Worker Co-ops and the American Dream, part 6

The Union-Co-op as a Pathway to Restoring the American Dream

As the effects of the Great Recession linger even ten years later, Americans seek new avenues to meet their needs and desires. The labor movement has largely been fighting a rear-guard action leaving the successes of the labor movement to the burgeoning worker co-operative models and social movements that focus on political victories and fall outside of the regulatory burdens of the NLRA. Likewise, modern management has taken notice that to attract quality employees, requires a language that speaks to both the monetary and social values. This has led to “decentralized participative governance structures” (Marshall, 2005), but it has also allowed the language of ownership to be co-opted through the “sharing economy” that engages workers as partners rather than employees, but creates a system that extracts wealth from both the worker and the consumer.

Through either company ownership or union representation, workers can achieve higher pay through wages and benefits, and also through a share of the profits generated. This provides one piece of the puzzle, the part of the American Dream that promises wealth, comfort, economic mobility for oneself and their children. By combining the worker co-operative model, with the movement’s values, ethics and principles, workers develop the other half of the Dream. They can build their sense of social community and class-consciousness. This model not only provides them the ability to meet their material needs, but it makes them better citizens by engaging in a democratic economic model.

Worker ownership, by itself, requires that workers engage their workplace as both owner and employee. Worker cooperatives may end up creating more work for people without the perceived economic reward. Not everyone wants to be a hands-on owner. For many, it is enough to have a job with decent pay in a healthy workplace. Attending meetings after working all day doesn’t necessarily attract people. When organizations reach employment in the hundreds or even thousands, it would be impractical for everyone to engage in meetings. In many of these larger co-ops, some form of representative democracy must take hold.  Even dynamic governance methods such as sociocracy become limited if the circles get too big.

Growing co-ops to scale with the market or the community may create political polarization within the co-operative among the membership. As a co-operative grows, the organization may lose the sense of ownership and this can lead to destructive behavior from both the management and employee perspectives (Kasmir, 1996). However, if worker ownership can only exist at a small level (100 workers or less), it can never really be more than an economic asterisk and the model’s overall effect on building a more just world let alone achieving the American Dream will minimal.

The labor union, in a sense, allows worker co-operatives to reach a size to achieve the economies of scale while providing a means to keep focus on the social needs of the workers and the social aspect of the organization’s mission. By utilizing a partnership with an outside organizing body (but comprising of the members of the co-operative), worker co-operatives create a watchdog organization that can act as a break on the excesses of profit-driven decision making. Without this engagement, the individual member/worker can be lost in the data on productivity, profit, and return on equity. Recently, such a scenario erupted in Evergreen Co-operatives[1] in Cleveland, Ohio which had been praised for its ability to grow to scale with industrial laundries; however, the governance and decision making left workers on the outside of key decisions that saw massive lay-offs and pay cut by 50% without any input from the affected workers (Davis, 2016).

As organizations increase in size, the tendency for isomorphic behavior increases even co-operative based organizations. The struggle to maintain the values and principles becomes more difficult as the community becomes larger. The role of the labor union can create contractual language to assure that these values remain front and center. This creates the synergy of the two, but also requires that both organizational models engage a new paradigm of work. The worker co-operative model needs to get beyond a “do-it-yourself” mentality and recognize that some issues require outside assistance. Likewise, the labor unions must resist the temptation to engage worker co-operatives in the traditional antagonist model that the NLRA has established.

Labor unions, like cooperatives, exist to serve their members. As such, they can also be too materially focused. Beyond the scope of this essay, the historical unwillingness of labor unions in the United States and Canada to avoid issues of social justice and focus on the material needs of their members has, itself, a long history. Worker Cooperatives, while generally about creating good jobs, also have a social justice aspect to them. Thus, the interplay between these two organizations with a combined mission of social justice and economic opportunity provides a promise to engage in a form of dance that keeps the American Dream’s aspects in balance. One might imagine a cooperative whose elected board focuses too much on social justice issues (to the detriment of the business) will be reined in by a labor union concerned about falling wages and benefits. Likewise, an elected board focused too heavily on profits and growth, to the exclusion of social justice within the cooperative, might find the labor union engaged to speak for the members who feel left behind. At other times, the leadership of both organizations may be working in the same direction to channel membership energy in order to achieve either a unique social justice or economic growth goal for the organizations. This dynamic can help break up the isomorphic effects on both organizations through their different expressions of the antenarrative of the American Dream.

The American Dream began as an answer to the closed aristocratic societies in Europe. It promised a new method of governance in a new world. Since the advent of Americanism, democracy, in many forms, has swept across the globe. The noble experiment began in 1776 no longer exists in a vacuum. The American Dream continues, however, as a grand myth for the inhabitants of the United States and for many of the world’s population seeking a life that offers the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

The grand narrative of the American Dream finds it power in the duality of its existence as both a promise of material wealth through individual effort and social justice through community support. It is both individualistic and socialistic while at any given moment one aspect may be in ascension over the other. At different times in the course of the path of the United States, the Dream has pushed the individual efforts that helped expand the country (Manifest Destiny) to the detriment of those civilizations that got in the way. The Dream has also engendered communal efforts to ensure that all of its citizens had access to the Dream (the Abolition Movement, Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement). As the country progresses into a new era of community minded citizenry, the debate over the dream and the role of wealth continues to play a key role in determining the fate of its people.

References:

Davis, J. (2016). What’s Up With Evergreen?  Retrieved from http://www.geo.coop/blog/whats-evergreen

Kasmir, S. (1996). The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Marshall, R. (2005). Restoring the American Dream. Work and Occupations, 33(3), 257-261. doi:10.1177/0730888406290094

[1] Evergreen, known also as The Cleveland Model, began as a means of revitalizing the urban core neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio. The model partnered City governments with foundational institutions to create an opportunity for workforce development. The model effectively funded the creation of an industrial laundry that would provide service to the Cleveland Hospital and Case Western University. Other co-ops created through this process included an indoor agriculture facility and a solar energy installation company. The co-operatives were linked to a larger organization that controlled by the foundation and other Not-for-Profit organizations

 

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Worker Co-ops and the American Dream, part 5

Keeping the Dream Alive

Despite the data that clearly exposes the shortcomings of the American Dream, it is still a powerful myth that draws thousands of new immigrants to the United States each year. Even those who deny the Dream or expose it do not have immunity to its powers. One could argue that Langston Hughes, given his humble childhood and the success that he garnered, achieved the very American Dream seen to be deferred. Of course, that requires one to see the American Dream as a solitary dream, not a communal one.

Historically, the American Dream’s power exists through championing the individual and their desire to acquire wealth. The 19th century stories of Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger spread the vision that by hard work and a little luck, everyone could grow wealthy. This expression of the American Dream limits any failure in attempting to achieve the dream to the moral failings of the individual rather than a systemic failure or systemic method of accumulating wealth (Porter, 2010). It ignores the reality that wealth accumulates among the wealthy (Pikkety, 2014). The myth of solitary actions of in how we generate wealth has started to change with the Great Recession of 2008 as many started to question the wheeling and dealing that appears to stack the deck against the individual. That sentiment that the game is rigged plays into the Dream. The anger isn’t that capitalism, as a system, concentrates wealth into fewer and fewer hands and extracts wealth from labor and the environment. The anger results from a sense that people with connections cheated to get ahead.

The American Dream exists, then in different states for diverse groups of individuals. It is, in many ways, an antenarrative to the American experience. The antenarrative connects the grand narrative with the living story. For some, this antenarrative expands to create the myth of individual attainment of wealth, for others a life of liberty and pursuit of happiness (in comparison to their home country) and the quest for social justice that liberty and happiness imply. Like the duality of Schrodinger’s Cat, the American Dream can exist as a grand narrative of community-oriented social justice and a grand narrative of individual economic prosperity, both individual and communal. Just as one can only know the fate of Schrodinger’s Cat by opening the box, one can only see the American Dream through the individual story. It is this duality, this multi-modal nature of the Dream that is, at once deferred and achieved depending on the observer that creates the incredible power of the American Dream and keeps the concept of “America” bigger than life.

References:

Pikkety, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-first Century: Harvard University Press.

Porter, G. (2010). Work Ethic and Ethical Work: Distortions in the American Dream. Journal of Business Ethics, 96(4), 535-550.

Next: The Union-Coop as a Pathway to the American Dream

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Worker Co-ops and the American Dream, part 4

American Dream Deferred

The American Dream, it must be noted, has always been an aspect of white privilege. The promise of those inalienable rights remained a promise for those brought in slavery and this aspect has played a role in the nation as African-Americans, among others, argued for their share of the Dream and understood the consequences of its denial all too well as Langston Hughes express in his 1951 poem, Harlem (Hughes, 1959):

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up?
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweat?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?

The American Dream, as noted, developed out of Jefferson’s Americanism and his ideas for a new paradigm of government. Jefferson’s America, however, was the same government to declare enslaved African-Americans 3/5th of a person for the purpose of calculating representation in the House. Even when chattel slavery was overthrown by the 14th Amendment, the State retained the right to use it as a form of punishment, which would fall harder upon non-whites historically.

For many, the American Dream is a dream deferred.  Even after the end of chattel slavery, the underlying racism within the United States presented itself in the form of Jim Crow laws (1878-1964) and modern efforts such as the 1994 Omnibus Crime Act and selective enforcement practices that will cause 1/3 of African-Americans to have experienced prison by 2020, has largely blocked any pathway to the American Dream except through the act of economic co-operation (Gordon-Nemhard, 2014) or succumbing to hegemony of white America (Robert E. Weems & Randolph, 2001; Very, 2012).

The ability to live the American Dream, for African-Americans, hits a brick wall early as African-American children tend to attend poorer schools and be classified as remedial at a far greater rate than white children (Bonner, 2000). Further, the ability to enter Talented and Gifted programs has been limited by cultural differences and institutionalized racism within the educational system (Blanchett, 2005; Bonner, 2000; Card & Giuliano, 2015). The system hampers the ability of African-Americans to achieve academically which further hampers their ability to acquire the knowledge, skills, and abilities to succeed as well as getting into quality post-secondary institutions and making the connections that go with those institutions.

“Mexican-Americans” Cohen-Marks point out, “will share in that dream only if they speak English.” (Cohen-Marks, Stout). As with African-Americans, Latinos also tend to face challenges in achieving an education through unofficial segregation of public education and the added barrier of language that further marginalizes the children and the parents from school systems and a generalization of all students from Central and South America as “Mexican”(Hill & Torres, 2010). Running counter to the expectations of the generational mobility of immigrants, Mexican-Americans actually show a curvilinear growth and even a drop in income by the third generation (Livingston & Kahn, 2002). In addition to educational limitations, Mexican-Americans may also face challenges based on residency status and racism (especially for those with darker skin) (Alba, 2006).

The ability to access the dream rests to some extent with the ability of the incoming community to either assimilate or to engage in social co-operation among their peer group. Different ethnicities (the Irish, Italians, Chinese among others) have had to push their way into the dream although some have had easier entries due to the sheer number of immigrants from their community, skin color in relation to other immigrants or organizing strategies brought over from the home country. For others the ability to access the Dream has required communal effort through economic and political alliances or marriage (Walters & Jiménez, 2005).

The American society, it turns out, has not been that vertically mobile. While the American Dream holds sway as the grand myth, the lessor myths feeding into to it have come under attack. Socio-economic status has a relationship to psychological distress (Cockerham, 1990) and the perceived failure to achieve the Dream may only contribute to it. The fabled middle-class of the United States has generally been the result of cheap credit, not actual wealth (Nasser, 2015). Recent research has shown that people in the lower economic classes tend to stay there (Wyatt-Nichol, 2011). More importantly societal attitudes towards wealth accumulation are starting to shift. This should be seen not so much as a rejection of the American dream (Magnuson, 2008), but as a realignment towards the more social aspect of the dream, the communal spirit of building a stronger community. The concept of wealth, for wealth’s sake, began to recede in popularity by later 1990’s (Gupte, 2011; Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996).

Next: Keeping the Dream Alive

References:

Alba, R. (2006). Mexican Americans and The American Dream. Perspectives on Politics, 4(2), 289-296.

Blanchett, W. J. (2005). Disproportionate Representation of African-American Students in Special Education: Acknowledging the Role of White Privilege and Racism. Educational Researcher, 35(6), 24-28.

Bonner, F. A. (2000). African American Giftedness: Our Nation’s Deferred Dream. Journal of Black Studies, 30(5), 643-663.

Card, D., & Giuliano, L. (2015). Can Universal Screening Increase the Represntation of Low Income and Minority Students in Gifted Education. Retrieved from Cambridge, MA: http://www.nber.org/papers/w21519

Cockerham, W. C. (1990). A Test of the Relationship Between Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Psychological Distress. Social Science Medicine, 31(12), 1321-1326.

Gordon-Nemhard, J. (2014). Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice: Penn State University Press.

Gupte, S. S. (2011). The Reciprocal Reshaping of the American Dream and American Religion. (Masters), Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

Hill, N. E., & Torres, K. (2010). Negotiating the American Dream: The Paradox of Aspirations and Achievement among Latino Students and Engagement Between Their Families and Schools. Jounral of Social Issues, 66(1), 95-112.

Hughes, L. (1959). Harlem. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 410-422.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(3), 280-287. doi:10.1177/0146167296223006

Livingston, G., & Kahn, J. R. (2002). An American Dream Unfulfilled: the Limited Mobility of Mexican Americans. Social Science Quarterly, 83(4), 1003-1012.

Magnuson, E. (2008). Rejecting the American Dream: Men Creating Alternative Life Goals. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 37(3), 255-290.

Nasser, A. (2015). Thge Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most American Always Been Poor. Counterpunch.

Robert E. Weems, J., & Randolph, L. A. (2001). The National Response to Richard M. Nixon’s Black Capitalism Initiative: The Success of Domestic Detente. Journal of Black Studies, 32(1), 66-83.

Very, R. (2012). Black Capitalism: An Economic Program for the Black American Ghetto. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 2(22).

Walters, M. C., & Jiménez, T. R. (2005). Assessing Immigrant Assimilation: New Empirical and Theoretical Challenges. Annual Review of Sociology, 31, 105-125.

Wyatt-Nichol, H. (2011). The Enduring Myth fo the American Dream: Mobility, Marginalization, and Hope. International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, 14(2), 258-279.

 

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Worker Co-ops and the American Dream, part 3

The Industrial Revolutions and the Great Depression

The Civil War ushered in a new American époque. The economy of the nation transitioned from agricultural to industrial as the nation moved from being a producer of raw materials to also providing the finished product from those materials. While the War Between the States brought a partial resolution to the contradiction between the American experience of chattel slavery and the American values of liberty and freedom, it also began a transition within the nature of employment from independent work crews to what labor organizers in the day dubbed the new “wage slavery”.  The Civil War was as much an industrial revolution as it was about ending the practice of slavery and suppressing a political rebellion (Jacques, 1996). It marks a change not only in the broadening of rights to former slaves but marks a switch in focus from agricultural to industrial economies.

The post-Civil War period, often referred to as the Gilded Age, saw a massive growth in the industrial capacity of the United States along with mass immigration from Europe and Asia. As industry developed, the nature of the American worker underwent a transformation. Roy Jacques’ genealogy (1996) of this change details the rise of the employee and the demise of the itinerant worker. During this era, the national labor movement developed as well. The Knights of Labor saw the danger of the deskilling and reassignment of workers into categories (Leikin, 2005). They also saw the reality of industrialization. The nascent worker movement sought not to negotiate with the new class of manufacturers and owners, but to compete with them through worker-owned factories. The ideal of ownership still resonated in the nation as a key part of the American Dream, but that ideal of ownership in the urban communities switched from land ownership to corporate shares with the closing of the frontier.

The primary duality of the American Dream speaks to the materialistic and the social nature of humanity. This duality, along with the rise of the Robber Barons and American industry in the late 19th century created a third aspect of the Dream: the “do-over”. America has always been about “starting over”.  The American naturalist Henry David Thoreau (2003) wrote, “The Atlantic is a Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget our Old World and its institutions.” The first immigrants from Europe arrived as political, religious and, to some extent, economic refuges. While many arrived with only the possessions on hand, all arrived with a fresh start in life. They controlled, promised the dream of America, their future. The drive West, one of the core causes of the American Revolution, was about the ability to find a fresh start to life, to pursue one’s happiness by hitching a wagon and moving into unknown lands. Horace Greely’s admonition to “Go West, young man and grow up with the country” rang out. Eventually, however, the West was closed much as the Commons before it. With this closing of cheap, arable land, the American Dream found new environments in the forms of home ownership and stock ownership that resonate today.

During this period, the American Dream became an international brand. New immigrants often impoverished people from Europe (as my father’s grandparents from Ireland) or political refugees from the increased militarism of Europe or religious refugees from the Pogroms of Russia sought the American Dream. The twin promises of religious tolerance and economic reward for hard work created a beacon in the darkness. There has been much history written on the failure of the United States to live up to this brand, largely beyond the scope of this study, however, it is enough to say that to ensure the blessings of the promise of America, immigrants quickly realized that the new industrial era that they would need to push their demands and make their dream occur through their own efforts.

As discussed earlier, the Knights of Labor were limited in their attempts to unite workers. While there were many successes, the power of the financiers, the new aristocracy of the United States, set against them. The lack of legal regulations of these new industries allowed collusion, conspiracy, and corruption among the ruling class (Leikin, 2005). Many of their tactics to defeat the worker-owned businesses have since become illegal. One such classic tactic was a collusion between mill owners and railway owners to refuse to ship products from Knights of Labor factories (Leikin, 2005), but it is important to understand that worker organized in this way precisely because of their belief in the American Dream and that this same energy would lead them to organize labor unions.

In many ways, the labor movement of the fin de siècle period (1880-1914) resembles the labor movement of today. Skilled craft labor unions found limited success, but mainly in areas where its leader, Samuel Gompers, could make deals (much in the manner of the strategy of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) today). Social movements by the unorganized pressed for political change such as the eight-hour day (compared to today’s $15 per hour movement), and workers might still form cooperatives to meet their needs (such as the Union Fishermen’s Cannery in Astoria, OR). The movement for an eight-hour day, the rhetoric of Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers invoke the right of workers to enjoy the fruit of their labor. The turmoil of the labor movement after the demise of the Knights of Labor was in many ways a fight to preserve the American Dream of the Jeffersonian-Lincoln model. Debs and his industrial unionist allies sought for an end to the wage system and the formation of a cooperative economic system that would provide economic and social freedom. In 1904, Debs spoke on The Socialist Party’s Appeal: “The Socialist Party stands for a social order in which every human being in the full enjoyment of economic freedom, shall have full opportunity, in the best possible environment, to develop the best there is in him for his own good as well as the good of society at large.” (Tussey, 1972). The legal status of labor unions and cooperatives provide a key difference. The Sherman Antitrust Act was used against labor unions and cooperatives as both were seen as conspiracies to restrain trade. The Copper-Volstead Act of 1922 granted protection to co-operatives and the Wagner Act of 1926 granted protection to labor unions.

Other part of the labor movement, namely the American Federation of Labor, sought to negotiate for the worker’s share. This movement, led by Gompers, proved less threatening and largely focused on skilled workers leaving the unskilled laborers out in the cold. This competing view from the Industrial Workers of the World presented an American Dream that could be attained through diminished expectations. Through suppression by the government, the more radical labor movements lost sway and the AFL succeeded. Although the AFL still struggled against employers, the significance, for this study’s purpose is that they helped change the definition of the American Dream. By 1928, the presidential campaign of Herbert Hoover, a hero for helping the starving children of Europe after World War I, spoke of this new dream as “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” Likewise, industrialist Henry Ford realized the secret to success was mass-producing a product that his employees could afford and ensured that they had a salary to do just that. This “main street moment” found a voice in the policies of the New Deal that spoke to Americans essentially telling them that they should, as their birthright, expect a better life (McEntee & Saunders, 2012)

The transition of the American worker from a journeyman itinerant laborer to an employee matched a change in the American Dream from ownership and stewardship to consumption and material possession. This process created a system of bubbles and crashes (or panics) resulting in the Great Depression. The aftermath of the economic meltdown included a revived industrial labor movement strengthened by the New Deal legislation of the Wagner Act and Second World War that destroyed industrial infrastructure and tens of millions of people leaving the industrial capabilities of Canada and the United States largely intact.

The outcome of these events was a relative détente between employers and labor that would lead to the creation of the American middle class and relative acceptance the new American Dream. The contradictions of this new American Dream created what some might call the “American Century” and were ultimately an unstable model and a dream in every sense of the word (Porter, 2010). However, it also helped to usher in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 that effectively ended the Jim Crow Era. The Dream, as fragile as it might be, expanded its reach in hope even if the reality still remained elusive. The contemporary era has brought people back to the discussion of what the American Dream really means and how it is experienced.

Next: American Dream Deferred

References:

Jacques, R. (1996). Manufacturing the Employee. London: Sage Publications.

Leikin, S. (2005). The Practical Utopians: American Workers and the Cooperative Movement in the Guilded Age. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

McEntee, G. W., & Saunders, L. (2012). The Main Street Moment: Fighting Back to Save the American Dream. New York: Nation Books.

Porter, G. (2010). Work Ethic and Ethical Work: Distortions in the American Dream. Journal of Business Ethics, 96(4), 535-550.

Thoreau, H. D. (2003). Walking. Fairfield Iowa: 1st World Library-Literary Society.

Tussey, J. Y. (Ed.) (1972). Eugene V. Debs Speaks. New York: Pathfinder Press.

 

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Worker Co-ops and the American Dream, part 2

Foundations of the American Dream

The term, The American Dream, was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 in his work, The Epic of America (Adams, 1959; Gupte, 2011; Rank, Hirschl, & Foster, 2014). Adams’ coinage was, perhaps, an attempt to buck up a nation ravaged by the Great Depression. It roots, however, reach deep into the psyche of the ideology of American culture. To fully understand the American Dream and its components, one must start at the beginning of the American experience with the Declaration of Independence. This document, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, sought to encapsulate more than the grievances of the subjects of King George III, it also expressed a new world order of how a people should be governed. It established the concept of the inalienable rights of individuals to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The latter part of the promise, the “pursuit of happiness” created the spark that gives fire to the document and the Dream. These three words provide the energy of the dream. Happiness as an inalienable human right created within the new nation a promise of the possible (Gupte, 2011) and while some readings argue that the pursuit acts as a direction for government (Schlesinger, 1964), the nature of happiness, from the early days of the republic, operates as the rubric by which we measure the success of the American experiment. This argument echoes the sentiment Adam Smith’s 1759 essay Theory of Moral Sentiments “All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end.” (cited in Ganter, 1936). The promise of happiness, on an equal footing with life and liberty, marked a departure in how governments engaged the governed. It marks the beginning of Jefferson’s concept of Americanism: limited government, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and a new form of government that favored the laborer, the pioneer and the yeoman farmer while ending the aristocratic privilege of Europe (Chinard, 1929). Americanism would be the antithesis to the aristocracy of Europe or an “economic, social and political alternative to the aristocracy (Hart, 2002). In 1800, Americanism offered an alternative to the Old World. While many contemporary peoples living in the Western Hemisphere of the Americas bristle at the habit of US residents self-reference as “Americans”, it needs to be seen in this context. When Jefferson adopted the idea of Americanism, the other countries of North America were, politically, England, France, and Spain. Likewise, the lands of the South America were politically European*. There are two obvious contradictions to this concept, of course. Jefferson and other founders of the new republic did not recognize the nations of the indigenous peoples as governments or their inhabitants as people. Likewise, the slave trade and Jefferson’s own status as an owner of slaves made mockery of the language of the Declaration of Independence; however, the culture created by the declaration would lead later generations to justify the further expansion of the definition of “human” to include non-Europeans, expand suffrage to women, and to further the concept of human rights with civil rights. The concept of Americanism ushered in a new promise to people that the method of government should be to enable the governed to reach their full potential as human beings (Adams, 1959 p 405). The Declaration underscores two core principle of the Dream: aspiration and opportunity and that “every poor man may have a home” (Lowry, 2013) and that “all” are “created equal”. The latter being that the only barrier to one’s pursuit of happiness should be the individual’s drive to succeed. The concept of property ownership extended beyond Jefferson. Although Jefferson focused on land, other founding members of the nation including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Cabot and James Madison saw property ownership, profit sharing and preventing concentration of capital as essential to maintaining a democratic nation. (Blasi, Freeman, & Kruse, 2013)

While the pursuit of happiness suggests non-material aspects of life, a key part of the American Dream focuses on ownership. Jefferson, as a member for the Virginia Legislature pushed to provide each man a plot of fifty acres. With this land, a family could sustain themselves and have a stake in the nation to engage in governance. (Hart, 2002) Likewise, Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, ushered in the Homestead Act which provided 160 acres to those willing to move west and colonize the nation’s frontier. By 1880, the Act had provided homestead consisting of 270 million acres (Lowry, 2013, p. p. 185). Under the Jefferson-Lincoln concept, ownership of property was the key to building a strong democracy as it allowed “individual economic stability and independence which in turn enable the independent and self-sufficient landowner to participate in the governance of local affairs and to achieve the common good.”  (Hart, 2002, p. 109) Tied to this concept was also the belief of public education within the Jefferson dogma. All children would have the benefit of a basic education in order that they might have the common skills in reading, writing, math, and language required to engage in government and self-governance. This unheard of proposition (Chinard, 1929) provided an engine towards the ideal of Americanism and the promise of the American Dream. The essential aspect of American democracy rests on ownership, education, participation, and self-responsibility, which are key values and principles of the co-operative identity (“Statement on the Co-operative Identity,” 1995).

The American Dream from the beginnings of the American Revolution through the Civil War focused on the ideal of property ownership and through property ownership the ability to secure a family’s liberty and provide a voice in the governance of their lives and provide the means to achieve happiness. This foundation continues today as home ownership remains a vital aspect of American life with the goals of home ownership providing a key measure of success (Rank et al., 2014). However, the relative simple aspect of this hope and aspiration to freedom found different expressions with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in both its incarnations in which the nature of work in the United States switched from producer to employee (Jacques, 1996). The physical expression of the American Dream adjusted to meet the needs of new immigrants and a new class of citizen, the employee.

*Obviously, Jefferson’s entire concept ignored the existing nations present in North and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans. The presence of indigenous peoples and their expulsion from their territory further undercuts the values and ideals of Jefferson and others seeking democratic rule of law. I don’t want to just dismiss this because it undermines the concept of the “American Dream”. The actions of the US government especially in the treatment of non-Europeans and even non-protestant Europeans has undermined the propaganda of the “dream”.

References:

Adams, J. T. (1959). The Epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Blasi, J. R., Freeman, R. B., & Kruse, D. L. (2013). The Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back Into Democracy. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Chinard, G. (1929). Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Ganter, H. L. (1936). Jefferson’s “Pursuit of Happiness” and Some Forgotten Men. The Willam and Mary Quarterly, 16(4), 27.

Gupte, S. S. (2011). The Reciprocal Reshaping of the American Dream and American Religion. (Masters), Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

Hart, G. (2002). Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st Century America (Vol. New York): Oxford University Press.

Jacques, R. (1996). Manufacturing the Employee. London: Sage Publications.

Lowry, R. (2013). Lincoln Unbound. New York: Haper Collins.

Rank, M. R., Hirschl, T. A., & Foster, K. A. (2014). Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schlesinger, A. M. (1964). The Lost Meaning of “The Pursuit of Happiness”. The William and Mary Quarterly, 21(3), 3.

Statement on the Co-operative Identity. (1995). Retrieved from http://ica.coop/en/whats-co-op/co-operative-identity-values-principles

Next: The Industrial Revolutions and the Great Depression

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Worker Co-ops and The American Dream, part 1

The American Dream

The logic of collective action suggests that workers, acting in their self-interest, should work together to achieve greater wealth. This materialistic concept establishes the role of labor unions towards helping workers gain a “piece of the pie” of the wealth that they create. The synergy of labor unions and worker owned enterprises offers a promise of greater control over one’s economic life and pathways for development of one’s social life as well. While the logic may exist for this union, it requires something more. The American worker has, historically, been disorganized. As Selig Perlman pointed out in his 1928 treatise, The Theory of The Labor Movement (Perlman, 1970), the American worker lacks the class consciousness of other industrialized nations as a  result of the general public education available to them and the relative ability to buy property as U.S. citizens. Workers in the US have significant freedom of movement and can thus express the option of leaving for greener pastures instead of fighting to change the employment conditions where they are—the country exits precisely because of this ideology (Hirschman, 1970). The National Labor Relations Act specifically creates a “hire-at-will” environment that allows workers the right to leave a job without notice. Further through political campaigns and the civil rights movement, many of the worst labor practices have become illegal. To understand the value of the union-co-op model, one must transcend the materialist logic of collective action and consider the power of myth within the American experience.

The term “American Dream” has become ubiquitous in the discourse of politics and social organization in the United States. A cursory search on Google on the term produces over twenty six million results and over 1,700,000 results on scholar.google.com.[1] It has, in political discourse, become the primary metric for politicians and political pundits to measure the efficacy of a policy proposal (Fisher, 1973; Rowland & Jones, 2007). Defining the “American Dream” however, proves difficult and many who use the term do so without the context of how they define it. This allows, of course, competing political ideologies to claim that the opposing view threatens the American Dream. Recent research, based on thousands of interviews, suggests three key components of the American Dream (Rank, Hirschl, & Foster, 2014):

  1. Freedom to pursue one’s passions and to reach one’s potential as a human.
  2. Economic security with a caveat that “hard work” should ensure that economic security.
  3. Hope, confidence, and optimism that progress will occur in one’s life and the life of future generations.

One can argue that the American Dream combines two dichotomous myths (DeSantis, 2009; Fisher, 1973)—one champions the materialistic and individualistic vision of wealth and prosperity and the other exalts the values of equality and tolerance. While some critics of the American Dream argue that it exists as a dream for those of European descent responsible for mass migration from Europe in the 19th century and has little value for those brought in slavery (Hochschild, 1996) it also played a significant role in the Great Migration of black Americans from the South to the North in search of a better life (DeSantis, 2009). The American Dream brings the myths of the pioneer and the Protestant Work Ethic together along with promises of a return to the glory of Grecian democracy. It provides not only a dream of the future, but also a fundamental measurement of the present. As will be seen, the ideal of the Dream resides deep within the key documents of the US experiment. It reflects, in many ways the hopes and fears of the nation as different political and economic movements take hold.

Myths, as Joseph Campbell describes, “are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life, animate the life of the world.” (Campbell, 1991). From a Sorelian point of view, the power of myths eclipse the ideologies and fuel the historical movements (Ohana, 1991). The key ideologies at play in the United States include the Protestant Work Ethic and Manifest Destiny (Prasad & Elmes, 1997; Weber, 2003). These ideologies not only pushed the European settlers to expand westward, but also encouraged them to prioritize the building of wealth and ownership. Combined with Jeffersonian ideal of Americanism, they create the grand-myth of The American Dream and a narrative of entitlement for the Europeans colonizing North America. Understanding the value of worker ownership requires understanding the ideological context of the American dream (Durepos, Mills, & Mills, 2008). In many ways, the American Dream acts as an antithesis to the grand myth of the Aristocracy of Old Europe, Machiavelli’s The Prince. Both act in the Sorelian model of creating a governing ideology. This particular grand myth created the energy that moves workers to strive for a better life.

Next: Foundations of the American Dream

References:

Campbell, J. (1991). The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books.

DeSantis, A. D. (2009). Selling the American Dream Myth to Black Southerners: The Chicago Defender and the Great Migration of 1915-1919. Western Journal of Communication, 62(4), 474-511. doi:10.1080/10570319809374621

Durepos, G., Mills, J. H., & Mills, A. J. (2008). The Pan American Dream and the Myth of the Pioneer. In M. Kostera (Ed.), Organizational Epics and Sagas: Tales of Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. R. (1973). Reaffirmation and Subversion of the American Dream. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59(2), 160-167.

Hirschman. (1970). Exit, Voice & Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hochschild, J. L. (1996). Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ohana, D. (1991). Georges Sorel and the Rise of the Political Myth. History of European Ideas, 13(6), 733-746.

Perlman, S. (1970). A Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Augustus M. Kelley.

Prasad, A., & Elmes, M. (1997). Issues in the Management of Workplace Diversity. In P. Prasad, A. J. Mills, M. Elmes, & A. Prasad (Eds.), Managing the Organizational Melting Pot: Dilemmas of Workplace Diversity (pp. 367-385). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Rank, M. R., Hirschl, T. A., & Foster, K. A. (2014). Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rowland, R. C., & Jones, J. M. (2007). Recasting the American Dream and American Politics: Barack Obama’s Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 93(4), 425-448. doi:10.1080/00335630701593675

Weber, M. (2003). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (T. Parsons, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[1] The search was conducted on March 31, 2016.

 

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Labor Unions and Co-ops, part 5

There and Back Again: Unions and Worker Co-operatives

In October 2009, the United Steelworkers and Mondragón Co-operative held a joint press conference to announce a partnership to create worker-owned unionized factories in the United States (Witherell, 2013). This marked the first time that the national leadership of a US labor union openly endorsed worker ownership since the days of the Knights of Labor. Likewise, for Mondragón, it marked as new effort to directly engage the US marketplace and build relationships with labor as opposed to contracting with the management of organizations such as General Motors.

The Union-Co-op Model exists as more of a paradigm than a model. No one form of union-co-operative partnership exists, although some proponents might claim superiority of their model. The unions involved tend to be from the MGU and SMU models (SEIU, CWA, United Electricians) but there are a few traditional Business Unions in the mix as well (UFCW). As the recovery from the Great Recession continues, the idea of creating synergy out of these disparate parts of the labor movement continues to intrigue academics and community organizers alike with the model seen as a key part of building a more sustainable commonwealth (Gordon-Nembhard, 2016) and overcoming income inequality (Huertas-Noble, 2016).

For many in the traditional worker co-operative community, labor unions seem as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and potential source of conflict when the workers already own the means of production; however, as pointed out in a 1953 National Labor Board ruling (Everett Plywood), “The mere fact that an employee also has rights and privileges of a stockholder is not sufficient to deny him from availing himself in his capacity as an employee.” (Lund, 1990).  Employee owned business can have a number of unique legal issues and conflicts of interests and the laws are not written to consider the unique nature of workers enjoying the position of both employee and employer (Dilts, 1990). Certainly, some worker co-operative models do create questions as to their authenticity and ability to adequately protect worker rights (Davis, 2016), however, as the NLRB noted in Everitt v. Union Cab,  when “shareholder-members of a co-operative corporation were excluded from coverage of the Act because they, as a group, had an “effective voice in the formulation and determination of corporate policy,” making them managerial employees.” (Gottshalk, 2013).

There is no inherent aspect of either worker co-operatives or labor unions that makes them progressive. Both organizations can be motivated for purely material gain regardless of the larger ethical issues as play. Likewise it should not be assumed that when worker co-operatives and labor unions work together that the outcome will lead toward a more progressive or socially engaged movement (Ji, 2015). The role of unions within an employee owned business can take on several roles as loyal opposition, strategic partner, or safety net (Ellerman, 1988). For worker co-operatives, which do not depend on the majority stockholder to ensure good working conditions or the democratic management scheme, the engagement with labor unions can be quite varied. So far, I have discussed the various dynamics in American society, culture, and labor movements that have brought these two forms of the labor movement back together. The material benefits for workers through either the labor union or worker ownership model have been well documented, but don’t necessarily offer a great reason for these groups to merge. This brings the discussion back to the social and community needs of the members that they experience through the unique myth of the American Dream. This dream offers more to people than material wealth, it also offers a sense of humanity and shared community that helped expand the civil and human rights from a narrow group of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Men to include women, people of color, indigenous communities, all-religious faiths, and most recently to sexual and gender identity. It has not always been an easy (or safe) pathway, and at many times, the progress made seems under attack. However, the core myth of the American Dream provides a inspiration and motivation for continued progress towards social and economic justice.

Next Week: part one of a discussion about the American Dream, Unions, and Co-ops.

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update on this site

I had a few minutes this morning to fix some things with this site.

If you have been itching to comment, you can do so now. You need to register as a subscriber and then you will have access to comment. I had it turned off to deal with all of the bots out there.

If you wish to join the commenting team, let me know!

Read about this site in more detail on the site information page.

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Labor Unions and Co-ops, part 4

The New* Worker Co-operatives

Worker owned businesses have always existed in the in the United States. They may be as small as a single proprietorship or as large as Google. Depending on the definition of worker ownership, organizations such as Google and Microsoft (Blasi, Freeman, & Kruse, 2013), which offer significant stock options along with traditional ESOPs such as WinCo Foods and their “millionaire cashiers” (Josephs, 2014). The workers in these organizations tend to do better than workers in competing organizations; however, the workers do not have any control over the workplace. The ownership is purely transactional. A different type of worker ownership, the co-operative, has also engaged workers in the United States for centuries. As stated earlier, worker owned factories were the primary vehicles for the Knights of Labor. Other laborers (both industrial and agricultural) turned to the co-operative model to meet their economic and social needs. The American Grange championed co-operatives throughout the United States and many of the top Agriculture firms today are producer or “shared-service” co-operatives in which the members of the co-operatives may be a single farmer (and his or her family) or an incorporated farm and use the co-operative to engage in bulk purchasing of supplies and marketing the product of each farm (Welch’s, Sunkist, Land o’ Lakes, Cenex, etc.). Worker co-operatives, in the laborers of a business own the business, however, largely disappeared during the second Industrial Revolution with the exception of a few fishing and logging co-operatives in the Pacific Northwest.

The social upheaval caused by the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movement sparked renewed interest in worker owned co-operatives, but outside of a few enclaves such as San Francisco, Minneapolis, Madison and Boston, the worker co-operative model was often ignored in favor of consumer, agricultural, housing and financial co-operatives. This began to change in the new century. The collapse of the Argentina economy in the early 00’s sparked a new movement of workers who took over their closed factories, claiming the building and equipment in exchange for back-pay (Lewis, 2004) sparking a similar take over in Chicago at the Republic Windows Company in 2007. This movement sparked similar ideas of worker ownership in the United States. By 2004, momentum among the existing 300 or so worker co-operatives built to create the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives and they held their first meeting in Minneapolis. On the international level, the International Organization of Industrial and Service Co-operatives published a Declaration on Worker Co-operatives that defines a worker co-operative as meeting these key elements (CICOPA, 2005):

  1. They have the objective of creating and maintaining jobs that provide a living wage or better and contribute to the quality of life, dignity of human work, and provide for democratic self-management while promoting community and local development.
  2. Free and voluntary membership/
  3. A majority of the workers are members and a majority of the members are workers.
  4. The worker-members relation with their co-operative should be different than waged-based labor and more akin to autonomous individual work.
  5. Internal governance is democratic.
  6. They have autonomy and independence from the government and third parties.

The CICOPA definition along with the simpler concept provide by Bowles and Gintis (1996) in which they define a democratic firm as one in which labor chooses the administration and administrative structure through a democratic process. The worker co-operatives in the United States run a gamut of industries from retail such as bicycle shops, bakeries, and book stores, to service industries such as cleaning, home care, and taxi operations, to industry with coffee roasters, industrial bakeries, and machine engineering. Governance models range from the true collective (generally in smaller co-operatives) to traditional hierarchical top-down management command-and-control. However, at the base of all of these organizations is either a board of directors or the general meeting in which the workers collectively decide the key aspects of the organization. Worker co-operatives have a lot to offer the labor movement and their development at this critical juncture in the US labor movement offers new potentialities for workers to reengage with the American Dream.

While traditional industrial relations theory tend to disregard, if not distrust, the ability of workers to self-manage in an effective means (Perlman, 1970) more recent research has shown that worker co-operatives can out-perform their competitors even while spending capital on improved working conditions and wages. In general, worker co-operatives operate at a higher level of productivity than conventional firms (CF) (Bowles & Gintis, 1996; Craig & Pencavel, 1995) although the causes of increased productivity may not always be completely understood and may even be a result of work practices that might not be permitted in conventional firms with or without labor union representation due to the “entrepreneurial nature” of the worker and a higher degree of risk-acceptance (Craig & Pencavel, 1995). In any event, traditional comparisons need to be adjusted with the nature of the workplaces. Co-operatives exist to benefit their members just as CFs exist to benefit their shareholders. In an employee owned firm, then, many of the benefits (higher wages, better insurance, safer and more humane working conditions) translate economically into the expense side of a traditional profit-and-loss statement. For example, Union Cab of Madison Co-operative  provides health insurance to its members by paying up to 70% of the premium in an industry that never provides health insurance to its drivers. In 2009, this benefit cost the co-operative approximately $360,000 for the co-operative’s contribution or approximately 5% of annual sales (Siegfried, 2009).

Wages compose the primary driver for labor unions and worker co-operatives alike, so it should come as no surprise that worker owned business tend to have higher wages as the wages become the primary source of return to the worker-owner (Craig & Pencavel, 1992). However, the more interesting dynamic arises from mechanisms to adjust to changes in the market place where co-operative engage a positive wage-employment relationship (they adjust to the market more slowly and tend to protect employment) (Burdín & Dean, 2009). In addition, pay differential within the co-operatives tend to be exceptionally small (Craig & Pencavel, 1992; Levine, 1990) as work tends to be considered equitable in order to meet the needs of the organization. The ability to control wages and benefits and using a compressed wage scale creates an elasticity within the labor system that helps lengthen the life span of the co-operative and allows them to weather economic downturns better than CFs (Ben-ner, 1984).  However, the life cycle of worker-owned firms does not follow similar patterns of CFs, which may be for a multitude of reasons that can vary by nationality. Some of these reasons include risk-aversion among the ownership required to address changes in the marketplace, the conversion of a CF already near the end of its life cycle, and increased competition during economic upswings (Ben-Ner, 1988).

While data on the actual number of worker co-operatives is severely limited, the incidence of the creation of worker co-operatives has been increasing since 2010. Many of the new co-operatives are being started by new immigrants and younger people who do not see the pathway to a career that their parents had even twenty years ago. In addition, the model has received a significant amount of attention recently through films such as Shift Change (Dworkin & Young, 2013) and new organizations such as the Democracy Collaborative. Significant barriers exists to the creation of worker co-operatives, not the least of which includes access to capital (Lawrence, 2002) and connection to larger networks. Labor unions provide one such network. Traditional relationships between the two models of the labor movement in the United States tend to run from indifference to distrust that workers can adequately manage disputes without union leadership (Lanze, 1992).  The Industrial Workers of the World has historically mistrusted worker co-operatives as a form of “self-exploitation” worrying that they will push wages down to compete with unionized firms (X344543, 2010).

* By “new” I mean the new era of worker ownership that began in the 1970’s and continued building through the neoliberal attack on labor unions (post-PATCO) and the social safety net. Some of these co-ops have celebrated their 40th anniversary, but they are new in the sense that they marked a return to worker ownership that had largely been ignored for much of the 20th Century.

 

References:

Ben-ner, A. (1984). On the Stability of the Cooperative type of Organization. Journal of Comparative Economics, 8, 13.

Ben-Ner, A. (1988). The Life Cycle of Worker-Owned Firms in Market Economies. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 10, 26.

Blasi, J. R., Freeman, R. B., & Kruse, D. L. (2013). The Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back Into Democracy. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1996). The Distribution of Wealth and the Assignment of Control Rights in the Firm. Amherst, MA.

Burdín, G., & Dean, A. (2009). New Evidence on Wages and Employment in Worker Cooperatives Compared with Capitalist Firms. Journal of Comparative Economics, 37, 16. doi:10.1016/j.jce.2009.08.001

CICOPA. (2005). World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives. Retrieved from http://www.cicopa.coop/World-Declaration-on-Worker.html

Craig, B., & Pencavel, J. (1992). The Behavior of Worker Cooperatives: The Plywood Companies of the Pacific Northwest. The American Economic Review, 82(5), 1083-1105.

Craig, B., & Pencavel, J. (1995). Participation and Productivity: A Comparison of Worker Cooperatives and Conventional Firms in the Plywood Industry. Retrieved from Washington, DC:

Dworkin, M., & Young, M. (Writers). (2013). Shift Change. In M. Young (Producer). Seatle, WA: Bullfrog Films.

Josephs, M. (2014, November 5, 2014). Millionaire Grocery Clerks: The Amazing WinCo Foods Story. Forbes.

Lanze, L. B. (1992). Attitudes of Labor Union Leaders Toward Worker Cooperatives: A survey of the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy. Annals of Public and Coopertive Economics, 63(1), 77-102.

Lawrence, J. W. (2002). Democratic Worker Cooperativs: An Organizational Strategy Reconsidered for the 21st Century. New Politics, Summer, 116-122.

Levine, D. I. (1990). Participation, Productivity, and the Firm’s Envrionment. California Management Review, 32(4), 86-100.

Lewis, A. (Writer). (2004). The Take. In B.-A. Productions, K. L. Productions, N. F. B. o. Canada, & C. B. Corporation (Producer). Toronto: Celluloid Dreams.

Perlman, S. (1970). A Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Augustus M. Kelley.

Siegfried, D. (2009). [Board Meeting Packet].

X344543, M. (2010). Collectives, Workers’ Cooperatives and the IWW. Retrieved from http://www.iww.org/en/join/collectives.shtml

 

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Labor Unions and Co-ops, part 3

A Labor Movement for the New Guilded Age

When Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, he not only invoked the rising supremacy of the United States by demanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, he ushered in a new era of individualism focused on the “freedom”(Bruner, 1989) that was libertarian in nature and encouraged the material success of the US economic model. This beginning of a new “Guilded Age” focused on the creation of individual wealth and individual prosperity. Roy H. Williams sees this moment as the zenith of the “Me Generation” (Williams, 2016), in which the relative strengths of individual achievement turn back on themselves. In this continuum between the “we” and the “me”, observers can understand the general debate over labor between the collective nature of the Republic and the desire for individualism. .

The ensuing years after Reagan’s speech saw the wall and the entire Warsaw Pact nations with planned economies fall. The rise of capitalism on a global scale ushered in a new era of globalism through international agreements such as the North American Free Trade Act and creation of the World Trade Organization. Both major party leaders in the United States embraced free trade, which allowed corporations to move capital across international borders with few obstacles. The attack on organized labor under the Reagan administration became a flight from organized labor under the Clinton administration. Further modernization of industry and relaxing New Deal era regulations on finance and monopolies allowed networks such as Wal-Mart, and practices such as “just-in-time” production to further erode the labor ecosystem as the nation switched from an industrial to a service economy (Klein, 2000, 2007; Meyer, 2016). Union coverage in the United States dropped by 17% during the Clinton Administration compared to 25% during the Reagan era[1] (Hirsch & MacPherson, 2012). The neo-liberal model of “flexible” capitalism, which allows capital to move quickly and help enhance just-in-time production, weakened the ability of the Wagner-model labour movement to hold corporations (often transnational) accountable or to meaningfully engage in negotiations (Meyer, 2016).

The reasons behind worker’s desire to unionize (Farber & Saks, 1980) have not changed. Job security, fair treatment and better wages and benefits remain core issues and over a million US workers join unions every year (Chaison, 2006) even while total union membership and coverage continues to decline. In addition to formal trade unions which have come under increasingly heavy regulation through amendment to the Wagner Act, workers and community organizers have begun to engage in non-traditional means to change working conditions through unofficial labor groups, social movements, and new mass organizations such as the Fight for $15, Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign, and other grass roots organizations (Meyer, 2016).

This has led to a rediscovery non-business union models such as Mutual Gains Unionism (MGU) or Value-Added Unionism (VAU) and Social Movement Unionism (SMU). The MGU model found limited success as labor unions attempted to engage in partnerships with the employers of their members in which traditional bargaining over wages and benefits gives way to participating in the growth of the company to the benefit of workers overall, the most successful example being the Saturn automotive plant in Tennessee, a project of General Motors. SMU theorists urge the labor movement to reunite with non-labor organizations to make common cause in the defense of workers and all people who suffer under the dominant economic system. Recent attempts such as SEIU’s Jobs with Justice campaign for New York City Janitors and CWA’s efforts with living wage campaigns demonstrated the power of SMU with marginalized communities outside of the traditional “union zone” (Devinatz, 2008; Nissen, 2003). SMU helped propel the labor movement throughout the first third of the 20th century and helped create the environment that allowed business unionism to exist (Nissen, 2003).

A number of community organizers have created worker centers to press the rights of workers. These centers are “community-based and community led” (Fine, 2005) and evade the regulations of the NLRA. This allows workers and their allies to use community campaigns to press demands for better wages, working conditions, and local regulations that protect workers. The worker centers, as not-for profit organizations that are independent of a collective bargaining unit, have the ability to go where unions cannot. They can engage secondary boycotts, provide informational pickets to publicly shame employers, and even protect workers during and after wildcat strikes. (Duff, 2014; Eidelson, 2013). Further, the National Labor Relations Board under the Obama administration included non-unionized workers in its purview. The NLRA has always covered all workers, but traditionally the NLRB has not considered cases brought by unrepresented workers (or the ability to bring a case has been too difficult).

These new movements look and act like the social movements of the late 1800’s: the Eight Hour Day, the rise of the NAACP, the push for regulation such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and other efforts to bring the Robber Barons of the day to heel. While the traditional Wagner model labor unions may seem to be in retreat (and their numbers decrease daily), the modern technology of the social media, smartphones and encrypted messaging services along with the renewed interest in worker rights through Fair Trade abroad and Living Wages at home have created a powerful foundation for workers to engage employers as never before. The modern labor movement may seem fractured (and in many ways it is), but it has not devolved into a disorganized mess, but a mosaic of multiple organizational models. This has created a multi-model line of attack and defense for the modern worker that has brought new relevance to old organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and their protracted fight against the Jimmy Johns sandwich franchise (Jamieson, 2016) and brought to life the worker co-operative model.

As Nissen (2003) argues, either model, MGU or SMU, can provide new potentialities for labour unions. The MGU model works best with an employer engaged to see the union as a partner. The SMU model connects the labor union to a larger social movement and can provide significant support to the union from outside. Both models, however, require a paradigm shift on the part of union leadership. In terms of the union-co-op model, a merger of the models into a Value-Added/Social Movement framework would work well within a worker-owned organization.

Post script: I wrote this a couple of years ago before the 2016 Presidential election. That election demonstrated the limitations of electoral politics to the labor movement. What one administration gives, another can take away. A responsive government requires more than voting, but constantly working to move the needle. The recent advance of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act comes from a lot of hard work and a recognition that the worker ownership in particular and the labor movement in general needs to engage elected representatives from a non-partisan position. Worker ownership has always been part of the American landscape (Blasi,  2013). Of course, slavery has also been part of the American labor system and continues in the form of the prison-industrial complex. Navigating these competing cultural attitudes about labor in the U.S. (ownerhsip by worker vs ownership of workers) that engage institutional  systems racism makes the ability to engage in the electoral field difficult and rife with contradictions.

Next Week: the “new” worker c0-ops

 

Blasi, J. Freeman, R. (2013) The Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back into Democracy. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Bruner, M. S. (1989). Symbolic Uses of the Berlin Wall, 1961-1969. Communication Quarterly, 37(4), 319-328.

Chaison, G. (2006). Unions in America. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Devinatz, V. G. (2008). Social-Movement Unionism and U.S. Labor’s Uncertain Future. Journal of Collective Negotiations, 32(3), 203-213.

Duff, M. C. (2014). ALT-Labor, Secondary Boycotts, and Toward a Labor Organization Bargain. 63 Catholic University Law Review, Summer.

Eidelson, J. (2013). Alt-Labor. The American Prospect.

Farber, H. S., & Saks, D. H. (1980). Why Workers Want Unions: The Role of Relative Wages and Job Characteristics. Journal of Political Economy, 88(2), 349-369.

Fine, J. (2005). Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream. Retrieved from

Hirsch, B., & MacPherson, D. (2012). Index of Tables: Union Membership and Coverage. Retrieved from http://www.unionstats.com/

Jamieson, D. (2016). These Jimmy John’s Workers Were Fired Illegally. Five Years Later, They Might Get Their Jobs Back. Huffpost Business. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jimmy-johns-union-fight_us_5707e5f4e4b0447a7dbc2d17

Klein, N. (2000). No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Canadian ed.). Toronto: Vintage Random House.

Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Meyer, R. (2016). Precarious Workers’ Movements and the Neoliberal State. Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 19, 27-55.

Nissen, B. (2003). Alternative Strategic Directions for the U.S. Labor Movement. Labor Studies Journal, 28(1), 133-155. doi:10.1177/0160449X0302800107

Reagan, R. (1987). Address from the Brandenburg Gate (Berlin Wall) (June 12, 1987). Retrieved from http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/speech-3415

Williams, R. H. (2016). Soliloquy. Monday Morning Memo. Retrieved from http://www.mondaymorningmemo.com/newsletters/soliloquy/

[1] The Reagan Era includes 1981-1993 since his Vice President George H. W. Bush succeeded him and many of the policies remained in place. George W. Bush’s two-terms only saw union coverage drop by 8%.

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