October 1, 2012
Worker Cooperatives: Creating Participatory Socialism in Capitalism and State Socialism

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.”