Human Dignity

“We should begin by considering all humans as citizens of equal dignity and destiny.”

“The destiny of each one of us is linked to that of others”

–Don José María Arizmendiarrieta

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. –John Donne

The common line between all worker co-ops around the world lies in the connection to each other as humans. All workers are essential precisely because they are human.

The role of worker cooperation exists primarily to connect each other through our labor and create a community of equals. Engaging in a worker cooperative is living the value of solidarity. However, the connection to other workers doesn’t stop at the borders of our cooperative. Even though co-op members have the ability to control their labor and manage the wealth that they create, they must still recognize their role in the larger labor movement.

I would love to see a world where all workers control their companies, link together within their industry to build networks, and create a pathway to a truly democratic economy with a commitment to human dignity and social justice. Some of you might see this and think “Mondragón“, but I am also thinking the ideals of the Industrial Workers of the World from more than a century ago.

Regardless of the structure that becomes created, all workers deserve dignity. Even those workers who don’t work for a cooperative or work for a co-op that competes with a worker co-op. A caregiver faces the same struggles in their day-to-day whether they are members of a home care co-op or work for an agency or as an independent contractor. Likewise with grocery workers, cab drivers, and down-the-line.

Ideally our worker co-ops can grow in a sustainable way to keep their identity while also building a community that brings human dignity to all the workers in their industry. This may seem like a given, but at this unique point in time, while our world facing a raging pandemic. It is important to remember that our struggle to recover and repair our economy lies with supporting all workers. Today, we are “all in this together”, but as workers we will always be all in this together even if, in the day-to-day, we are forced to compete with each other for scraps. We need to move forward to build a labor movement that combines the labor power of unionism and the identity of cooperation.

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The Unnamed Co-op Value: Gritty

Calvin Coolidge, the US President that symbolized the 1920s, has been credited with this statement: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”

I think of that quote often when working with co-ops, especially these days. Embracing the values and principles of the co-operative identity is important; however, it is not enough. The people stepping in to create a new co-op or convert an existing business into a co-op also need the value of perseverance. This value, while not stated in either the ICA’s Statement or Mondragón’s list of principles, plays a deciding role in the success or failure of a cooperative. In many ways, it is the expression of this value that creates the cooperative difference of worker co-ops.

Perhaps the essence of being “gritty” provides a more working class way of thinking about perseverance. The value of Gritty combines with that of Solidarity, Self-repsonsibility, and Mutual Self-help to create an almost unstoppable force. The synergy of these values combined in the leadership of an organization can overcome so much.

A co-op, that I worked with, was struggling a bit, but making a go of it. About a month after adding a new director to the board, almost everyone else on the board quit (for personal reasons) leaving this person holding the bag. I would have completely understood if they just left as well (since they really hadn’t anything invested). Instead they pushed forward, recruited new leaders, got the co-op operational and made it a successful and well-respected co-op in its sector.

I see this a lot. I usually encourage people who seek to start a co-op to find a group of five people who will be champions. By champions, I mean, really, the people who are gritty enough to see it through to the end. Why five, because the value of gritty is expressed differently in every person and life gets in the way: a family member becomes ill, a once in a lifetime opportunity arrives, and people discover that the project doesn’t really tap into their gritty after all. The value of grittiness doesn’t manifest until it is needed, so we can only guess and hope.

Today, as our co-ops fight hard to survive the covid-19 pandemic, the gritty manifests. My day job supports a number of co-ops and part of that now includes helping to promote their covid-19 survival models and the US Federation of Worker Co-ops also promotes the efforts of these gritty co-ops.

Stay Gritty!

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Adding a Pop-Up :(

This is news about the site. I added a pop-up today. It will be used sparingly. I mainly wanted to highlight several co-ops that I am working with that need your support. I got the idea of a pop-up from one of them (Capital Homecare).

The pop-up doesn’t “pop” until one has stayed on the site for more than 3-4 seconds and it has a very easy to access “close” button.

Any money donated to the co-ops goes directly to the co-ops. This is a free service that I am providing them.

Please support our co-ops during this pandemic!

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Are We Not Owners? We Are Workers!

Last Winter, Fifty by Fifty ran a series of blog posts about the sale of the ESOP New Belgium Brewery to Kirin. It was a great series of posts of which I was honored to participate. This was and is an important discussion about the role of worker (or employee) ownership. However, one editiorial didn’t appear on the site, but was published in one of my favorite publications, Counter Punch by one of my favorite thinkers on worker-focused economics, Bernard Marszalek. In this article about the sale of the 4th largest craft brewery, Righteous Capitalism vs. Cooperative Values, he discusses the notion of being a worker owner and it is worth for all of us to consider his position.

Specifically he argues:

“The fatal error of cooperatives decades ago was to emphasize ownership in imitation of the ESOPs. Almost from the inception of cooperatives as collective economic projects in the early 19th century, they were characterized as urban commons, duplicating in those new settings the centuries old practice of rural lands held in common by an exclusive group, like the families of a village or parish. So, the operative term for participants in cooperatives isn’t owner, but member. Retail co-ops serve consumer-members, housing co-ops have members whereas condos have owners, and worker-members manage worker cooperatives.”

As argues, neither the “employees” (to use a term of wage-slavery) of an ESOP or the workers of a co-op are truly owners. For the ESOP, the workers have little control over either their shares (which a Trustee often manages) or a say in the operations (although this can vary a bit). For worker co-ops, they often have significant control over the workplace, but cannot actually sell their share of ownership or take their retained equity (I should know, Union Cab still holds my equity from 1993).

I agree with Bernard–let’s retire the concept of calling ourselves “worker-owners”. We are worker-members. We are stewards of the co-op doing the work to keep it resilient to honor the work of the previous members (who build a co-op for us), and maintaining its ability to provide for the members of the future.

The concept of community ownership (in this case the community of workers) is fundamentally different from capitalist ownership. The latter seeks to use up assets and resources. It is extractive in nature and anti-communitarian. The former seeks to build a community that transcends the individual and builds a thing of lasting value to society.

Worker-Members creates a conceptual model of considering the generation of members prior and those yet to be. The term creates a community that challenges the extractive concept of ownership. A co-op member builds communal wealth.

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Co-ops in the Time of Corona

A Special Message to My Readers:

I don’t get a lot of comments on this site these days. That is likely my fault in my attempt to keep the bots at bay. However, I really want you to comment. I want to hear about what your co-ops and your community is doing to support each other right now. Perhaps we can make this a record of this historic time (perhaps GEO will coordinate the stories in an anthology). Please register and comment (or upgrade your status and post).

I Return to Your Blog Post. . . .

As the Corona Pandemic continues to build steam, worker co-ops are at a crossroad.

Like other small business owners, worker-owned businesses don’t neccessarily have a deep supply of money to weather this storm. While worker co-ops can prioritize the health and well being of the membership (share hours, across-the-board pay-cuts, etc.), ta bottom exists. At some point the the fixed costs have to be paid (the rent, the mortgage, utilities, taxes). As governments require people to shelter in place, no plan is presented to protect any small business let alone our worker co-ops.

We need to save each other. We need to fight for all of us.

At some point, the government will have to intervene and provide support, but how do our co-ops survive until the politicians of this age finally recognize that the neo-liberal model of trickle-down economics simply doesn’t work in a global economic and health crisis. Tax cuts are meaningless if there isn’t any income to tax.

In Olympia, the local co-op network, CoSound, has convened a meeting of co-ops in the region to figure this out. It meets later today to begin a process of working together stay strong (or at least viable) during this crisis. Ultimately, co-ops need to manage their fixed costs and hope unemployment insurance can keep the membership together. Combining this with group purchasing (which is how consumer co-ops started out in the 70s) and political action to force elected officials to do more than simply shut down the ability to earn a living. We must demand that the supply side also supports workers ability to survive during the crisis. I expect that local co-op networks across the country will be doing likewise.

What does this mean? I am sure that everyone has a favorite tactic. Seattle is currently providing $800 for families to buy groceries. There are a number of ways to go, but we need to make sure that we support each other and work together to demand that our elected officials recognize that there is no “safe” path forward. They need to make the hard decisions to keep our communities solvent even if that means losing the next election. We also need to reach out to the larger labor movement and work with them to protect all workers. Today, more than at any point in my lifetime, the need for class solidarity means survival.

A nice thing about the time-off is that it provides the means to organize, agitate, and lobby. Even if we can’t rally in front of their offices, we can make sure that they hear us. I don’t have a good rallying cry, but we must argue that our communities remain intact.

Assuming that our movement survives, we need to plan for the next crisis. The US Federation of Worker Co-ops has done a good job getting in front of the wave and helping us to navigate resources. We need more. We need a Solidarity Fund. This could follow Mondragon’s model: 10% of surplus before disbursement form every worker co-op to be held by the Federation. It could be distributed on either an at-need basis or in a national crisis through grants or low-interest non-extractive lending with the aim of covering fixed costs through the crisis.

This is a crucial moment for our movement. We could easily lose the majority of our co-ops but we can also fight hard to make sure that we keep as many as possible. It is ultimately up to us.

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Tech Co-op’s Are on the Rise. . .

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the desires to create co-op version of “Uber”. One respondent on a different forum noted that I was in “violent agreement” with the platform co-op community. I was glad to hear that! But some also saw my post as technophobic focusing on my age (Ok, Boomer!), so I feel the need to talk about some of the incredible tech co-op that are popping up!

Here in the PNW, a couple of communities are using Althea-mesh software to provide direct access to the internet with cooperative ownership by the users. These ISP co-ops (Clataskine Co-op and Tacoma Cooperative Network) provide true net neutrality through community ownership and control of the ISP. The payments are made through Althea blockchain cryptocurrency (which is linked to the US dollar).

Other tech based co-ops include Motion Twin, a worker-coop which produces on-line games, and Modo (a consumer car sharing co-op in Vancouver).

I’ve also mentioned Resonate, a music streaming app that has membership for producers (artists) and consumers and uses blockchain as well.

Last year, Working Systems, a software developer servicing labor unions, converted to a worker co-op and I am currently talking with a couple of platform start-ups (since they are still in the start up phase, I don’t really want to name them, but one will be about encrypted storage and file sharing. The new Employee Trust in Washington (a project of SIEU, PHC, ICA Group) will be working with the independent contractor caregivers providing homecare through medicaid. Of course, The Workers’ Paradise has always been hosted on Electric Embers, a worker cooperative. A common theme in these co-ops is taking control of the technology and operating an ethical basis.

This was the point of the previous article: we can’t simply replicate a corrupt extractive model, offer memberships, and then call it a day. We have to make the operations aligned with co-op values and principles. and that means strengthening communities, not just disrupting them because that is what technology does. When I hear the word “disruption”, what I hear is someone saying that they don’t really care about upending people’s lives. That the folks losing their jobs or community are just collateral damage in the march of progress filled with a unfounded optimism that everything will work out in the end.

On one of the social sites on which this blog posts, some asked about Eva. Eva was presented to me as a retort to my post: “hey, what about Eva” but it wasn’t easy to find information. Eva is a platform co-op offering “ride sharing”. I use the scare quotes because, as someone on social.coop argued, “it isn’t really ‘sharing’ if your charging for the service”. Anyway, the website doesn’t offer a lot of information about the co-op (they told me that the site is do for an overhaul in April), but this interview on Each for All Radio (a co-op itself), with Dardan Isufi, Eva co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, provides a deeper dive into their model. If you listen to the recording (about 49 minutes), you will hear that Eva works with brick-and-motor cab companies, has staff in the cities it serves, insists on 35 hours of training, police background checks, and maintenance reports. Most importantly, Eva doesn’t engage in price gouging (known as “surge pricing” in the industry and covers the insurance cost directly for the drivers (another core difference from Uber/Lyft), the latter is likely an aspect of Canadian and Quebec laws).

The response from me: Eva is not trying to replicate Uber or Lyft.

They are an example of what I was talking about. I am glad to learn more about them and they were very generous in answering my questions in a separate forum. I obviously write from a US perspective (and my Canadian experience is mostly english-speaking Nova Scotia), but avoid US exceptionalism and ackowledge that I can’t know the different laws in every country, province, and state. Eva told me, they can’t provide service to people who need wheelchair accessible vehicles or to people who don’t have a smart phone (and debit/credit card). Apparently this is the law in Quebec (and Eva is working to address that, but politicians move slowly). So, hourra por Eva!. The biggest lesson that I learned from this exchange is to tread lightly with the Quebecois!

The bigger story from all of this is that almost a decade after the forming of the Tech Co-op Network, tech co-ops have begun popping up all over. They don’t have the capital to become household names like Spotify and Uber, but they are building the foundation for a tech community based on human values and a lot of them organize as multi-stakeholder co-ops when it makes sense (such as streaming services). For an industry known notoriously as anti-union and libertarian, the new generation of developers promises a different future of tech in which the technology serves its community and not the other way around.

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The Government Will Not Save Us

Regardless of the outcome of the Iowa Caucus tonight, our salvation as a community (however you define it) and as a species will not come from politicians. It will will only come from our collective efforts to build a better world.

Government as it has been formed, does not exist to solve problems. It exists to control and maintain order. Claus Offe, in his collection Disorganized Capitalism, argues that the role of capital and government tend to feed off of each other. Specifically, the capitalist simply asks government to get out of the way, to do less while other groups (labor, communities) seek to have government intervene. This creates a form of social entropy that requires constant work to maintain.

Of course, sometimes the needle moves as it did during the abolition movement, the populist and progressive movements, and most recently the New Deal. Each of these efforts though further prove the point, that without constant effort, the government will default to doing less.

If we want a better world, it is imperative that we make that world. There is an incredible opportunity now to change our economy from a mercantilist/capitalist model to a more cooperative model. Project Equity estimates that only 20% of existing small businesses. According to JPChase:

“Over 99 percent of America’s 28.7 million firms are small businesses. The vast majority (88 percent) of employer firms have fewer than 20 employees, and nearly 40 percent of all enterprises have under $100k in revenue. 20 percent of small businesses are employer businesses and 80 percent are nonemployer businesses.”

Rather than trying to “get to scale”, we have an opportunity right now to help many of these businesses remain in their communities providing jobs as either worker cooperatives or community (multi-stakeholder) cooperatives. In 9 short years, every one born during the Baby Boom will be 65 or older and the majority will be over 70. Rather than watch the further consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, we can change communities, create cooperative corporations, and build an economy based on meeting needs, not maximizing profits.

What this could mean is that the majority of the corporations would no longer be asking government to do nothing. A cooperative economy might be asking the government to be a partner in building a better world. Gary Hart, a former Senator from Colorado, wrote his PhD thesis on the Jeffersonian view of what the US could have been. Jefferson, during the drafting of the US Constitution, was Ambassador to France and not part of the deliberations. Hart’s book, Restoration of the Republic: The Jefferson Ideal in 21st Century America, Jefferson envisioned a world that looks a lot like Robert Owen’s communities. Small, (5,000 people or less) but connected in networks and federations to meet the needs of the community. The common defense would not be through a police force or army, but more like a volunteer fire department (that are so common in rural Washington).

A cooperative economy might even make government somewhat obsolete. I have always been amazed at the similarity between Mondragon’s organizational chart and that of the IWW’s vision from 100 plus years ago. A government that is an outgrowth of the cooperatives that we engage to meet our needs would not need to be interventionist. It would be a true partner with the communities that feed into it.

Tonight, the 2020 campaign for president begins in earnest. Regardless of who wins tonight, the nomination, or the presidency, we can only make the world a better place and safe it from ourselves by working cooperatively to create an economy based on meeting the needs of the planet and its residents. The ability to be Masters of Our Destiny lies within us.

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No, a Co-op Version of Uber or Lyft Isn’t Possible

I often see posts and efforts regarding platform co-op that want to co-operatize the “gig” economy. I understand the desire. The co-op community missed this change in our society in a big way. It happened very quickly and utilized an industry whose culture tends not to support collective action (either through labor unions or cooperatives). One of the regularly recurring concepts is to replace Lyft or Uber with a co-op version. I try to be an optimist, but not only don’t I think that it is possible, I think that the co-op community should be thinking about how to reinvent the use to technology in line with the cooperative identity.

Uber and Lyft are not new to the taxicab industry in terms of their model. The only difference between these companies and the traditional taxicab companies, is that they were able to operate in multiple cities and afford political influence at a level that most taxicab company owners could only dream about. The manner in which Uber and Lyft treats the drivers and passengers is part and parcel of the industry that it pretends to replace. It is predatory and extractive.

The primary reason that I don’t think that a co-op version of Uber/Lyft is possible comes from a simple aspect of their plan. These apps are available to provide services in thousands of communities. While it might be possible to create a co-op spanning a similar geography, it would be difficult to have a meaningful democratic control and economic participation through multiple languages, cultures, and nationalities. In addition, Uber and Lyft exist, in my view, more as research labs for their investors (Google among them), so even breaking even isn’t the priority that it would be for a driver-owned platform. It may be possible to simply serve a single area. However, drivers for Uber and Lyft don’t make any more than cab drivers even with millions in marketing support provided by these companies, I a skeptical that a one community company can breakthrough in a single market.

Secondly, a key part of the Uber/Lyft plan works on ignoring liability insurance. This falls on the individual drivers (although there are umbrella plans provided through these companies, the insurance only kicks in if the driver’s insurance is exhausted). However, as far as I know, most insurance companies will not cover pay-for-service transportation on individual plans, which means that the drivers and passengers are completely at risk. Uber and Lyft have a phalanx of lawyers, lobbyists, and a mountain of cash to change laws (as they did in Wisconsin and Virginia) and fight lawsuits.

As to why the platform co-op model shouldn’t re-create Uber, the first act of this company, and others like it, in most cities was to break local ordinances on public transportation (in many cities, such as Madison, taxicabs are considered a “public conveyance”). Most importantly, they effectively red line the ridership based on their ability to own a smartphone, access to either a credit or debit card, and physical abilities. This simple act eliminates a huge percentage of people who need curb to curb transportation. They pretended to have no control over the drivers, even though they do through the software, and this allows drivers to red line their service area for other reasons. These are not cooperative values or cooperative ways of conducting business. Whatever drivers do to collectively challenge the Uber model, they must not copy it.

Taxi cab companies serve their communities and are generally tied to the community. The platform driver model allows a driver with no ties to the community to swoop in and cherry pick rides during peak events. With no connection to the community, there is no responsibility to the community. Co-ops have the ethical values of social responsibility and caring for others. The 7th Principle of Cooperation is Concern for Communities.

Taxi co-ops tend to operate on the co-op values of self-help, self-responsibility, solidarity, and many others. I point out these three, because a connection exists between the drivers of a taxi co-op that enables drivers and staff of the co-op to protect each other, help each other, and provide the education, information, and training that is fundamental to cooperation and a democratic community. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview some of the members of Union Taxi in Denver. They pointed out that with the co-op, their lease dropped by $500/week ($26,000 a year). This meant having weekends to spend with their children. At the same time, they still made more than the Uber drivers, had the support of their peers, and access to material support (maintenance, group purchasing, etc.).

A platform transportation co-op that I could get behind would be a secondary or tertiary co-op that provides technical support for the 7-8 taxi co-ops in the country that would offer multi-city support for consumers, provide dispatch and management software for the taxi co-ops, and help start new taxi co-ops. The individual co-ops would be members of the app co-op, pay dues and service fees, help build the co-op community, and have a national narrative about licensed, trained, and safe drivers. They could message the co-op difference about creating safe working conditions, decent pay and benefits, and being a part of the communities that they serve. The could even encourage passengers to add to a co-op development fund as part of the fare (over the tip, of course).

Posted in Human Relations, Platform Coops, Worker Rights | Tagged | 1 Comment

Social.Coop: A New Year’s Resolution for You

If you are looking to connect with the co-op world on-line there are a number of resources. However, a unique one is social.coop. This is a cooperative owned and managed social network site through Open Collective. There is no cost to join or participate; however, if you want to be a voting member, that level of participation starts at $1 per month. Participation includes being involved in decision-making using Loomio and there are also workgroups helping to manage the site. You aren’t obligated to participate, but everyone is welcome.

You might see some familiar names and people. Some folks cross post on other formats as well (I tend to post a link to my page).

It doesn’t have the flashiness or functionality of reddit or facebook. The interface reminds me a bit of tweetdeck, but it is our place in the internet within the Mastadon world.

Come join us in 2020!

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New Belgium Brewery Goes Flat

A couple of weeks ago, a tremor ran through the “employee ownership” establishment when New Belgium Brewing announced that it had sold itself to Kirin, a Japanese conglomerate with international holdings. New Belgium was a highly touted ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) that boasted 100% “employee ownership”. The workers will receive an average $100,000 payout. Kirin’s subsidiary, Little World Beverages, which is the official buyer says that everyone keeps their job and everything will remain the same.

I’ve been wondering when the craft beer market would begin consolidating. A few years ago, shockwaves went through the Cascadia craft beer community when 10 Barrels sold to Anheuser-Busch and worse, Full Sail sold to an investment company. New Belgium, around that time, also acknowledged that they would be open to a seller. There was another ESOP brewery in Oregon that sold as well, but I can’t remember the name. It was notable because, as with Full Sail, the trustees were the founders. At this brewery, the couple that were trustees also had a majority share. They said that they wanted the workers to vote on the sale so that they could “feel like owners.” ugh.

Fifty by Fifty created a great discussion about the sale and what it means to employee ownership. I mainly come down in the same commentary of Sonja Novkovic and Erbin Crowell (which shouldn’t surprise too many people). In addition, I would add that, as I mentioned in my previous post, the point of worker ownership goes deeper than creating decent paying jobs (just like the point of labor unions is more than wages and benefits). Ultimately, worker ownership must be about human development and human dignity not only in the workplace but in the community served by the workplace. If human dignity and development isn’t centered in the project, it only offers a few pennies in return for maintaining a larger system aimed at using up people and the planet.

What I found interesting in the commentary was the lack of information about the sale. I held off writing about this because I have more questions than anything. I wonder how the voting went. Was it a unanimous decision such as with Good Vibrations? What is a majority of shareholders? With Full Sail, it was “near unanimous” for the sale (the trustees held 42%). What constituted a majority of shareholders (a minority of actual workers for instance could hold a majority of shares). The reported payout of $100,000 per worker was not reported as either an average or a median number. I think that it would be useful to see a breakdown of how the sale price is distributed to the workers.

That said, $100,000 isn’t a lot of money today. By comparison, Burley Bikes, a co-op in economic crisis, sold in 2005 or so and the workers averaged $30,000 (about $40k in today’s dollars). It will certainly be life-changing for some but will the trade-off be worth it. How does it compare to the wages of these workers? I know that Kirin claims that no jobs will be lost, but there isn’t a guarantee (and if the workers haven’t unionized, it would be a good idea to do so in my opinion). Eventually, Kirin’s shareholders will expect a return on their investment and this will either come from wages, expanded growth in a market that is already saturated, or a sale to a larger company (Miller SAB, AB, etc).

The constant drumbeat of the established worker co-op movement has been how to “get to scale” for several years now. But when companies get to scale, the pressure to sell out becomes even greater. There are ways of “getting to scale” that can still center the individual human in the equation: Rainbow Grocery, Union Cab, Equal Exchange come to mind. Other larger co-ops,such as Cooperative Home Care NY, use labor unions to help keep the social purpose of worker ownership alive. The idea of using a retirement plan in lieu of true worker ownership or real social change has always seemed flawed to me.

I can see using ESOPs as an aspect of a worker co-op, but agree with others that we need to quit calling ESOPs worker owned. Perhaps we should just refer to ESOPS as Worker RVs (retirement vehicles). An ESOP paired with a worker co-op (though a Limited Co-op Association) would allow the best of both worlds, but I don’t know of an example. However, the workers need to democratically control of the business or it will always be investor focused which is inherently pro-capital and anti-labor.

If worker ownership centers only on maximizing wealth for the employees, it will ultimately do little more than create marketplaces for the real capitalists to exploit. Our movement needs to be about more than making the marketplace great for investors again. To paraphrase an old adage: we don’t need to sell ropes to the bosses to hang us with.

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