Progressives Should Embrace Co-operatives

I was asked to speak to the Wisconsin Wave last Saturday. I missed my first chance, because I thought that I was supposed to speak at the part of the rally in front of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce building (a trade organization that pushes a corporatist agenda in the state). I didn’t have anything prepared, but this is what I remember saying:

“I work for Union Cab of Madison, a worker co-operative and I also serve as President of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives. The US Federation of Worker Co-operatives is a trade organization but we are nothing like the Wisconsin Manufacturers of Corruption. Our Federation ‘envisions a democratic society in which workers are in control of the management, governance and ownership of their places of work. Workplaces will uphold the values of empowerment, equity, dignity and mutual respect for all workers without discrimination. Workplaces will offer long-term stable jobs, a living wage and the opportunity for ownership for every worker.’ We believe in building a democratic economy.

We know that we need a better economy. However, we don’t need to invent it. A better economic model already exists. It is called co-operation. The International Co-operative Movement has over 800 million members of co-operatives and credit unions. One in three people in the United States, Canada, and the UK are members or either a co-operative or a credit union. Theses are people who have chosen to put their neighbors and community over profits. It is the only economic movement that has an international set of values, ethics and principles. These values are familiar to all of us who believe in a just society: mutual self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. This economic movement also believes in openness, honesty, caring for others and social responsibility. Isn’t this the sort of economy that we want?

Why do we need to build this economy? Voting can only take us so far. We need to keep working on the recall, and the recount, but we need to recognize the limitations of voting. I’ve been voting since 1982, in every election, two years after the “Reagan Revolution”. It seems to me that voting has been little more than an organized retreat. We need to move forward. The reality is that as long as the commanding heights of the economy (energy, food production, communication, information, and transportation) are controlled by investor-owned, profit-driven enterprises, our government institutions will always be under attack. We need to seize the commanding heights of our economy through people driven enterprises–co-operatives.

We need to start now. On Monday, if you aren’t a member of a credit union, move your money out of the bank and join a credit union. Start shopping at co-ops as much as you can. Quit participating in their economy and make our economy the first choice. Let’s start building our economic movement now!

I know that this seems daunting. We are dispersed and the corporations are huge and powerful. However, and I will end with this, as I was walking down the hill just know, I was thinking of what happened in Spain. Shortly after the civil war, a young priest was on death row. The Pope told Franco that he had to quit killing priests, so they sent this young priest to a small industrial town in the foothills of the Pyrenness presumably to never be heard from again. When this priest got there, he found a town divided by class. The children of the workers had no school. Only the bosses kids got to go to school. He went to the bosses and asked them to let the worker’s kids go to school. They said “No. The schools are for our children.” This priest then began collecting pesos from the workers–whatever they could spare–and established a school for the children of the workers. 12 years later, five of those children went to University. When they returned, they went to work as engineers in the factories. They came back to the priest and said, “our work has no value, we want our work to be in line with the values that you taught us”. Those five workers and the priest started ULGOR Co-operative. Today, it is known as Mondragon Co-operative. It employs 180,000 worker owners. It has its own Social Security system, its own Kindergarten through University educational system and produces one-third of the Gross Domestic Product for the Basque region of Spain!

If five college kids and a priest can do this under the Iron Heel of Franco, then what can we do?!

If five college kids and a priest can fundamentally change their economy, then so can we. We need to say, ‘Yes We Can!'”

I tend to be a little somewhat of an introvert, but I was glad that I spoke. As I was getting ready and thinking of what to say, I kept remembering Mother Jones’ admonition to “speak even if your voice shakes!” I hope that people reading this will take some action. For instance, those of you with web domains could easily move your host to a co-operative host, as I do. Electric Embers would be happy to host your domain. Ask you co-op to start using the .coop domain suffix. It does cost a little more, but it helps promote co-operatives world wide and provides a strong brand.

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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3 Responses to Progressives Should Embrace Co-operatives

  1. Rebecca Kemble says:

    John, you gave a magnificent speech that gave people hope and sparked their imaginations! Steve Herrick led a workshop the next day on worker co-ops that also got a great reception. Thanks for working here and for having kept the flame of worker rights and dignity lit through some very dark times.

  2. Steve Herrick says:

    I couldn’t write out what I said, because even though I had notes, I only sort of used them. It was a small audience, so the whole thing was more conversational than I expected.

    Maybe I’ll still flesh out my notes. If I can find the time…

  3. Pingback: Reflections of Pensimientos « The Workers' Paradise

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