Democracy in the workplace

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Can democracy just consist of voting at the ballot box when we spend much of our time living under a dictatorship at the workplace? Increasingly, Americans are saying no. Under the radar, many are creating collective, cooperative kinds of economic institutions that aren’t your usual capitalist top-down enterprise. About 13 million Americans are in companies with some form of worker ownership. At least 40 percent of American society — 130 million people — are involved in co-ops and credit unions.

These developments were the subject of the second annual “Community Wealth Building” conference on Sept. 27 at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado in Aurora. Host committee members included The Denver Foundation, Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Co-Operate Colorado and the Anschutz Community Campus Partnership.

Some 250 people attended from a variety of ethnic and social movement backgrounds. Translation was provided by mobile devices for Spanish and Maay Maay (a Somali Bantu language) speakers. Audience members were encouraged to raise their hands if they didn’t understand the terminology and just say “literacy moment.”

The highlight of the conference was a presentation by Michael Peck, the North American delegate for Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) in Spain’s Basque country. It is a 60-year-old experiment in economic democracy consisting of some 120 worker-owned cooperatives involving nearly 100,000 workers and aligned with another 130 allied coops in the region. It was founded by a Catholic priest when Spain was a fascist dictatorship in a severely impoverished area devastated by the country’s civil war.

The MCC co-ops are ruled by “one worker, one share, one vote” and no one outside MCC holds any shares. Twenty percent of worker-owners can fire a boss. Those in management roles are appointed for a four-year term and must be a worker-owner within the cooperative. Worker-owners are protected, in their role as non-supervisory employees, by a union committee that negotiates a collective bargaining agreement with management.

Worker-owners get to vote on strategy, management and business planning. The highest-paid managers’ salaries are capped at six to eight times what the lowest-paid workers make. That’s a contrast with U.S. corporations where CEOs now receive 380 times more than the average worker.

MCC is the top industrial group in the Basque region, is ranked 10th in Spain and has a presence in 70 countries. It manufactures everything from industrial machine parts to pressure cookers and home appliances. It has its own chain of supermarkets, bank, university and mutual insurance company.

In 2009, the United Steelworkers Union (USW), the largest industrial union in the United States, announced a formal partnership with Mondragon. As manufacturing companies continue to move plants overseas, the USW wants to bring the Mondragon cooperative model to America’s devastated Rust Belt.

USW President Leo Gerard said, “Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollow out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants. We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”

In Cleveland, Ohio, there are a bunch of worker-owned co-ops called the Evergreen Cooperatives which are partly modeled after Mondragon. They were started with a mix of foundation money, public funds and private investment capital. They include a solar installation company, a laundry and a greenhouse capable of producing more than five million heads of lettuce a year. The laundry cleans more than four million pounds of laundry per year and employs 30 people. It is ecologically advanced, using two-thirds less energy and water than conventional industrial laundries.

They are getting hospitals and universities in the area to purchase sup plies, goods and services from these companies. This is “community wealth building” where co-ops work with “anchor institutions” (public or nonprofit institutions like a local hospital that won’t move to China) to create a more equitable and decent neighborhood.

In break-out sessions, we heard about local worker co-ops: a taxi company in Denver, a birth center in Boulder and a group of home care providers in Fort Collins. They discussed the frustrations of a democratic workplace but concluded that they enjoy having more control over their lives.

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This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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