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.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University and hopes to finish his Ph.D. in Business Administration soon. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle and Mission Circle for Sociocracy for All. He teaches on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College.
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