It appears that worker cooperatives may become an issue in this spring’s mayoral election in Madison, Wisconsin. Incumbent David Cieslewicz is blogging about a community-wide effort to facilitate the forming of worker cooperatives. Challenger and two-time former mayor Paul Soglin (the so-called Red Mayor) is blogging about it as well.
As a longtime worker/owner at Union Cab Cooperative here in Madison, I applaud both candidates for bringing up this issue. I’ve written about this before, that worker cooperatives could be a way to save our economy both by putting people back to work and getting back in the business of manufacturing things that people would want to buy. And of course, these would be safe, humane and sustainable workplaces more interested in serving the community than maximizing profit.
But let’s not be naive. This discussion comes in the context of a political campaign. It could be a lot of bloviating, just a lot of hot air that has no meaning once the last ballot is counted. Still, it could make for great discourse that could have real, concrete results but it is up to us. We need to get involved in this discussion to ensure that it has real focus to it. And once the election is over, we need to maintain pressure on whoever is elected to turn words to action.
On the treadmill at the East YMCA, it suddenly occurred to me that the best way to achieve this goal would be to propose something concrete, so we can have a real topic to discuss.
Here it is: I propose that the City of Madison establish the Madtown Worker Cooperative Incubation Center. And I know the perfect place: Union Corners on the east side of Madison. For those not familiar with Madison, Union Corners was where Rayovac had a manufacturing plant before corporate flew down south. A local developer had big plans for the site, but the financing fell through. Now it’s the most infamous blight in town. There have been various alternatives plans for the site, but none have come to fruition. Most recently, the city has proposed buying the land in order to be able to make sure that there’s at least a little rhyme and reason when it is eventually parceled off.
Union Corners is a good sized piece of property, and it’s certainly big enough for several small business. I propose that those businesses all be worker cooperatives, and that the city use its resources to help facilitate the formation of these new worker cooperatives.
First, the city should purchase and then develop the property in a simple but functional manner by erecting versatile structures and providing surface parking (along with ample green space as well).
Second, the city can establish a fund to provide seed money for these new business. The city would contribute to the fund, but would also solicit grants from the state and the feds, as well as the private sector.
Third, the city should participate in a community-wide effort to create a super-structure for MWCIC. This entity would oversee the creation of new worker cooperatives by approving viable proposals, facilitating funding and providing assistance in the formation of these new businesses. More importantly, however, this entity would do outreach in the community to let people know about the opportunities presented by MWCIC. Eventually, this entity would become an overall governing body for all MWCIC members. Down the road, MWCIC would buy the Union Corners property, but only if the city declares it as a Tax Incremental Finance district thus making it exempt from property taxes until its strong enough to contribute to the city’s tax base.
But MWCIC cannot merely be a collection of businesses that are housed on the same tract of land. There would need to be space for people to meet, confer and socialize. Also, within MWCIC there needs to be something I would call the Worker Cooperative Training Institute, which would do exactly what its name indicates. Obviously, MWCIC would attract people with previous cooperative experience. That’s all fine and good, but it’s probably even more important that member cooperatives include people with little or no previous experience with cooperatives so they would have an opportunity to learn how cooperatives can enhance and improve their lives.
The training institute would serve an important function and would give worker/owners the tools to be able to run their own cooperatives. In addition, the WCTI could eventually branch out and train worker cooperative members from all over the country and perhaps all over the world.
Another important institution for MWCIC would be the Workers Cooperative Credit Union. This credit union could be formed as a collaborative effort among the various local credit unions. The WCCU itself would be a worker cooperative. It could handle the financing of the various worker cooperatives at MWCIC, as well as the banking needs of member cooperatives and their worker-owners.
But what kind of worker cooperatives should there be at MWCIC? The answer is obvious: whatever kinds of worker cooperatives people can imagine, producing any and every kind of good and service. Get interested people together and talking, and they can come up with some of the most amazing and creative ideas. The only restriction is our collective imagination.
What are some of the great American products that are no longer made in America? We could make those at MWCIC. We could certainly create the Madtown Worker Cooperative brand, which could be recognizable from coast to coast.
Or another idea: one great resource in the Madison area is organic produce. A worker cooperative could perhaps make use of this produce to create various food products. MWC pickled vegetables. MWC liver pate. Again, the only limit is our imagination.
MWCIC is a win-win for everyone. It would create jobs where people would feel empowered. It would improve the city’s tax base and make use of Madison’s worst blighted area. In addition, it would represent a major step forward in the American worker cooperative movement. With Madison’s great progressive tradition, it seems logical for Madison to lead the way.