A Vision of Our Movement (or a beginning of a discussion)

Today, as this goes to post, I am about to start the first day of a two-day retreat for the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives board. The last several posts had a lot to do with this event as the Federation enters it sixth year. We have zero turn-over on the board and an opportunity to develop some clear vision and institutional infrastructure this year. It also marks the end of the original five year plan drafted back in Minneapolis in 2004.

Yesterday, I ended my post with this short comment: “Externally, we as a movement, need to create the basis for seeing a syndicalist worker movement as a viable means of managing the economy. We need to use our institutions and our co-operatives to present a true alternative to the dominant paradigm of capitalist and theft of labor. In this regard, we need to turn away from the rather insular Mondragon model and borrow a tactic from a very different guide and trailblazer: Milton Friedman.”

Yes. Milton Friedman has something to teach us. Under his leadership, he corrupted Breton Woods, turned the International Monetary Fund into a tool for economic extremists, destroyed Keynesianism, led the Chinese Communist Party to enroll entrepreneurs and created a thirty-year legacy of expanding the gap between rich and poor. Obviously, I think that his ideas are bankrupt and, to be honest, it would be hard for anyone to show where they have truly succeeded without the force of a military behind them. But, I am not here to discuss Disaster Capitalism. Naomi Klein has already written an incredibly power (and very well documented) book on this topic: The Shock Doctrine. You should add it to your list if you haven’t read it yet. I am more interested in how Friedman managed to expand his teachings from the University of Chicago to take over the world.

Friedman wasn’t interested in mere academic arguments. He believed in direct action. He put his ideas into practice. More importantly, he created plans and ideas. He made himself and his “Chicago Boys” a force in the world by showing up at Congressional sub-committee meetings and countless other functions. He realized something very important.  Economic movements cannot relegate themselves to being merely social movements. They must also be political movements. The Fabians understood this as well. Both the Chicago School and the Fabians churned out papers and proposals, attended meetings, and pushed their cause. The result is that when the opportunity struck, they had the ability to act. The Fabians took a long-term evolutionary approach, however, and really only succeeded after their big guns (George Bernard Shaw) had passed away leaving little legacy for the next generation. Friedman, on the other hand, acted quickly. While at first he operated in conjunction with US Foreign Policy and Cold War politics, he quickly understood that creating change at the end of a bayonet could never produce lasting changes (most of this discussion comes from The Shock Doctrine). Of course, I bring Friedman up mostly for the shock value, but he knew how to push his message.

What does this mean for our movement? At the National Worker Bi-Annual Conference held in Berekely last August, Executive Director Melissa Hoover noted that her hope is for worker co-operatives grow to the point that they are no longer considered the “alternative” but the “model”. So, how do we really get there?

In Haiti, after the earthquake, the proposals for rebuilding came from the usual neo-liberal sources with former US President Bill Clinton invoking their anthem: “Don’t let a good disaster go to waste.” In the rebuilding of Haiti, the discussion in the press was about privatizing government controlled businesses and services. Where was the worker co-operative plan for rebuilding the country along a democratic worker friendly economy? Well, it doesn’t exist yet. A couple of years ago, I asked Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz why co-operatives aren’t even mentioned when the city discusses development plans. He said, because you don’t show up.

We need to start creating plans and finding places to implement them. We need to engage our academics and help them become secular missionaries along the lines of our Co-op Priests from yesteryear. In Canada, they have that tradition and are working to put their ideas into practice. Isobel Findlay from the University of Saskatchewan presented work that she did last spring on creating co-operative options for single women. The Canadian Cooperative Association in conjunction with several research partners (led by Sonja Novkovic) are expanding St. Mary’s work on the Co-op Index to the larger community called Measuring the Co-operative Difference. We, as a movement, need to join them and start creating the programs, the plans, the position paper, and the buzz.

  • We need to develop “Best Practices” for worker co-operative in the United States that give our movement and identity and common language. Best Practices that combine the co-op identity with the distributist and syndicalist models. Best Practices that support us as workers and create solidarity with our external stakeholders (consumers, family, community).
  • We need to develop urban and rural planning guides for using worker co-operatives to meet community needs in a sustainable manner.
  • We need to develop a true alternative to neo-liberalism that provides a real plan of economic and environmental sustainability for communities and honoring the labor of the men and women who create the wealth of this country. Plans that generates wealth and distributes it among the people who create it.
  • We need to find communities that will work with us to implement our plans and see them to fruition (like Cleveland and the Evergreen Initiative only with a stronger sense of worker control). There are a lot of people doing this now–some are getting paid, a lot are not. The work of John Logue was certainly along this line and we need to continue that.
  • We need to create spokespeople for our movement in every major community who can speak a common economic language of worker co-operation and support these ideas at City Council Committees, State Government and even Congressional Subcommittees.
  • We need to be able to show up when the disaster strikes with our plan. We need to develop our larger ideas and models so that they are seen as a legitimate challenge to the status quo even without the pedigree of the University of Chicago or the Harvard Business School.
  • We can do most of this in bits and chunks, but I fear that has been our path and the result is that we get bits and chunks, we get people re-creating the wheel, and we get into a lot of long, drawn out debates over process and semantics. For all of these reasons, we really need to an institutional structure to help collect and then sift and winnow the ideas. Then we can debate them, take them out for  a spin and start creating our “ism”. The other side has a lot of these groups: Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institute.
  • We have the UW Center for Co-operatives, which does great work, but they are grant driven and have limitations placed on them as a tax-payer funded entity. We need something for worker co-operatives and for building our model. We need our policy wonks to be able to come together with the time to develop. We need our community organizers and co-op developers to help put those ideas into action. We need our charismatic folks to bring that message to the politicians and get them to start seeing us as a viable alternative. Mostly, we need to create a national definition of ourselves so that others don’t define our movement for us and there are already plenty of people trying to do just that.

Is this were the Democracy at Work Institute should go? How would we create a non-profit worker co-operative institute to further our movement and development along the distributist and syndicalist lines? More importantly how do we fund it so that the institute can actually do more than have phone conferences every quarter?

I’m ending this series of thoughts with a lot more questions than answers. While writing, I took a quick break and went for a walk. While walking, I was reminded that February will mark the 20th anniversary of my first election to the board of Union Cab. At the time, I was still planning on being an English professor. In 1995, as president, I answered a survey on worker co-ops from a Canadian researcher. When I asked him later for results, he said that there weren’t any. It turns out that he couldn’t find enough worker co-ops in the US to conduct valid research. Nine years after that, the first national worker co-op conference was held in Minneapolis and next year, just seven years later, the first North American Worker Co-operative Conference will be held in Quebec City, Quebec. There are almost 300 identified worker co-ops in the US with about 1/3 of them members of the US Federation. We are about to certify the first cohort of Worker Co-op Peer Advisors.

We have the momentum right now, but we need to find a way to channel it. We need to find a way to push our movement to the next level. We have to find a way to help our co-ops educate their members on the co-op difference and, in turn, help create the energy needed to maintain the momentum and extend it. I intend to spend the next thirty years, if I have to, to figure it out and I hope that you join me–and I now I have to go join a meeting.

Thanks for getting through this five-day post–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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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