The worker-owned model

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Faced with mounting economic and environmental crises driven by unrestrained capitalism, many people around the world are turning to cooperative enterprise as an answer to social ills. In America, 130 million are members of some kind of cooperative and 13 million work in an employeeowned company.

A cooperative is a one-person, onevote, member-owned and -controlled economic institution or business. In the United States, we have agricultural coops, insurance co-ops, food co-ops, housing co-ops, healthcare co-ops, artist co-ops, electrical co-ops, credit unions and many more. Large retail coops include REI, the outdoor clothing and supply company, and ACE, the hardware-purchasing cooperative.

These institutions are seen as part of a “community wealth building” or “solidarity economy” movement which includes municipally owned utilities and internet as well as community land trusts.

In Boulder, we have Namaste Solar, a worker-owned cooperative founded in 2005. There is Colorado Recovery, a Boulder company which provides comprehensive services to adults with serious mental illness. A few years ago, the owner, the late Dr. Richard Warner, was about to retire, and he decided to sell the firm to his employees because he felt that they were committed to the vision of the company.

An ownership plan was crafted that made it possible for workers with quite different income levels to become owners. In December 2014, 16 employees became co-owners and by mid-2016 the employees will own 100 percent of the voting rights of the company. (See Cat Johnson’s article “Why a Healthcare Entrepreneur is Selling His Business to Employees” at www.shareable.net/blog/why-a-healthcare-entrepreneur-is-selling-his-business-toemployees) 

As Bernie Sanders has said, democracy should be extended into the workplace. He points out that worker-owners have a commitment to the success of a company, that they feel they are “a part of the system; they’re not just a cog in the machine.”

Vermont is a leader in developing cooperative enterprises. That is basically the result of hard work by Sanders and his progressive coalition when he was mayor of Burlington. Peter Dreirer and Pierre Claval note:

“Thanks to the enduring influence of the progressive climate that Sanders and his allies helped to create in Burlington, the city’s largest housing development is now resident-owned, its largest supermarket is a consumerowned cooperative, one of its largest private employers is worker-owned, and most of its people-oriented waterfront is publicly owned. Its publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department, recently announced that Burlington is the first American city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.”

In a Politico piece, Ben Schreckinger says that “many of the radical solutions” Sanders created in the 1980s such as “free arts and culture for the masses, local-first economic development, wresting money from rich nonprofits, and, most shockingly, communal land for affordable housing —have become mainstays of the American municipal governance playbook.”

He says: “Early in Sanders’ tenure, his treasurer discovered $200,000 in the city’s coffers and the mayor determined to plow it into a bold initiative. Inspired by the garden cities of England, Israeli kibbutzim and Indian communes set up by the followers of Gandhi, he proposed to buy land and hold it in a communal trust for affordable housing, while the housing itself would be owned by occupants.”

In 1984, the Burlington Community Land Trust became one of the first affordable housing trusts on the planet, and the very first to receive municipal funding. Today, there are over 250 such trusts in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Boston and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Most of them receive some kind of government funding.

Sanders recently introduced two bills in the U.S. Congress to encourage worker ownership. Under one bill, the U.S. Department of Labor would provide funding to states to establish and expand employee ownership centers. These centers would provide training and technical support for programs promoting employee ownership and participation throughout the nation. This legislation is inspired by the success of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center. A second bill would create a U.S. Employee Ownership Bank to provide loans to help workers purchase businesses.

Workers in such an enterprise get decent pay, benefits and dignity on the job. It is a solution to off-shoring. A worker-owned firm has an incentive to respect the surrounding community and the environment. After all, that is where the worker-owners live.

Are such enterprises little islands of the future? Is another world possible? Come to a panel discussion entitled “Bernie 2016 — An alternative to global capitalism: Colorado cooperatives and other types of employee owned enterprises “ at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 1 at the Meadows Branch of the Boulder Public Library at 4800 Baseline Road. Speakers include Jason Wiener (cooperative/social enterprise attorney and business consultant) and Dick Peterson (leader of the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center). The event is sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America.

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

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