A New Era for Worker Ownership


The workers of the just-formed New Era Windows cooperative in Chicago—the same workers who sat in and forced Serious Energy to back down on a hasty shutdown of their Goose Island plant a few months ago, and famously occupied the same factory for six days in December 2008—not only are putting together a bold plan for worker ownership, they are likely to move the entire subject into national attention, thereby spurring others to follow on. Though they have a powerful start, if the past is any guide, they will need all the help they can get—financial as well as political.

I was one of the architects of an attempt to establish a worker-owned steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio in the late 1970s—a plan that began with powerful intentions, the financial support of the Carter administration, and the backing of religious and political leaders in the state of Ohio and nationally. The plan was on-track, including a promised $100 million in loan guarantees from the Carter Administration—until, somehow, those opposed to the plan sidetracked the effort, with the promised money disappearing conveniently just after the fall 1978 elections had passed.

The Chicago workers have a much, much greater chance of success. They have the skills they need to run a manufacturing business.  They have a good market—an energy efficient window is a good friend in a Chicago winter, after all—and heavy, fragile, made-to-order windows are much less vulnerable to global competition than other products.  And, thanks to their inspiring struggle to keep their jobs, they can count on a significant amount of public support.

They also have the backing of the United Electrical workers (UE): an independent and fiercely democratic union; and the support of the Working World, a non-profit that has helped make hundreds of loans to Argentina’s thriving network of “recuperated” worker-owned businesses.

Above all, their own track record of bold and brave action to defend their jobs is promising in itself, and stirring in terms of public response: many more people are rooting for this company than your average small manufacturing startup.

The workers are taking this very seriously; after all, it’s their livelihoods on the line.  For the past few months, they have been engaged in intensive trainings in cooperative management, building the skills they’ll need to not just make windows, but market their product and secure and fulfill contracts.  They’ve been scraping together a thousand dollars apiece to buy into the newly formed cooperative.  And they’ve been exploring city programs—like a Midway airport noise insulation project and a city-wide energy retrofit effort that could generate significant contracts.

Still, this is a tough business.  If there is one lesson from the early days of worker ownership attempts it is that building a powerful local and national support group of public figures, nonprofit organizations, national labor and religious leaders and others can be of great and unexpected importance. It can help keep the story alive at critical times, and also help create and sustain a market. (Churches, for instance, buy a lot of windows, as do many other nonprofit organizations.)   As the workers in Chicago deal with the myriad of tasks involved in raising money, negotiating with their former employer, Serious Energy, to purchase the factory’s equipment, and restarting production (not to mention learning how to democratically manage their own workplace!), building local and national alliances to support their work is a critical task that can be taken on by allies.

What’s happening in Chicago is part of a very important national trend; many parts of the country are looking towards worker ownership as a way to root jobs in the communities that need them.  In Cleveland, for instance a community foundation, with the support of local universities and hospitals, is helping create a network of interlinked green worker cooperatives as part of an economic development strategy designed to help lift devastated neighborhoods out of poverty.  With an industrial scale laundry and a solar installation and weatherization firm already operational, and a 3.5 acre urban greenhouse scheduled to launch in a few months, the Cleveland model is one that many other cities—including Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Washington D.C.—are actively exploring today.  Crucially, the model developed in Cleveland looks beyond the individual worker-owned company to understand how a community can support the businesses and workers that in turn support it: in this case, the purchasing power of the city’s largest so-called “anchor institutions” is mobilized to develop worker-owned jobs in the very neighborhoods these institutions call home.

Moreover there is now a quiet trend in the union movement—away from disinterest in new forms of ownership and towards positive assistance. The United Steelworkers, working jointly with Mondragon (the 80-thousand member strong complex of cooperatives in the Basque country), have taken the lead in proposing and developing “union coops” which will combine worker ownership and the collective bargaining process.  The Service Employees union (SEIU) has taken some interesting steps here as well, with a worker-owned and unionized laundry slated to launch in Pittsburgh this year, and a groundbreaking partnership with New York City’s Cooperative Home Care Associates, the largest worker cooperative in the United States.  Also notable is a growing sophistication among unions regarding a far more common form of U.S. worker ownership, the ESOP or Employee Stock Ownership Plan (which involve 10 million workers): unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) are taking a strong role in making sure workers’ interests are protected as companies convert to worker ownership.

The Chicago workers’ effort is important, not only on its own terms, but as a beacon of hope and an opportunity for many others to learn about a direction building an economy that perhaps will one day take us past ownership by the 1% to a very different democratic model.  It’s time for others—individuals, groups, activists, churches, non-profit organizations—to do what we can to help make sure they succeed.

Gar Alperovitz, Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is a historian and political economist. He is the author, most recently, of America Beyond Capitalism and (with Lew Daly) Unjust Deserts. His work on the history of the decision to use the atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki spans over four decades; his 1995 book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb remains one of the definitive accounts of the actions and motivations of the US in the last, tragic chapter of WWII.

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