Worker Co-ops and The American Dream, part 1

The American Dream

The logic of collective action suggests that workers, acting in their self-interest, should work together to achieve greater wealth. This materialistic concept establishes the role of labor unions towards helping workers gain a “piece of the pie” of the wealth that they create. The synergy of labor unions and worker owned enterprises offers a promise of greater control over one’s economic life and pathways for development of one’s social life as well. While the logic may exist for this union, it requires something more. The American worker has, historically, been disorganized. As Selig Perlman pointed out in his 1928 treatise, The Theory of The Labor Movement (Perlman, 1970), the American worker lacks the class consciousness of other industrialized nations as a  result of the general public education available to them and the relative ability to buy property as U.S. citizens. Workers in the US have significant freedom of movement and can thus express the option of leaving for greener pastures instead of fighting to change the employment conditions where they are—the country exits precisely because of this ideology (Hirschman, 1970). The National Labor Relations Act specifically creates a “hire-at-will” environment that allows workers the right to leave a job without notice. Further through political campaigns and the civil rights movement, many of the worst labor practices have become illegal. To understand the value of the union-co-op model, one must transcend the materialist logic of collective action and consider the power of myth within the American experience.

The term “American Dream” has become ubiquitous in the discourse of politics and social organization in the United States. A cursory search on Google on the term produces over twenty six million results and over 1,700,000 results on[1] It has, in political discourse, become the primary metric for politicians and political pundits to measure the efficacy of a policy proposal (Fisher, 1973; Rowland & Jones, 2007). Defining the “American Dream” however, proves difficult and many who use the term do so without the context of how they define it. This allows, of course, competing political ideologies to claim that the opposing view threatens the American Dream. Recent research, based on thousands of interviews, suggests three key components of the American Dream (Rank, Hirschl, & Foster, 2014):

  1. Freedom to pursue one’s passions and to reach one’s potential as a human.
  2. Economic security with a caveat that “hard work” should ensure that economic security.
  3. Hope, confidence, and optimism that progress will occur in one’s life and the life of future generations.

One can argue that the American Dream combines two dichotomous myths (DeSantis, 2009; Fisher, 1973)—one champions the materialistic and individualistic vision of wealth and prosperity and the other exalts the values of equality and tolerance. While some critics of the American Dream argue that it exists as a dream for those of European descent responsible for mass migration from Europe in the 19th century and has little value for those brought in slavery (Hochschild, 1996) it also played a significant role in the Great Migration of black Americans from the South to the North in search of a better life (DeSantis, 2009). The American Dream brings the myths of the pioneer and the Protestant Work Ethic together along with promises of a return to the glory of Grecian democracy. It provides not only a dream of the future, but also a fundamental measurement of the present. As will be seen, the ideal of the Dream resides deep within the key documents of the US experiment. It reflects, in many ways the hopes and fears of the nation as different political and economic movements take hold.

Myths, as Joseph Campbell describes, “are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life, animate the life of the world.” (Campbell, 1991). From a Sorelian point of view, the power of myths eclipse the ideologies and fuel the historical movements (Ohana, 1991). The key ideologies at play in the United States include the Protestant Work Ethic and Manifest Destiny (Prasad & Elmes, 1997; Weber, 2003). These ideologies not only pushed the European settlers to expand westward, but also encouraged them to prioritize the building of wealth and ownership. Combined with Jeffersonian ideal of Americanism, they create the grand-myth of The American Dream and a narrative of entitlement for the Europeans colonizing North America. Understanding the value of worker ownership requires understanding the ideological context of the American dream (Durepos, Mills, & Mills, 2008). In many ways, the American Dream acts as an antithesis to the grand myth of the Aristocracy of Old Europe, Machiavelli’s The Prince. Both act in the Sorelian model of creating a governing ideology. This particular grand myth created the energy that moves workers to strive for a better life.

Next: Foundations of the American Dream


Campbell, J. (1991). The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books.

DeSantis, A. D. (2009). Selling the American Dream Myth to Black Southerners: The Chicago Defender and the Great Migration of 1915-1919. Western Journal of Communication, 62(4), 474-511. doi:10.1080/10570319809374621

Durepos, G., Mills, J. H., & Mills, A. J. (2008). The Pan American Dream and the Myth of the Pioneer. In M. Kostera (Ed.), Organizational Epics and Sagas: Tales of Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. R. (1973). Reaffirmation and Subversion of the American Dream. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59(2), 160-167.

Hirschman. (1970). Exit, Voice & Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hochschild, J. L. (1996). Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ohana, D. (1991). Georges Sorel and the Rise of the Political Myth. History of European Ideas, 13(6), 733-746.

Perlman, S. (1970). A Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Augustus M. Kelley.

Prasad, A., & Elmes, M. (1997). Issues in the Management of Workplace Diversity. In P. Prasad, A. J. Mills, M. Elmes, & A. Prasad (Eds.), Managing the Organizational Melting Pot: Dilemmas of Workplace Diversity (pp. 367-385). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Rank, M. R., Hirschl, T. A., & Foster, K. A. (2014). Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rowland, R. C., & Jones, J. M. (2007). Recasting the American Dream and American Politics: Barack Obama’s Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 93(4), 425-448. doi:10.1080/00335630701593675

Weber, M. (2003). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (T. Parsons, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[1] The search was conducted on March 31, 2016.


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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