conference in Baltimore, Maryland from 8-10 July, focusing on the effort to expand and consolidate a national network of worker cooperatives. The meeting was attended by more than 200 participants who were committed to expanding the conference for workers democracy in the US and Canada. At a time when organized labor in the US is at its unprecedented nadir, a central theme emerged from the conference: As traditional trade unions are declining it is vital to build new forms of worker organization rooted in the concept of democracy and equality.
The ECWD brought together leading activists and participants from the North American cooperative movement to discuss the state of cooperatives, new initiatives, and potential obstacles to forging worker democracy and economic control in the region. The conference brought together a diverse group of cooperatives engaged in new organizing efforts.
The original goal of the conference was to share experiences and knowledge on new developments facing cooperatives in the US and Canada, expand opportunities to marginalized communities, and developing an agenda to maintain and develop the cooperative movement in the US through working-class solidarity.
ECWD Conference Organization
The conference was organized by the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, which provides support for an economy that develops cooperative and democratic organizational structures to support equitable systems for exchanging goods, services, and products. The organization seeks to ensure that cooperatives succeed through effective democratic forms of governance that expand worker participation that they consider crucial in advancing economic, social, and environmental justice and solidarity.
The participants included members of worker cooperatives and other democratic employee-owned businesses, labor organizations, Grassroots Economic Organizing (an informational sharing cooperative) and groups seeking to provide support to maintain and expand the cooperative movement, including organizations providing logistic support, community-based organizations to ensure the viability and success of cooperatives. The most significant factors in establishing practical and viable democratic workplaces is to ensure the participation of both workers and community-members in formulating decisions that fundamentally affect their lives and environment. Thus the workers cooperative is viewed by ECWD as a means to create sustainable economic and social development that takes into consideration the ecological and human needs of communities in localities in the Eastern United States.
As a whole, ECWD revealed the fundamental importance of education to demonstrate that there are alternatives to hegemonic agenda of the upper classes and political cronies. Through worker cooperatives, private employers are prevented from exploiting surplus profits drawn from workers in their businesses to reinvest in low-wage and exploitative enterprises—or simply close down factories. The conference revealed the necessity to develop new forms of worker democracy within communities for the purpose of human development rather than the extraction of private profits. The presentations revealed the worker cooperatives are not an abstract concept, but a real alternative to rapacious capitalism.
Developing Sustainable and Viable Cooperatives for the 21st Century
As the Great Recession in the US and global economy expands, the working class is experiencing job losses not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. New initiatives to develop worker cooperatives are more widespread than at any time in more than 50 years and are seen more widely as a solution for communities who have lost their economic base through capital flight and offshoring of jobs. Conference participants were particularly interested in development of sustainable worker cooperatives that develop green enterprises for urban communities that have suffered from industrial pollution. The conference participants demarcated new environmentally-sustainable initiatives that could be replicated widely throughout the US and North America.
While private capital resist the development of democratic cooperatives and encourage investment in private businesses, speakers at the conference sought to demonstrate the viability of worker self-management and control trough drawing attention to successful enterprises. While banks and financial institutions are typically unwilling to lend money to new businesses, and especially resist democratic cooperatives, conference speakers outlined new streams of funding through foundations and public institutions.
The unambiguous backdrop to the conference was the neoliberal attack against trade union rights in the public sector by particularly by Republican and conservative Democratic elected officials represented a crucial strategic moment to reassess the past practices that were now failing, and to formulate new strategies to rebuild and expand forms of democratic governance in American workplaces. Notably, the conference unified activists in worker cooperatives and labor unions who were seeking to formulate proactive responses to capital’s assault on the American working class. As the attack on the US working class has entered a new phase, the conference revealed the necessity to develop new strategies of resistance that participants could take back to their own communities. The participants of the conference share a common belief that worker cooperatives are not part of a utopian past or vision of the future, but a tangible and tested means of actually existing democratic enterprises operating throughout the US and beyond.
The conference plenary converged on the most recent developments in the formation, development, and preservation of worker cooperatives in North America: especially the organizational and economic challenges in forming co-ops during the global economic crisis. The crisis of employment has particularly battered workers in Black and Latino workers in underprivileged communities who have been especially subject to job loss. In June 2011, the official Black unemployment rate in the US stood at 16.2 percent, exactly double 8.1 percent unemployment rate among white workers. Unemployment among Latinos in June was 11.6 percent. The overall unemployment rate in the US in June 2011 was 9.2 percent, though the jobless rate only considers those who are in the labor market. If discouraged and precariously-employed workers are considered as part of the unemployed, the unofficial rate of joblessness in the US is estimated at over 18 percent. In some African American communities, unemployment hovers around 50%.
Paradoxically, and driven by economic necessity, worker cooperatives are gaining popularity at a time when fewer financial resources are available to their formation. The panelists were in consensus that worker cooperatives are the most feasible means to prevent the destructive practices of rapacious capitalism that destroys jobs and the environment across the US and Canada. In particular, cooperatives are taking hold among underprivileged groups, including African American, women, and women workers.
Ajamu Nangwaya of the University of Toronto examined the significance of stimulating the growth of cooperatives in the often neglected US South, which has suffered seriously from deindustrialization. Vanessa Bransburg, of the Center for Family Life examined the growing importance of cooperatives among immigrant communities. While some collectives are often small, with 10-20 participants, they are no less vibrant. LaKeisha Wolf, a member of the Ujamaa Collective, examined how 15 members banded together to develop a marketplace for goods in the underserved Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, especially through promoting the interests of women artisans.
The presentations underscored the significance of developing cooperatives beyond factories to services and social services was stressed by panelists throughout the conference, each who presented important evidence on the success of cooperatives relative to privately held enterprises in building solidarity and establishing community linkages that promote a common agenda of sustainability.
In Sunset Park, a low-income working class immigrant district in Brooklyn, the Center for Community Life is expanding opportunities for migrant workers who pool resources and networks to more provide services for working-class families and communities in the community.
The workshops expanded on the conference theme of creating enduring and expanding democratic cooperatives within the US capitalist economy.
Steve Dubb, research director of the Democracy Collaborative, evaluated the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, Ohio, which has developed environmentally sustainable workplaces in low-income neighborhoods and incorporates green technology into its network. Given the success of Evergreen Cooperatives, Dubb suggests that the model could be replicated in working-class communities throughout the US. Evergreen is not a classic worker-owned cooperative, but a partnership with local Cleveland-based institutions that supports and obtains funding for its worker-owned for-profit companies that seek to abide by norms of living wages for its workers in their laundry, solar power, greenhouse, and communications companies.
BeyondCare, a Sunset Park cooperative provides domestic workers and childcare services in affluent neighboring communities. As a workers cooperative, BeyondCare brings together isolated immigrant cleaners and domestic workers to work collectively rather than competing against one another in what has been an underground economy that typically marginalizes immigrant women. In the same community, Si Se Puede! Coop seeks to advance the same norms of collective ownership among its nearly two-dozen members working as domestic laborers. In addition, workers formed Color Me! Coop, in Sunset Park to provide indoor house painting services
Solidarity with Labor Unions
Melissa Hoofer, executive director of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, presented the keynote presentation that focused on the rapid growth of worker cooperatives and the importance of expanding the cooperative sector through connecting workplaces, taking inspiration from the Economía Solidaria worker cooperative movement throughout Latin America. Hoofer noted that while the worker cooperative movement is growing, building a cooperative economy in the US is vital to sustaining and building its influence among the working class, which must embrace communities throughout the US.
John McNamara and Rebecca Kemble, of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, issued a stern note of caution to the conference participants that the cooperative movement and organized labor must unify to advance a common cause of worker justice in the US. Both speakers argued that cooperatives must not remain isolated from their communities that are undergoing dislocation. For instance, Union Cab of Madison, a cooperative formed by taxi drivers in Madison, Wisconsin, which preserved their jobs through collectivizing its workplace was a key supporter of the Wisconsin workers and student uprising in February and March 2011 as Republicans waged an offensive against vital public programs and public sector union unions in that state.
Reflecting on the recent attack on government workers and services in Wisconsin and across the United States, McNamara and Kemble asserted that worker cooperatives are central to defending and advancing the labor movement. The speakers strenuously maintained that labor unions and cooperatives must build alliances to defend US workers. As such, trade unions must recognize that the labor movement extends beyond their organizations to include worker-controlled workplaces.
To expand the power of labor unions and worker cooperatives, McNamara and Kemble argued that workers need to advance institutions of solidarity to defend state and private employers from attack. Worker cooperatives, as evident in Union Cab of Madison represent a new position that could effectively resist the new round of neoliberal austerity to more effectively defend workers from the global economic crisis, now firmly entrenched in the US. Worker cooperatives present a genuine and feasible alternative to privatization and cutbacks in education, health care, housing, and essential public and social services.
The conference also examined the viability of employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) that view ownership in the context of workers’ control over capitalist enterprises. To maintain a patina of integrity, ESOPs must be owned by workers and maintain democratic control over decisions that are vital to the enterprise. Since the 1980s, many ESOPs managed by businessmen disregarded worker interests and frequently failed due to external influence over vital financial and operational decisions. ESOPs must include worker democratic management that protects workplaces from the vicissitudes of investors in the capitalist market.
The participants in the gathering included a wide range of organizations that are committed to advancing democratic workplaces through establishing worker cooperatives of various forms—from democratically organized cooperatives as well as labor activists and concerned scholars.
The conference stimulated discussion on shared best practices for creating democratically-managed workplaces and expanding the cooperative movement in the Eastern region of the United States. The plan was to establish a regional system of solidarity among cooperatives in Eastern United States leading in planning for the 2012 International Year of Cooperatives.
As economics professor Michael Lebowitz asserts in The Socialist Alternative, workers must recognize the significance of cooperative enterprises as representative of an authentic democratic and egalitarian turn from the alienation that is endemic to the capitalist market. To advance a cooperative movement rooted in human development, it is essential to publicize cooperatives through use of the media, which is a critical tool for working-class education. Media cooperatives are growing and beginning to challenge the dominant capitalist propaganda in the media that no alternatives exist to capitalist domination over the economy. As media and education grows, workers are recognizing new tangible options through operating cooperative workplaces that provide a democratic voice in vital decisions and promote solidarity with communities.
A growing number of cooperatives are providing media services to disseminate the message of building a grassroots workers democracy movement throughout the US. One cooperative, Media Co-op, demonstrated the importance of four cooperatives across Canada that provides public knowledge to community residents about alternatives to capitalist ownership, a point that was driven home by the conference as a whole.
The significance of education, information sharing, and developing alternatives to capitalist media was stressed by participants as a crucial means in advancing cooperatives. Through learning form the experiences and practices of other cooperatives the conference demonstrated the importance of developing a common strategy around education and solidarity through unifying around a common message. The conference participants shared a common belief that as global capitalism becomes more predatory, worker-owned cooperatives have become an even more viable alternative to the current dominant economic structures and relations."