Steve Lambert

is back from a C4AA workshop in Ghana

Co-operatives as a tool to fight economic inequality

Ok, full transparency: this is a failed funding proposal. I wrote it as a long-shot for an RFP calling for new and radical ideas to fight economic inequality. As a proposal it did’t work, but it conveys some ideas I think are worth sharing.

Co-operatives as a tool to fight economic inequality

Solving economic inequality is a global challenge requiring political shifts, legislative changes, vast and controversial overhauls of economic policy and regulation, and new, novel, and largely untested technological and organizational solutions to be implemented.

Let’s be honest, to make all this happen on any reasonable timeline requires an international political coup just to get started. And while I absolutely support the fight to achieve reforms (and revolution, why not?), I find myself drawn to a much closer, realistic and pragmatic solution. One that doesn’t require blockchain, or kindhearted “angel investors”, or a mobile app. One that doesn’t have the election of very specific, friendly politicians to top offices in the nation as a prerequisite. One that isn’t predicated on an international uprising.

Until that thrilling day when we overthrow capitalism, we’re fortunate to have immediate and achievable options available to us under the laws and politics of the current economic system: worker-owned cooperatives or worker self-directed enterprises.

In countries that believe so strongly in democracy, we’re oddly indifferent to autocratic leaders, plutocrats, and oligarchs managing our workplaces. Yet better ways exist. Bringing democracy into the workplace puts the needs of workers before profits and investors, allocating earnings among those who need it most instead of concentrated by owners and investors. Cooperatives lower the barriers of business ownership and bring more diverse voices into leadership and decision making. The skills required to work cooperatively are skills that make communities stronger and more resilient, especially during periods of economic volatility.

These advantages stand to benefit most of the population, but of course starting a worker run business is not simple, easy, or without sacrifices.

Fortunately evidence abounds of working people willing to put in long hours, take great risks to their livelihood, and learn new skills for a chance to improve their salary and standing at their jobs.

Some even take the significant risk and effort of starting their own business. We call them entrepreneurs and, all too often, all their effort to become The Boss takes the problem they were trying to escape and replicates it for their future employees. (To be fair, given the chance, they’d likely dream of being a more benevolent boss who earned their bonuses. And don’t they all?)

Others workers stay up late after their kids have gone to sleep, studying eBooks and wandering their way through online courses in an effort to “learn to code” to, at best, become a different kind of cog in the digital labor machine.

But what if instead of spending all that time on unpaid overtime, or becoming the better bad guy, or spending sleepless nights in the hopes of a seat on a javascript production line, that time was spent doing hard interpersonal work, cracking the code of collectively making productive decisions with ones workmates for the benefit of each other?

And why not? With much of the legal structures and organizational models already in place, why haven’t worker owned cooperatives made their way from college-town grocery stores into larger businesses across the country and globe?

The problem is cultural. Antonio Gramsci understood this. As a young man in the first decades of the 20th century he was part of a movement of striking workers in Turin who seized their factories from the owners. As per the Marxist blueprint, the proletariat had seized the means of production, next to come was the inevitable socialist transition to the communist ideal! This isn’t how things worked out. Once the factories were won, the workers found themselves at a loss: they didn’t have the confidence or knowledge to run the factories themselves and within a short time they gave back control to the owners, and working conditions returned to their exploitative norm. So what went wrong? The workers, Gramsci concluded, hadn’t developed a radical culture that allowed them to make sense of their radical actions. They hadn’t yet developed the culture necessary for running the factories, and themselves, in a non-capitalist manner. Put another way: they had banished the bosses from the factories, but not from themselves.

Cooperative models aren’t socialized the way hierarchical business models are. Corporate structures and sole-proprietorship are ideas that require little explanation, and graduate schools of business are sprinkled across the land to supplement what we don’t glean from birth. Our society has long exalted legend and folklore around lone genius executive leaders from Rockefeller to Lee Iacocca to Steve Jobs. Cooperative business structures are rare to begin with, and even rarer is the case when their quiet yet significant triumphs reach the popular culture. Imagine the headlines; “Cooperative Grocery Profits Remain Stagnant for 20th Year! No Layoffs Planned.”

Yet cooperatives make so much sense the idea continues to find it’s way back into the popular imagination. Just in the last four years Trebor Sholtz coined the term “Platform Cooperatives” to describe a nascent economic need. Why should a private company like Uber with a track record as a bad actor continue to exist when they could be replaced by democratically controlled cooperative alternatives that “allow workers to exchange their labor without the manipulation of the middleman”. In 2016 Nathan Schneider published “Here’s my plan to save Twitter: let’s buy it” in which he asked “What if users were to band together and buy Twitter for themselves?” According to the New York Times, “Support for full-fledged co-ops has inched into the mainstream as communities have grown weary of waiting for private investors to create good jobs – or sick of watching them take jobs away.” (3/23/14)

During [my proposed project], I’d work with advocates for cooperatives on creative projects that communicate their goals and ideas into popular culture. Using the research and development process I’ve honed in my personal work and with the Center for Artistic Activism to advanced human rights and public health around the world, I’ll work with organizations like the U.S. Federation of Worker Owned Cooperatives and the Democracy at Work Institute to develop strategic objectives and creative tactics to move their efforts forward. While the specifics will be worked out in collaboration, similar past projects outcomes include large scale, public spectacles, accessible printed materials and online publications, public events and designed experiences.

In the end I imagine a Creative Cultural Advocacy Tool Kit – a set of field-tested creative objectives, strategies, and tactics for advocates of cooperatives to put to use at the national, local, or workplace level. The audiences for this work could include frustrated workers in hierarchical workplaces, progressive employers open to transition, unions looking to give their members even more agency, as well as cooperatives themselves. The outcomes would be the popularization and socialization of worker owned and directed workplaces, winning campaigns in specific workplaces, and a rise in new businesses starting as worker-run cooperatives. For participants and audiences, the work will have knock-on effects of increased experience with personal advocacy, more politically engaged citizens, and revitalizing the perception of unions from a worker perspective.

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