Unions and Worker Co-ops Hook Up

Unions and Worker Co-ops Hook Up

The decades-long spread of plant closures has changed the ground rules for labor. In response, the trend of worker buyouts of abandoned businesses has become a movement earning recognition from unions.

A Saskatoon meeting brought twenty regional leaders of the Canadian trade union and worker co-op movements together to talk strategy in the era of ëfree trade.í The September 2006 meeting was organized by the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation (CWCF) and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Larry Hubich.

The meeting produced a new group: the Prairie Labour/Worker Co-op Council (PLWCC). The Council seeks to aid a labor movement that has been paralyzed by the threat of capital flight. PLWCC puts the idea of worker-owned businesses at the heart of union efforts to head off runaway plants.

“There is an alternative,” Michael MacIsaac, Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) education and campaigns director, told the meeting. “In all of our labor education, we do not include coops in the agendaÖ. We have to create some debate in the labor movement about what this is.”

PLWCC was established to guide further discussions on joint union/worker co-op strategic planning. Priorities include raising awareness of the worker co-op ownership model with union members, development partners and the public; assembling rapid response teams to bring effective technical assistance to shutdown threats; and assessing and developing specialty financing tools for conversions to worker ownership.

In the U.S., the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) has held biennial conferences since 1999 to bring together worker-owners, participants in democratically run employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), and companies and organizations that provide support to democratic workplaces. This year the meeting is moving south to Asheville, North Carolina, to join with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and the Southern Applachian Center for Cooperative Ownership.

The Asheville conference, to be held July 20-22, 2007, will be addressed by former Steelworkers President Lynn Williams, who also took part in the Saskatoon meeting. Former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport, of, CA; Pam McMichael, Executive Director of Highlander Center; and Frank Adams, author of Putting Democracy to Work: A Practical Guide for Starting and Managing Worker-Owned Businesses will hold a plenary on prospects for organizing in the South.

For more information about collaboration between unions and cooperatives, see Dan Bellís “Worker-Owners and Unions. Why Can’t We Just Get Along?” in Dollars & Sense, September/October 2006, http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2006/

To register for the “Building Cooperation: East to South” conference in Asheville, go to http://east.usworker.coop/.

After World War 2: Co-ops and COs

Some members of the postwar generation of radical pacifists sought a new way of life through the establishment of cooperative communities. This particular drive had much to commend it to young C.O.’s [conscientious objectors] finally released from prison or C.P.S. camps [government encampments where C.O.’s did conservation work instead of military service]… [The] prison and C.P.S. camp experience had already welded a sense of community among small groups of pacifists formally isolated from one another. “Having been forced to live together, and finding some comfort in this enforced solidarity against a hostile society, we perhaps feared the prospect of facing the world alone again some day,” a communitarian remarked. “Anyway, we felt we should retain our accidental unity.”
As a result of this pacifist interest, cooperative communities sprang up in a number of areas across the country, including settlements near Glen Gardner and Frenchtown, New Jersey, and Americus, Georgia. The most successful of the pacifist utopias, the Macedonia Cooperative Community, took root in the Blue Ridge foothills of Georgia. Founded in 1937, Macedonia had collapsed during the war years but revived when its determined founder [Morris R. Mitchell] convinced a group of C.O.ís to settle there after the war. The eighteen pacifists worked at various forms of farming and at a small woodworking factory which they built. The wage system was discarded, and the entire operation was run on a communal, subsistence basis… An itinerant Communist Party organizer, stopping at Macedonia on his way north, was visibly impressed with their life but complained that they were not assisting the Party in furthering a more widespread revolution. “He may be right,” a pacifist resident observed, “but we suspect that the way for men to become free is to begin to live as free men.”

— from Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933-1983, by Lawrence S. Wittner (1984: Temple University Press)