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Can Unions and Cooperatives Join Forces? | Truthout.com

An Interview With United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard

By Amy Dean

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard talks to Truthout about the challenges and opportunities of a new labor model: the union co-op.

As the economic crisis festers for many long-term unemployed and underemployed people, the idea of worker-owned and worker-run cooperatives has become ever more appealing as a possible pathway toward an economy that works for everyone. Theorists such as Gar Alperovitz have argued for the importance of cooperatives in providing a nuts-and-bolts alternative to dominant methods of economic production: They offer an example of a different way of doing business that people can see and experience in their own lives.

As someone who loves to see organized labor on the move in any form, I am interested in the role that unions can play in promoting co-ops – and I have been excited to see the United Steelworkers take an especially proactive role in bolstering the cooperative movement. I spoke with Steelworkers President Leo Gerard about how union/co-op hybrids could change the experience of work for those who clock in every day and about the depth of vision it will take to make union co-ops a serious part of the American economy.

Given that cooperatives currently make up only a tiny percentage of our economy, I first asked Gerard whether he thought co-ops could be viable at a larger scale.

“People don’t realize there are millions of people in the United States and Canada that are already members of co-ops,” he said. “When I was a kid growing up in northern Ontario, my parents used to shop at a food co-op. I think that there are already a lot of these businesses; people just don’t know it.”

Gerard next discussed the structure of “union co-ops” that the Steelworkers have begun, in partnership with Spain’s Mondragon cooperatives. Here’s how it works: Employees can join the union of their choice, and they are guaranteed a living wage, benefits and a collective bargaining agreement. In some of the new union co-ops, workers get ownership shares in the enterprise, which they pay for a little at a time out of their paychecks and which accrue equity over a period of six or eight or 10 years. Workers vote on the composition of the management team and collectively bargain with that team to set workers’ wages, benefits, and procedures for handling disputes.

Read the full interview via Truthout.

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