The Promise and Practice of Worker Cooperatives
By Michael Heubusch
In America’s dire political climate, the fight for progressive change on the national level has been reduced to a mere refutation of Trump’s heinous agenda. The gaze of progressives and socialists has shifted towards the state and local level, where there has been a clamor of protest and campaigning for left-leaning politicians and legislation. These admirable efforts aim to strengthen democracy and promote economic justice. What the left largely overlooks, however, is the transformative potential of worker cooperatives.
A society can hardly claim to be democratic when an overwhelming majority of its institutions are run in an authoritarian fashion. When was the last time you directly participated in the management and direction of your workplace? Have you ever voted on your wage rate? On how your business affects the environment? Worker cooperatives are businesses that extend democracy into the workplace and give every worker in a voice in what is produced, how it is produced, and what is done with the profits. Co-ops represent the promise of a radical shift in the economy and a sizable expansion of democratic institutions; workers effectively own the means of production through the democratic management of their workplace.
With this in mind, we have to be careful not to confuse a democratic worker cooperative with a majority of the businesses that refer to themselves as “co-ops.” While they might have some degree of worker or consumer ownership, most are not directly managed by, nor are they meaningfully beholden to, the people. These enterprises operate largely in the same way as a standard business and should be seen as such. So, while Buffalonians should acknowledge businesses like the Lexington Food Co-op for their quasi-progressive qualities, so too should we distinguish them from an establishment of worker ownership and management.
We live in a political moment that demands creative, heterogeneous activism, of which co-op advocacy should be an integral part. On a practical level, the promotion of worker co-ops can transcend the liberal-conservative ideological barrier. Though they make manifest many ideals of the left, co-ops are bereft of the attributes that repel conservatives (e.g. big government, unions). Not everyone hates capitalism, but most hate their job. Offering people control over their work lives seems a compelling and nonpartisan offer indeed.
While the fight for workplace democracy remains on the fringe of left-organizing and activism, there is a dedicated and growing contingent of those fighting for the establishment and proliferation of worker co-ops. The most prominent of these is economist Richard Wolff’s Democracy At Work (http://www.democracyatwork.info). Buffalo should join in these efforts.
Michael Heubusch is on twitter @mikeheubusch.