CICOPA: Relations with Workers’ Organizations

The final section of the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives deals with the co-operative movement’s relations with the international labor movement. CICOPA calls upon the co-operative movement in general and worker co-operatives in particular to engage in dialogue.

The statement reads: “The co-operative movement should maintain a permanent dialogue with the trade unions, as the representative of the workers, in order to make sure that they understand the nature and essence of co-operative worker ownership as a distinctive modality of labour relations and ownership, overcoming the typical conflicts of wage-based labour, and that they support it in view of its importance and the prospects that it offers to human society.”

This post is quite timely as I was just discussing this in my May Day posting and fellow contributor, Bernard, also alluded to some other discussions. This is more important than the employer’s organizations. Workers must work together.

While I, personally, think that worker ownership is the way to go, I also recognize that it requires a lot of work that requires a serious commitment to education. Many people are quite happy working for a unionized workplace. They may not want the burden of having to manage the company in addition to doing the operations. One bike shop owner in Madison told me that his idea was to create the bike shop and convert it to a co-op. when he raised the idea with the workers, they weren’t interested. The workers liked working for him, but didn’t want to be tied down to the business—they liked having the freedom to leave when they wanted and weren’t really interested in committee meetings. The boss, in their mind, was doing a great job and created a great workplace, so why mess up a good thing.

We don’t train workers to be owners in our society. In fact, we do the opposite. We train workers to be subservient or even child-like. When companies talk of their business “being like a family” we can count on the “boss” being “dad” and the workers the “children”. As long as they are obedient and do as they are told, everything is fine. That is part of the dynamic with the aforementioned bike shop. Why would kids go out on their own when the parents are supplying everything they need and not making very many demands?

Of course, not everyone likes the child state. Many want to expand and grow. Labor-management antagonism derives from this dynamic. There comes a point, after all, when the interests of the child and those of the dad diverge. In families, everyone has a voice that is roughly equal (at least once everyone achieves the age of 18), but in economics, the voice of capital has a magnitude over that of an individual worker. Labor’s voice only matches capital when it pools the many voices into one. Labor unions provide a voice for the workers. They allow workers to focus on their jobs and act in their self-interest.

Labor unions, of course, also propagate capitalist society. Any honest capitalist will tell you that they prefer a unionized workforce. It may cost them a little up-front, but it also prevent wild cat actions, waters down demands, and even prevents revolution. Labor Unions seek a piece of the pie, they don’t want to talk about the recipe or the menu.

My preference, obviously, is for worker ownership. I fully believe that a world economy with worker co-operation as the dominant business model would be a sustainable economic system with a strong global community based on peace, justice, and equality.

It seems to me that labor unions help level the playing ground, but they don’t challenge an inequitable system (with the exception of the syndicalist union of the IWW). I support labor unions because of this, but I know that a better world is out there.

I have to recognize, however, that many workers simply don’t want to be worker-owners. I believe that attitude exists because of an education system that channels people into being either workers or bosses. An educational system that promoted co-operation over a profit-motive would create graduates who see work in a very different light. Don José María Arrizmendiarietta demonstrated this after World War II. The worker’s children in the small factory town of Arrasate (where he was sent) were not allowed to go to the school paid for by the plant bosses. Don José created a school for the children of the workers. Those children learned their letters and numbers under the co-operative teachings of the Jesuit priest. They also learned economics through the lens of Don José’s focus on a social economy in which the community economic structure would be based on education, justice, equality and equity. When the first group of students who earned their way into the University returned to their hometown and worked at the factory, they knew that they had to change the world. They knew that workers can run things if given the education. They left their jobs and retuned to Arrasate creating the ULGOR Cooperative and Mondragon was born.

The strategy laid out in the Declaration seems very reasonable. We, as worker co-operators, need to support the entire labor movement. We should support unions. However, we should also work to educate those in labor unions about worker ownership and encourage them to support us. We need to elevate their consciousness as well as our own. There are incredible partnerships to be made. We don’t need to choose between worker ownership and labor unions. As the hopeful pairing of the US Steelworkers and Mondragon might demonstrate, we can combine forces, and build the world the both groups want together.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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2 Responses to CICOPA: Relations with Workers’ Organizations

  1. Great piece. I agree down the line, and had even wondered why Revolution wasn’t a co-op. Seems like a natural. And I’m even a Wobbly (though not exactly active)!

    It seems to me that unions should see themselves as proto-co-ops. Even at places that will never become co-ops (like state government or the university), unions can take a far more proactive role, and can go a long way toward displacing management. Unions should be the ones setting and enforcing work standards, and they should always be higher than management’s. And when management gives them a hard time, they should be belligerent about grieving everything and anything. In short, the union should run the show — but it should make a point of running it well. If you can’t own the means of production, you can still exercise ownership of your own labor.

  2. Interesting reading as usual, I wonder other than the recent interest from the steal workers union, what the history and general relationship with trade unions is in the US.

    I’m off to the CECOP (Europe) General Assembly in a fortnight, focusing this year on relationships with trade unions. Happy pass on any learning/experiance from the US to feed the debate.

    In the UK although historically linked (at the start Co-operatives were seen as the indisturial wing of the labour movement and have 23 joint MP’s with teh Labour Party). There is no great relationship anymore, with worker co-operatives particulary ignored.

    This might be becuase they don’t think there is a role for them in a worker co-operative (despite worker co-operatives generally promoting union membership).

    Or due to antagonisim over privaisation of public services. Trade Unionism is strongest in the Public Sector and seeing Co-operatives as a way to privatise by the back door and therefore reduce pay and conditions.

    Properly governed and run, I can’t see why pay an conditions would be less. I think more likely this relates to your point about people being brought up in dependancy and not able to think they could do just as well running it themselves (if not better).

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