Worker co-ops, an idea as old as the Industrial Revolution (and really, civilization itself), have the potential of becoming a major front in the Occupy movement, not to mention the wider global social justice movement. Like most people, I’ve known about worker co-ops for a while, but it was only recently that I became conscious of their far-reaching implications. For me, this happened during a night out with a friend, enjoying a fine meal at a first-rate establishment. It was the kind of night that, some might say, could only have been made possible by our capitalist system. Yet on that night, somewhere between the first and second glass of wine, it occurred to me that no one directly responsible for making my grand experience possible – from the waitstaff to the cooks; to the producers, packagers and shippers of the food; to the people who made the tables, chairs and silverware; to those who designed and built the building – made anything close to 7 or even 6 figures.
So what exactly are the implications of this? To start, let’s define what a worker co-op is. A worker co-op is, simply put, a business whose ownership and decision making power is shared equally amongst the workers. By “workers,” we don’t just mean those putting hammer to nail – it also includes those fulfilling administrative, development, or managerial roles. A worker co-op does not, as is often assumed, imply equal pay to all its members. It is entirely possible that workers could collectively decide to enact an incentive structure of some kind, or grant higher salaries to certain positions, which is indeed the case with many worker co-ops. The difference is that in a worker co-op, it is the workers themselves deciding this, rather than a detached CEO halfway across the country. In short, at a worker co-op, the cherished American act of voting isn’t relegated to a booth every 2 years, nor does the ideal of freedom take a siesta when one clocks in for work.
Probably the biggest concern defenders of the status quo bring up about the worker co-op concept is the question of incentive. If employees are all seen as equals, without the gross variance of compensation seen in traditional companies, what incentive would one have to do anything but the bare minimum? Humans are greedy, we are told. Thus, we must have an economic system which rewards this greed and allows us to act on this natural impulse. Of course, the justification for this view comes by way of collectivist reasoning. The reason we should accept this system, its proponents argue, is because it will lead to the greatest level of prosperity for the greatest number of people. If it didn’t, surely we wouldn’t accept it, right?
This opens up all sorts of goodness for us greedy humans. Overworking our employees and paying them inadequate wages for our own gain is not only completely natural, it’s morally justified. The more money we make, the more jobs we create, improving the quality of life for everyone. We’re capitalists and philanthropists at the same time. As if that weren’t enough, further vindication is provided by the free market principle of non-aggression. Technically, no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head forcing them to work in a Chinese sweatshop. At its core, employment is an agreement between employer and employee. So as long as the agreement is “voluntary,” we can all sleep at night.
Be that as it may, until technology can provide for all our needs through automation, work will never be mandatory. For a low-skilled, uneducated worker, the choice between a dead-end job and a life of destitution is not a choice at all. “Get an education then!” the CEO might retort, perhaps forgetting momentarily that his company’s bottom line is in fact dependent on those without one. Fortunately for him, getting an education isn’t an option for many of these people, as education, too, is a for-profit venture – plunging those seeking to better themselves into deeper and deeper valleys of debt. In an increasingly uncertain economy, with its rising costs and falling job security, ever more fine-tuned for the benefit of the 1%, the prospect of ever scaling this debt is looking less and less likely, making wage slavery the far more palatable option. If humans really are greedy, and the possibility of becoming a billionaire, however remote, is needed to get each of us out of bed each morning, maybe we should consider refining this impulse. It sure seems like only a few of us are truly thriving in a system driven by this ethos.
The other main worry people have about worker co-ops has to do with incentive’s twin brother – innovation. What will spur someone to innovate if the potential for unlimited profits is removed? For a partial answer to that question, one need only re-read the definition of a worker co-op, which will remind us once again that equal pay and an incentive-less internal structure, while common, are not defining characteristics of the worker co-op model. For the full answer, however, let’s revisit the example from the first paragraph, where I reflected on the fact that my restaurant experience had been made possible by the hands of those operating without a significant financial incentive. Does this reality hold true for our most vital fields? Say, health care, technology or education?
When it comes to health care, are the ones we truly depend on to meet our needs – not just doctors and nurses, but the pharmaceutical researchers and medical technicians at the forefront of our medical breakthroughs – the ones making massive amounts of money? They might make a handsome paycheck, but the ones really capitalizing in this industry are the medical and insurance company hierarchies, none of which have a direct hand in providing the products and services we regard as our lifeline. What about technology? Is it the CEO of Sony who is responsible for your 60-inch flat screen? Or is it the engineers, designers and assemblers? As for those who educate our children, is it the teachers and college professors who make millions? The historians, scientists and philosophers whose contributions form the basis of their craft? Most likely, it’s the Regents, connected government officials, charter shareholders, and for-profit student loan companies who are truly benefiting from our educational system.
But even if we acknowledge the fact that the progress and innovation pushing our world forward is provided by those who would likely make MORE money in a worker co-op system, is it really realistic to think that these people could band together and collectively take on the role of a CEO? That they could essentially “fire the boss,” as Avi Lewis would like them to? This is another question that requires deeper examination.
If we accept the premise that the central purpose of any company is to maximize profits, and that the central purpose of our economy is to perpetuate endless growth and expansion, the role of the CEO in this context is indeed vital, and an MBA is nothing to sneeze at. The question, though, isn’t whether we need CEOs in our current system. The question is whether the values of our current system reflect the values of everyday Americans, and whether or not those values serve us. Do most Americans really care about limitless growth? Or are their daily concerns based closer to home, typically revolving around things like the well-being of their families and being of some use to their surrounding community? If so, why do we then have an economy where virtually every job is designed with the purpose of maintaining this limitless growth, the benefits of which only go to the minority of people who actually care about such matters?
If a factory like Serious Materials closes down, is it really because it is no longer profitable? Or is it just not profitable enough to sustain the million dollar salaries of those at the top? What if the factory was run by folks whose primary motivation wasn’t global expansion or the welfare of their shareholders, but local expansion and the welfare of their employees? What if the factory was run by people who considered making an honest living and providing a valued product or service to be all the incentive they need? How would our society be transformed if we had an economy driven by the values of everyday people, which the truly greedy among us would have to adapt to, as opposed to now – an economy driven by the values of the truly greedy, which everyday people have to adapt to? How would the role of the CEO change in an environment like this?
One of the best things about the worker co-op model and the reason I feel it has so much potential is the fact that it doesn’t actually violate any of the cherished free market principles many in this country hold dear. If we are to act on our greed, for example, joining a worker co-op would be far preferable for a low-skilled worker than joining a traditional company, since profits are more equitably distributed. Unlike a fast food employee, whose wage is static regardless of his productivity, an employee at a worker co-op would have a true incentive, as an increase in company profits would almost assuredly translate to an increase in personal profits.
In addition, the realization of an economy in which worker co-ops represent a greater percentage of businesses would not and should not come from any government edict or oppressive regulation. It would come from workers realizing their own power, not agreeing to the terms of employment currently thought of as the only option, and requiring more concessions in exchange for their labor. If the job interview process were to become as much a test for employers as it is for employees, businesses could either adapt, or workers could go their own way. No true free market evangelist should have any issue with this scenario, as workers are simply acting in their own self-interest, and declining the proposed employer-employee agreement.
The transition to a worker co-op economy will be an organic process, and will not come overnight. Granted, some fields will be harder to transform, such as health care and technology. Others, such as food service and manufacturing, will be easier. The best thing we can do at this time is support the worker co-ops already in existence, and do what we can to assist and encourage the formation of new ones. As more of the 99% experience the benefits of a system designed by and for them, and the respect and appreciation for the American worker is returned to its proper place in society, a cultural shift will occur. The thought, long discouraged and overshadowed by that piece of cheese just beyond the edge of another week’s toil, will at last become conscious in the minds of many – the notion that freedom isn’t just for business people, and that workers, regardless of one’s bailiwick, might be entitled to some say in the goings on of the place they spend the majority of their waking hours. The sense that, in the words of Phil Rockstroh, “an individual may in fact be more than a job resume on two legs, and that nature may in fact be worth more than what it can be rendered down to as a commodity.” The understanding that “a vocation need not imply a surrender of one’s life force in order to sustain the disastrously narrowed, self-serving agendas that ensure the privileged status of the economic and political elite, and can instead serve as the vehicle for the sustained act of revealing one’s innate self.”