This is Part IV of a five-part series on worker-directed cooperatives as an autonomous community self-development tool. Read Parts I, II and III. The full series will be available on Democracy at Work's Coop Talk after Part V has been published.
Part IV: The Worker Cooperative as a Bulwark against Social Exclusion
BY KIMBERLY WESTCOTT and RICHARD WOLFF | DECEMBER 9, 2016
To overcome social exclusion—and thereby the immense suffering and widespread social costs it entails—one key place to start is the workplace. That is where most adults spend most of their lives. That is where most adults earn the incomes that sustain themselves and any non-working dependents in their households. To the degree that exclusions are practiced in and by workplaces, they will ramify and replicate elsewhere in society. Social exclusion is created or worsened by exclusions at the workplace. We can significantly reduce social exclusion by removing workplace exclusions.
There are basically two workplace exclusions confronting millions in the U.S. today. The first is unemployment: the failure of a society with needs for goods and services to organize and allocate the labor of all able-bodied adults to produce them. If the quanta of goods and services a society wishes to consume (taking account of its interests in preserving or protecting its natural environment) require a certain amount of labor, given the available technology, then all able-bodied adults could and should be organized to produce that quanta of goods and services. There is no rational need for any able-bodied adult to be excluded from employment.
If that means the society does not need 40 hours of labor per week from all able-bodied adults, then the work week for all can be reduced to 37, 35, 30, hours, etc. according to people’s preferences for income over leisure and according to the progress of the technology that governs human labor’s productivity in terms of outputs of goods and services. There is no need for some able-bodied adults to be excluded from employment, while others continue to do 40-hour weeks of labor. Unemployment is destructive of the physical and mental health of the affected able-bodied and of their relationships with family, friends, and neighbors. Unemployment incurs huge social costs. Unemployment is a workplace exclusion that engenders all sorts of derivative social exclusions. The solution for unemployment is a social commitment to full employment as foundational, as a top priority of the organization of work.
The second workplace exclusion is exploitation defined very precisely as follows: the failure of workplace organization to enable all able-bodied employees to participate in deciding the key features of their work lives. These key features include what is to be produced, how and where to carry out productive activities, and how to use the net revenues of production (the “surplus” or “profits”). In conventional corporate enterprises within the United States (and many other countries as well), a tiny minority makes all these decisions. That tiny minority comprises the major shareholders and the boards of directors elected by shareholders. It systematically excludes the majority of workplace participants from participating in making those decisions. The exclusion of the majority from full participation in the key workplace decisions ramifies socially and engenders all sorts of derivative social exclusions.
The solution for exploitation is basically to reorganize the workplace. Enterprises in modern society need to be democratized in the sense that all the persons participating in enterprise work have equal power—one person, one vote—in deciding what, how, and where the enterprise produces and what is to be done with its net revenues. In societies genuinely committed to democracy on principle, such a reorganization of workplaces should have already been accomplished long ago. To undo social exclusion, such a reorganization should be accomplished now.
Men and women who overcome the workplace exclusions of unemployment and exploitation will not likely tolerate comparable exclusions elsewhere in society. Full employment and democratically organized workplaces represent constantly reinforced models for such participation in residential communities and across the spectrum of community activity.
Today’s excluded and marginalized populations, particularly those subject to the overlapping forces of racism and criminalization, repeatedly suffer either unemployment or exploitation when employed. These experiences reinforce or prevent recovery from whatever social exclusions they have already suffered. They worsen recidivism. Any serious commitment to and program for non-exclusion or reintegration of excluded populations must overcome unemployment and exploitation. Otherwise exclusion will persist as will the suffering and social costs entailed by exclusion.
To take a clear example, consider formerly incarcerated individuals seeking re-entry into communities. Jobs must be provided to them and they must be prepared for such jobs; otherwise exclusion will be maintained and likely recidivism will ensue. But more than jobs is needed to avoid exclusion or facilitate re-integration. Exploitation needs to be overcome. Full participation in production at the workplace is the necessary antidote for the exclusion suffered during incarceration, for the exclusions that contributed to being incarcerated, and for the exclusion risked once incarceration is terminated.
The means to overcome both unemployment and exploitation are fully available, well known, and widely practiced throughout the world. They need only to be recognized for their specific anti-exclusionary virtues. Since the means to overcome unemployment are far better known that those to overcome exploitation, let us conclude with a few sentences on the latter.
Worker or producer cooperatives have a history running back thousands of years. In their contemporary form, a better term for them is “worker self-directed enterprises” (or WSDEs) because that term pinpoints their non-exclusionary focus.
In WSDEs, all the workers function, democratically and collectively, as their own board of directors. One person-one vote boards reach majoritarian decisions on all the basic dimensions and strategies of each enterprise. Each worker thus participates and has some control over the enterprise operations that shape his/her daily work life (all its experiences and their associated relationships, experiences, emotions, and feelings) as well as generate her/his income. An interdependent solidarity is structured into everyone’s daily work life comprising not only how workers interact in actual production but likewise how they do so in making all key decisions about production and its products. To borrow from an earlier terminology, overcoming enterprise exploitation via reorganization into a WSDE is the antidote to that profound “alienation” that is today recast as exclusion.
Given the limited successes of previous programs aimed at the reintegration of formerly incarcerated persons, a new program based on overcoming the social exclusions grounded in unemployment and exploitation via WSDEs comprised of such persons offers a real basis for hope. Given the multitude of social ills created or at least worsened by the exclusions practiced by unemployment and exploitation, a broad social movement for the development of a sizable WSDE sector of the economy is likewise desirable. The two European examples previously discussed indicate how successful major sectors of worker cooperatives can be in both national and regional economies. The famous Mondragon Cooperative Corporation that is now Spain's seventh largest corporation, a family of over a hundred worker cooperatives spanning many industries with a spectacular growth record over the last half-century, offers Spanish society a real, co-existing alternative to the country's capitalist sector. The worker cooperative sector of the region in Italy known as Emilia-Romagna demonstrates, in quite different economic and political conditions, another large and successful worker cooperative sector. Their existence will enable the American people to observe, participate in, and sample the products of non-exploitative workplaces and their commitments to full-employment. Only then can an informed democratic decision be made as to what the optimal proportions should be between conventionally organized enterprises and WSDEs.
Kimberly Westcott is Associate Counsel at Community Service Society of New York (CSS), Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University School of Social Work (CSSW), and Co-Chair of [email protected]'s Coop Committee. Contact: [email protected]
Richard Wolff is an economist, a visiting professor at The New School, and the founder of Democracy at Work. Follow him on Twitter: @profwolff
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One problem i foresee with setting up such a workers co-op is that corporate competitors will try to squeeze the co-op out by undercutting their prices. Regardless of how efficient the co-op may be, corporations will often sell at below their own cost of production, cross-subsidizing that sector of their operations with another, until they’ve put the co-op out of business. Once they’ve eliminated the competition they will go back to their higher profit margins.They often have very deep pockets. And wealth is power.
Put another way a WSDE in Spain is playing a new game of Monopoly™; while a WSDE in the USA is jumping into a game of Monopoly™ where all the property’s have already been purchased. The game would eat you alive.
Yet another observation is the apparent success of the Amish communities. Their low tech maintained economy works. But they are racially and religiously identical and they do not threaten IBM or some ISR owned construction company and a WSDE would probably not be any of that.