Laboring for a Saner Healthier Economy

September 5th, 2016

Today is LaboHappy-Labor-Dayr Day. For most Americans, this is just another holiday that more than anything represents a change in the seasons. Children head back to school, football starts up and retail stores of all kinds offer deep discounts at end of summer sales.

Like so many national holidays Labor Day has become more about consumerism than celebrating the powerful ideals and events it represents. Labor Day is really about the incredible efforts of nineteenth century workers who stood up to the crushing power of industry and corporations and fought for eight-hour workdays and paid holidays. They came together, unionized and made huge strides in worker safety and pay equity.

Today we need another revolution, one that finds ways to overcome the enormous disparity between those at the top of the pay grade and everyone else. A revolution toward an economy and corporate structures that don’t degrade our planet and crush people in their wake.

I find it hopeful that this New Economy revolution is gaining steam. The New Economy Coalition is growing in the U.S. The Economy for the Common Good is growing in Europe and we will be introducing it to the U.S. in just two weeks. B Corporations are spreading in Europe, North American and Latin America.

There are many, many facets of this New Economy – from Triple and Quadruple Bottom Line assessments, to circular economy efforts toward Zero Waste.

Today, I’d like to highlight one piece that really suits a Labor Day lens. A growing movement around the globe is employee-owned businesses. They range from very small enterprises to large retail chains like Bi-Mart. UK mega retailer John Lewis in 100% employee owned. There are many structures from  to worker-owned cooperatives.

One aspect that I find most interesting is worker-owned unionized cooperatives.

A union co-op is a unionized worker-owned cooperative in which worker-owners all own an equal share of the business and have an equal vote in overseeing the business. Union co-ops differ from traditional worker-owned co-ops in that workers in a union co-op can appoint a management team (from within their own ranks or from outside the co-op) and then bargain collectively with management regarding wage rates, health care and other benefits, holidays, sick leave, etc.

One of the best-known union co-op efforts is taking place between the 1.2 million United Steelworkers union and Mondragon, a cluster of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. Mondragon employs 83,000 workers in 256 companies.

In an interview with Truth-Out Steelworkers president Leo Gerard noted that the union co-op model may offer hope for a type of workplace relationship that only has room for improvement over today’s economy. “It’s not utopia,” he said. “It’s an experiment. [But] if it works, it can’t be any worse than the system we got now.”

He went on to say, “There’s not an advanced democracy on the planet that doesn’t have a strong free labor movement. Anytime there’s been totalitarian regimes, the foundation of replacing those regimes has been workers coming together with students and other disadvantaged groups in society and fighting for democracy – democracy with a free labor movement. ……   Work is changing. You’ve got all kinds of freelancers. We’re going to grow, and we’re going to have to modernize. There are models out there that have to be experimented with, and the union co-op is one of those models.”

Today while kids enjoy the last day of summer freedom and lots of shoppers go hunting for close-out deals on patio furniture, many union members will gather for picnics, bar-be-ques and rallies in support of worker solidarity. I for one, am glad to see unions still alive, evolving and innovating. In the world of mega-mega-corporations and money-viewed-as-free-speech the right to band together and demand fairness has never been more important.

Cylvia Hayes

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