It’s easy to get depressed. Every social advance that progressives have won is in danger. There is a growing despair over the inability of traditional politics to address the immense economic/environmental/political crises and the deep crevasse between the rich and the rest of us.
But there is hope. Small-scale experiments in creating a better society are quietly emerging all over the place. The Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland has been gathering information on a steadily growing hodgepodge of alternative economic institutions in communities across America. They include nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs), community land trusts that develop and maintain low-income housing, and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) that now invest more than $5.5 billion a year in creating jobs and housing and providing services for poor communities.
Worker-owned businesses are proliferating. Around 11,000 businesses are now owned in whole or part by their employees, involving 10 million workers. More than one in three Americans — 130 million — are members of urban, agricultural and credit union co-operatives. There are also 2,000 publicly owned utilities that — together with co-operatives — provide some 25 percent of America’s electricity. More and more states are looking into the creation of public banking systems along the lines of the public Bank of North Dakota (established in the early 20th century by a socialist farmers party).
On Sept. 7, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center (www.rmeoc.org) held its first conference at the Tivoli Student Center on the Auraria campus in Denver. The theme was “Community Wealth-Building,” which involves “economic strategies where profits return to employees, consumers and local communities.”
There was a workshop about Boulder’s Namaste Solar and Fort Collins’ New Belgium Brewing, the state’s flagship employee-owned businesses featured in the award-winning documentary “We the Owners.”
Amanda Bybee, vice president of Namaste Solar, said her 8-year-old firm has 70 people, 55 of whom are co-owners or candidates (on the ownership track). It is the largest locally owned photovoltaic company in Colorado offering commercial-scale services nationally. Jenny Briggs, human resources director at New Belgium Brewing, said her 22-year-old company is 100 percent employee-owned via an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). It has 502 people, approximately 40 percent of whom reside outside of Colorado. It is the third-largest craft brewery in the U.S. and one of three employee-owned breweries.
Both businesses are democratically run. All meetings are open. All notes are accessible. All information is shared by computer.
New Belgium Brewing was profiled in a July 5 op-ed in The New York Times titled “The Legacy of the Boomer Boss” by Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and a founder of the Democracy Collaborative.
Last year, New Belgium’s retiring chief executive and co-founder, Kim Jordan, sold the company to her employees. “There are few times in life where you get to make choices that will have multigenerational impact,” she said. “This is one of those times.”
Alperovitz would like other retiring small business owners to follow her lead. He says:
“Over the next decade, millions of business owners born during the baby boom will retire. Many, with no obvious succession strategy, will simply sell their companies, the backbone of Main Street economies across the country, to large corporations. All too often the result will be consolidations, plant closures and lost jobs for the people who helped build and sustain their companies for decades.
“The boomers should think again: Selling to their employees is often a far better way to go — for both moral and economic reasons.”
Alperovitz notes that “over the next 15 years retiring boomers could help create 2 to 4 million new worker-owned businesses nationwide.” The Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center is promoting this idea.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has introduced bills that would give states funding to establish and expand employee ownership centers and to create a bank to provide loans to help workers purchase businesses through an ESOP or a worker-owned co-operative.
This is a new approach to challenging corporate power that comes from the bottom up. Could this help lessen the pervasive feelings of cynicism and helplessness about social change?
Could this be a small step toward an economic democracy?
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.