We examine how three US cities have been experimenting with different approaches to democratizing the workplace: Rochester, NY, Cleveland, Ohio; and go into a deep dive examining what is in many ways the US hub of innovation for democratizing the workplace through the development of worker-owned cooperatives.
Democratizing the Workplace
On Wednesday Roxanne and I appeared on a Las Cruces radio show with two members of the Las Cruces chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. At one point we were discussing the viability of democratic socialism as an economic system and one of the DSA reps stated that Amazon warehouse employees have limits on how long they are allowed to go to the restroom and that they use bottles to pee into to meet productivity standards. We went on with the interview but both Roxanne and I were like: “What? Seriously?” So I did a google search and found a series of articles describing exactly this situation.
From a Verge article: “[Amazon] Workers who pick up products for delivery at a warehouse in Staffordshire, UK use bottles instead of the actual toilet, which is located too far away, as reported by James Bloodworth an investigative reporter who went undercover as an Amazon warehouse worker. They are afraid of being disciplined for idling and losing their jobs as a result, he added. Bloodworth told The Sun in an interview that the warehouse resembled a prison or an airport, with high security scanners that check workers for banned items like hoodies, sunglasses, and phones, and other employees who pat down workers to check for stolen goods.”
‘Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor in Madison, WI, had heard about Spain’s Mondragon cooperative complex and their union cooperatives in the U.S. He researched how labor could support cooperative development in this country. During his research, Gundlach read about the city of New York investing a million dollars for worker cooperative development. It sparked an idea for Madison.
Then he bumped into the mayor, Paul R. Soglin, at a community picnic. Gundlach told Soglin about his idea to have the city help with cooperative development, not just to create good jobs, but to support neighborhoods. The mayor, Gundlach, responded with: “This is something I’d been interested in as well.”
Soon after that conversation, Soglin initiated Madison’s Capitol Improvement Plan, “Co-operative Enterprises for Job Creation & Business Development.” This plan authorized the city to spend $1 million each of five years starting in 2016 to fund “cooperative/worker-owned business formation for the purposes of job creation and general economic development in the city.”
Madison has established a kind of publicly sponsored and funded worker cooperative incubator and the result is over two dozen thriving worker cooperatives in the city (see list at the end of the post). This isn’t just one city in a wildly progressive bubble doing this. Note from above that the first thing that Gundlach did was reach out to Mondragon, the largest worker cooperative in the world.
Mondragon was formed in 1943 when Don Jose Maria created a school that was organized in the form of a cooperative. Over time Mondragon has evolved into a vast network of worker cooperatives functioning in dozens of industries throughout Spain and the world. Mondragon will be the focus of a future post, but for those who want a quick read on its history, click here. Cities across the world are learning from Mondragon as evidenced from this report from the UK on the explosive growth and effectiveness of worker owned collectives in their country. Click here for the report from the UK.
Organizing worker collectives in a systematic way at a local level is not a wildly idealistic, utopian dream. We visited with city administrators in Rochester who, with support from the Democracy Collaborative, are replicating what is being done in Philadelphia and Madison by negotiating with that city’s “anchor institutions”, e.g. hospitals, large supermarket chain, university, etc. While just beginning, they are negotiating with anchor institutions to identify services or products that they need and then incubating work cooperatives to address those needs. It is a start toward that city’s effort to democratize the workplace.
What if a city, say Santa Fe New Mexico, or ABQ or Las Cruces decided that they could/should foster the development of worker cooperatives? Imagine, if those cities worked with local foundations, philanthropists and the state to fund the development of a worker cooperative incubator program, perhaps with the local community college to provide training for students and with key anchor institutions like their hospitals, universities, community colleges, and other industries identifying service and product needs that could be addressed by worker owned cooperatives.
Worker cooperatives are just one of several equity-focused initiatives that Roxanne and I have explored on our Road Trip. Our learning from meetings with leadership who have advanced worker cooperatives has been augmented by time spent reading about Mondragon and other efforts to democratize the work place and to create local participatory democratic structures such as found in Spain through the Municipality movement (or En Comu). Look for more on this, but if you want to whet your appetite, we are providing podcasts from The Next System Project that describe a wide variety of cooperative, democratic and socialist initiatives.
The Next System Project has a website with over 20 podcasts on a variety of issues. Click here to get to that site. To amplify on what is presented above, we provide a link to one of those podcasts, an interview with Esteban Kelly. Esteban is the executive director of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. He is a co-founder of the cross-sector Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance and the Anti-Oppression Resource & Training Alliance, also known as AORTA. He has served on numerous boards and is deeply involved in the solidarity economy and cooperative movements. Click here to listen to the podcast. The transcript to the interview appears with the interview itself.
Roxanne and Paul