Worker Cooperatives

Peter Ranis, Professor, City University of New York

Karl Marx in 1859, in A Contribution to the Critique of
Political Economy, wrote of new modes of production
developing within old forms.  He wrote, “At a certain stage
of development, the material productive forces of society
come into conflict with the existing relations of production
or with the property relations within the framework of which
they have operated hitherto.  From forms of development of
the productive forces these relations turn into their
fetters.” This clearly is the breach into which working
class cooperatives can enter today.

In a world where capitalism and state socialism seem the
only apparent alternatives, the Occupy movements in the U.S.
as well as the recuperated enterprise movements in Argentina
have been joined of late in Cuba by a significant public
push to form worker cooperatives.  This demonstrates
forcefully, the demands among workers in all forms of
political systems to aspire to worker self-management and
democratic participation in their working lives.

The recent Occupy movements in the US to resist home
foreclosures, renegotiate student debt and rein in Wall
Street financial prerogatives needs to also embrace the
occupation of factories and enterprises that threaten to
downsize, go off- shore or declare fraudulent bankruptcies
as they prepare to move to cheaper labor venues.

In Argentina over 200 worker cooperatives employing over
12,000 workers have formed with the assistance of municipal
and provincial expropriations. In the US we have the case of
the Chicago Windows and Doors factory as a model that has
formed a cooperative and is in search for financing to allow
its workers to move forward.  In Cuba, the government of
Raúl Castro has had to bring the cooperative worker
alternative into the public dialogue by way of the new 2011
Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the
Revolution. There are already several hundred small worker
cooperatives in the US and a number of state-dominated
agricultural cooperatives in Cuba.  But now there is a
growing understanding among public intellectuals, students
and workers themselves that greater worker management and
control of the work place will lead to increasing
democratization and efficiency that promotes national
development under both capitalist and socialist models.

Cooperatives, whether in Argentina, Spain, Italy, Canada,
Great Britain or the US have the virtue of fulfilling four
features that provide the working class with both justice
and equity.

1)    They are all encompassing ideologically, absorbing
different sectors and individuals of the working class, be
they radical, progressive, liberal or conservative in
outlook.

2)    They share the potentiality of creating working class
autonomy and a sense of class consciousness based on learned
experiences in the process of production.

3)    They create a working class community setting beyond
the factory or enterprise that promotes forms of both
interest and involvement in politics, by way of their
outreach programs into communities in cultural activities,
creative arts, health care and continuing education.

4)    Once established, cooperatives are available for wider
struggles against repressive capitalist and state socialist
policies.

In essence cooperatives represent democracy as a form of
people’s power rather than simply a capitalist state form of
representative democracy or a state socialist form of
centralized control structure.  Today we have the
“indignados” of Spain, the Wisconsin worker uprising, the
Arab Spring and the US Occupy movements –  all testimony to
the potential of workers’ response to injustice and support
for rebellion for democratic causes.

A prominent recent example points up the change in the
political climate in the US.  Many of us recall the case of
the Chicago-based Republic Windows and Doors factory that
was unceremoniously closed in December of 2008 without the
requisite two-month notice as stipulated by the US Warn Act.
After six heroic days of occupation by most of the 260
workers of the plant and significant support from local,
state and national politicians, including President Barack
Obama, the owners relented via a newly stipulated loan from
Bank of America, which had just been bailed out by the
federal government to the tune of $25 billion.  Eventually a
buyer was found from California called Serious Energy
(formerly Serious Materials) which promised to rehire all
the workers as they resumed production.  Three years later
only about a third of the workers had been rehired.  By late
February of 2012, the new owners again announced an
immediate illegal shutdown. Again the workers occupied the
plant asking for time to come up with a plan to find a new
buyer or establish a worker- managed cooperative plant.
This time because of the groundswell of community support
arriving at the plant led by Occupy Chicago and Jobs with
Justice, instead of taking six days, it took but eleven
hours for the workers of Republic Windows to be given a
three-month reprieve.    The workers are now in the process
of establishing New Era Windows Cooperative as the first
large industrial cooperative in the US.   One of the leaders
of the workers, Armando Robles, spoke of plant occupations
and worker cooperatives created in Argentina as their model.
He also hoped that their struggle through occupation would
become something repeated across the US and the world when
workers face similar arbitrary closings.  It should not be
lost on workers in the US that the watchword for Argentine
workers recuperating their factories was “Occupy, Resist,
and Produce!”

What is missing in this scenario is the act of public
expropriation that has been used by municipal and provincial
governments in Argentina.  In the US we have the same legal
mechanism to achieve worker-owned and worker-managed
factories and enterprises.  It is eminent domain.  Eminent
domain has been used for decades for the building of
highways, airports, hospitals, municipal offices, schools,
libraries, public parks, sport stadiums and arenas for
reasons of urban development and public benefit.  It is
appropriate during this critical global recession to defend
against the loss of jobs, to apply this same mechanism on
behalf of the working class. It can be defended as
preserving a public resource that redounds to community
needs and survival.  The time is ripe for American labor to
pursue the strategy of eminent domain as public policy to
protect the livelihood and promote the general welfare of
millions of “at risk” workers.   Plant and enterprise
closings have severe negative repercussions and societal
externalities on workers and communities.  The collective
social rights of workers who have built up the value of the
firm through years of hard work and applying their know-how
and skill have to be legally asserted.  The companies cannot
be free of societal obligations.  By closing or outsourcing
jobs they have broken a contract for which there must be
reparations and consequences.  In a very real sense the
workers are keeping their place of work that they have
fostered and developed over many years rather than taking it
away from an irresponsible and profit-maximizing and
aggrandizing private employer.

In Cuba we find a similar groundswell developing on the
edges of a society still basically dominated by party, state
and government bureaucracies.  The recent Communist Party
Guidelines of 2011 point to a recognition that the political
system must adapt to the needs of working class productivity
and empowerment.  The expropriation process will be
unnecessary in Cuba, but the implementation of cooperatives
will follow similar processes and procedures as workers
begin to organize themselves into collective and
democratically-run enterprises separate and autonomous from
state dominance and controls.

The cooperative initiatives in Cuba, scheduled for late 2012
and early 2013 are being approached parallel to the more
troubling unleashing of small entrepreneurial businesses
with limitations on the number of employees.  However, the
state presumptions and rationale are similar: workers must
be afforded greater autonomy and decision-making in order to
be more productive and less alienated.  The Cuban state
seems to have decided that cooperatives are 1) both rational
in that they will keep the laborers and employees in
productive jobs and avoid unemployment, extreme social
poverty and malaise that is dangerous to the Cuban state and
2) it is doing the right thing by way of enhanced income
distribution for the majoritarian class in Cuban society.

Markets in the US and Argentina would continue under
cooperative development and Cuba will decentralize its
economy by various cooperative and entrepreneurial reforms.
With the rise of cooperative federations, already in
formation in Argentina, we can envision economies based over
time on more and more worker ownership, control and
management.  The state’s role continues but it becomes less
a state penetrated by corporations (like the US and
Argentina) nor a producer state (like Cuba’s).   Argentina,
the US and Cuba continue their functions as regulatory
states focusing on fiscal and monetary policy, trade,
ecology and the environment, consumer protection, health and
human rights, economic investment banking, infrastructure
development, education, foreign and defense policy but
surrendering over time the reins over the domestic economy
and eventually the commanding heights of the industrial and
service economy.

To return to Marx once more.  In his Inaugural Address to
the Working Men’s International Association in London in
1864, he made an early assessment of worker cooperatives.
He said, “The value of these great social experiments cannot
be over- rated.  By deed, instead of by argument, they have
shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with
the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the
existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands;
that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be
monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion
against the laboring man himself; and that, like slave
labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and
inferior form destined to disappear before associated labor
plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind and a
joyous heart.”

—- Distributed by PORTSIDE (See Link)

Also see a website devoted to workplace democracy —

http://www.democracyatwork.info

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