Are We Not Owners? We Are Workers!

Last Winter, Fifty by Fifty ran a series of blog posts about the sale of the ESOP New Belgium Brewery to Kirin. It was a great series of posts of which I was honored to participate. This was and is an important discussion about the role of worker (or employee) ownership. However, one editiorial didn’t appear on the site, but was published in one of my favorite publications, Counter Punch by one of my favorite thinkers on worker-focused economics, Bernard Marszalek. In this article about the sale of the 4th largest craft brewery, Righteous Capitalism vs. Cooperative Values, he discusses the notion of being a worker owner and it is worth for all of us to consider his position.

Specifically he argues:

“The fatal error of cooperatives decades ago was to emphasize ownership in imitation of the ESOPs. Almost from the inception of cooperatives as collective economic projects in the early 19th century, they were characterized as urban commons, duplicating in those new settings the centuries old practice of rural lands held in common by an exclusive group, like the families of a village or parish. So, the operative term for participants in cooperatives isn’t owner, but member. Retail co-ops serve consumer-members, housing co-ops have members whereas condos have owners, and worker-members manage worker cooperatives.”

As Bernard argues, neither the “employees” (to use a term of wage-slavery) of an ESOP or the workers of a co-op are truly owners. For the ESOP, the workers have little control over either their shares (which a Trustee often manages) or a say in the operations (although this can vary a bit). For worker co-ops, the members often have significant control over the workplace, but cannot actually sell their share of ownership or take their retained equity (I should know, Union Cab still holds my equity from 1993).

I agree with Bernard–let’s retire the concept of calling ourselves “worker-owners”. We are worker-members. We are stewards of the co-op doing the work to keep it resilient to honor the work of the previous members (who built a co-op for us), and maintaining the co-op’s ability to provide for the members of the future.

The concept of community ownership (in this case the community of workers) is fundamentally different from capitalist ownership. The latter seeks to use up assets and resources. It is extractive in nature and anti-communitarian. The former seeks to build a community that transcends the individual and builds a thing of lasting value to society.

Worker-Members creates a conceptual model of considering the generation of members prior and those yet to be. The term creates a community that challenges the extractive concept of ownership. A co-op member builds communal wealth and connects the individual to something bigger than themselves.

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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