Organizing through Ownership

On Labor Day, many wrote about all the gains workers have made organizing through unions. Many others wrote about how union membership continues to decline, or what type of influence unions may have in upcoming elections. Some wrote that unions need to do more outreach, to be more inclusive. Some wrote about the need for raising the minimum wage to a living wage. There are seemingly endless prescriptions for what ails us, but it seems like we read the same stories every year. 

This Labor Day, many of us enjoyed a day off. A day that unofficially marks the end of Summer and the beginning of Fall. A day that too many of us take for granted.

Although many of us had the day off yesterday, it seemed like just as many, if not more, of us were working on Labor Day, and too many were working for low wages and few benefits. Some might even say they’re the “lucky” ones, because millions more of us can’t even find a job. Too many people are killed on the job every day, in fact over 4,000 people are killed on the job every year in the U.S.. Every day people are harassed or discriminated against because of their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their age, their immigrant status, and so much more. Tens of millions of people still go without health insurance because they can’t find jobs, their employers don’t offer it, or it’s too expensive. Retirement “security” continues to become more and more elusive as employer’s do away with defined benefit pensions, even while making record profits. We need unions now as much as ever.

Labor unions and labor laws haven’t changed a whole lot over the past 50 years or so, but many of the jobs and workplaces have. Here in Pittsburgh, big manufacturers like U.S. Steel, Alcoa, and PPG once dominated the economy, now it’s UPMC, Highmark, Pitt, and CMU (aka “meds and eds”). Jobs have become increasingly subcontracted (and those subcontractors then subcontract out to others), not only fragmenting any workplace or employer identity, but also giving rise to a fast growing number of “freelancers”. The use of “temporary” employees has also grown to become an increasingly significant part of the full time workforce. Even low wage retail and service sector jobs are becoming increasingly part-time.

As much as we have tried to turn the tide on the erosion of good jobs with good wages and good benefits, success has been elusive. Yes, unions have made a big impact in protecting what we have, and slowing the erosion, but we have yet to stop it. And so, as much as we try, the trend lines continue.

In 2009, our big push was for EFCA to make it easier for workers to join unions, creating a way-over-the-top pushback from employers, almost predicting the end of all freedom. Although EFCA might have made it easier for some to organize, it would have little to dampen the openly hostile and threating anti-union campaigns and tactics that many employers use. Unions have also tried organizing in non-traditional sectors and jobs, like home health aides, teaching assistants, adjunct faculty, even college athletes. While those efforts are worthwhile and sometimes fruitful, maybe we need to go even further outside the box.

For much of our history in the U.S., unions have waited for businesses to start up and hire people at whatever wages, benefits and working conditions the company can get away with, then we try to help them join the union and improve those wages, benefits and working conditions. In short, we react to employers. Sometimes we even react in proactive ways, such as political action, legislation and trade policies. If we are going to shift the path we have all been on, union and non-union alike, for the past 40 years, then we do indeed need to change the paradigm, and that is to start creating our own jobs.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: the whole point of organizing, of unions, is to take collective action for a collective benefit. In today’s world, in today’s economy, taking collective action is difficult and gaining a collective benefit is even harder.

A weird thing happened this past summer; employees of Market Basket – both management and hourly – took collective action against the company’s majority shareholders and their Board of Directors, and won! Those workers may never have signed an official union card, paid union dues, or negotiated a union contract, but they certainly formed a union, even if only for a summer. Part of the narrative coming out of that action is that maybe lots of working people are becoming fed up with benefits being eroded, wage increases (if any) barely covering their increased health insurance costs, and any hope of retirement being slowly extinguished – but are too unsure about how to push back. So maybe there is an appetite for collective action for a collective benefit, but no mechanism to do so appears accessible.

The opening for organizing through ownership is here. People have been organizing themselves through collective ownership for over a hundred and fifty years, through worker-owned cooperatives. Yet, so far, worker-owned cooperatives exist only on the margins of our economy. Is it because those businesses are less productive or less profitable? Actually, studies have shown worker-owned cooperatives to be more productive and more profitable, on average, than businesses with more traditional forms of ownership. The answer, I believe, comes down to resources and organization. If the organization existed to provide education and training, as well as the resources to financially back new co-ops and provide ongoing support and networking, then growth could become significant.

Not only is there one organization that has begun to provide those types of resources and networking, there are several that have recently emerged. The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) was formed 10 years ago by existing worker-owned co-ops to do that type of work at a national level. USFWC has recently taken another big step forward and launched a non-profit, the Democracy at Work Institute. In Cincinnati, a group of labor and community activists launched the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI), which has been an incubator and has already launched several unionized worker-owned cooperative businesses (Union Co-ops) in the Cincinnati area. This year, launched to expand upon the work of CUCI and the USW-Mondragon collaboration to promote and incubate Union Co-ops around the country. The Freelancers Union was formed a few years ago as a support network for freelance writers, graphic designers, and others who no longer had an employer and were out on their own. As freelancers collaborate more and more, interest in co-ops has been growing.

So here we have a growing interest in a form of collective action for collective benefit, co-ops, yet unions continue to come under attack and face declining membership. Maybe it’s because we’ve become an easy target. Our collective actions *have* created collective benefits, and as a result, union members have significantly better wages and benefits than non-union workers. Where we have been unable to lift them up, they appear ready to tear us down. However, organizing workers through co-ops may be able to lift us all up.

In addition to all of the work our unions already do, we can make collective action for a collective benefit accessible to more working people through ownership. Unions have the skills, the resources, and the network to reach millions of people – also the reason some people and organizations are afraid of us and what we might be able to do, even with union membership as a percentage of the workforce at historic lows. Unions have the ability to change our economy, and change it for the better. Tapping into the ability, however, means taking a slightly different approach.

As job creators, unions would have the ability to organize large segments of the workforce, such as independent contractors, that have been out of reach for too long. The Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York, NY is already an example of how homecare workers might be better organized. Union Cab in Madison, WI is already an example of how taxi drivers can organize into ownership. WAGES in the San Francisco Bay Area is already an example of how house cleaners can organize. And there are so many more examples… but replicating and building on those examples (and more) takes organization and resources. That’s what unions bring to the table.

By recognizing unions and co-ops are part of the same labor movement, and by creating a strong collaboration between them, creates the opportunity for unprecedented growth in worker ownership, while improving wages and benefits, and lifting up whole communities to become more viable and more sustainable.