By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
It certainly is no surprise that the current economy isn’t working for many Americans nor for the environment. What’s exciting is what business forms are emerging as alternatives.
A new film called Shift Change examines one of them: cooperative enterprises.
I saw a screening of the documentary following a panel discussion with a union leader, a funder of cooperatives and prominent liberal thinkers. They each used a different term – co-ops, union co-ops, inclusive capitalism or democratization of capital and wealth – but they were all talking about the same principles of worker-owned businesses in which employees share the decision-making and the wealth.
Part of the goal of the movement is to defy the myth that good jobs and a clean environment can’t go hand and hand, said Leo Gerard, of the United Steelworkers. And to show that employees can be productive and creative without worrying about working themselves out of a job.
In the film, the Mondragon Corporation, in the Basque region of Spain, is held up as the model of how this all can come together. Over the past 50 years, the cooperative corporation has spawned 120 businesses owned and managed by workers, with a total of 84,000 employees. The businesses include a bank, bike manufacturer, appliance maker and research institute.
In the Mondragon model, creativity and development are rewarded with the creation of more jobs, in contrast to the dominant model in which higher productivity can lead to job losses.
The model also can cushion the blow to workers during challenging economic times. For instance, when the recession and national austerity measures hit Spain, some cooperatives’ workers decided to take lower wages rather than initiate layoffs. A social service cooperative helped facilitate moving workers from one business to another to retain as many jobs as possible.
I had heard about Mondragon before, and it was interesting to hear about its history and the extent to which its cooperative spirit has filtered throughout the community. I wasn’t prepared to learn about how this model is being implemented on a much smaller scale all around the U.S.
In Cleveland, Evergreen Cooperatives has launched a laundry and a solar panel installation business that serve some of the city’s largest institutions. Madison, Wisconsin, has a cooperative engineering company, a cooperative pharmacy and even a cooperative taxicab company.
In San Francisco, workers at Arizmendi Bakery, named after the founder of the Mondragon model, said in the film that they are practicing democracy in the workplace as they sort out conflicts among themselves rather than turn to a boss to solve problems for them.
An employee at Emma’s Eco-Clean in Oakland smiled as she talked about not getting sick as much as she used to when she worked for a traditional house-cleaning company that used toxic chemicals. She also appreciates the flexible schedule that allows her to take time off for her children’s school activities.
The workers of Union Cab in Madison, who include drivers and dispatchers, decided to begin buying hybrid cars and are finding the investment is saving them money as their fuel bills fall.
Workers throughout the film name the benefits of this model. They range from the simple — they can get rid of an unpopular manager – to the more complex — since everyone is part of the decision-making process everyone understands why decisions were made and is ready to implement them. Since all workers are also owners, they learn that they have to balance wages with profits to keep the business solvent, some said. They like sharing knowledge and working together as a team rather than seeing others as competitors for better positions or higher pay.
Some of the speakers in the panel discussion prior to the film screening put these examples into the larger picture.
John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies said that Fortune 500 companies were once the key to success for middle class Americans. “We can no longer say that,” he noted, “but out of the ashes of the old economy we see experiments that balance concern for the environment, worker rights and strengthening of democracy.”
David Madland of the Center for American Progress sees cooperatives as one aspect of “building a better capitalism that works for all in society.” They show that businesses can do well when workers have good wages and benefits and greater stability.
One of the workers at Arizmendi Bakery made a comment in the film that particularly sticks with me: “We need to build alternatives to what we’re protesting.”
That’s something to think about for those of us pointing out flaws in the way the current economy is working. Shift Change is a film that can inspire us to plan for a different future, one cooperative at a time.