By Gilbert Geoff
With the 2016 presidential campaigns underway, economic populism has taken center stage. Bernie Sanders, calling for a $1 trillion investment in a sustainable infrastructure jobs program along with publically funded health care and college education, has forced Hillary Clinton to offer vague support for similar measures, while even some Republican candidates, like Marco Rubio, have asserted the need to stop the “fall of the [American] worker.” Not content to wait for national politicians to follow through on non-binding proposals, 1worker1vote — a joint venture launched in 2009 by the United Steelworkers, or USW, and Mondragon USA — has been pursing a grassroots agenda to move populist discontent beyond protest and toward the building of new institutions.
The 1worker1vote network has developed and is beginning to implement a “union co-op” model, which calls for a business structure that combines worker, and sometimes community, ownership with union representation. With the model, 1worker1vote hopes to demonstrate the viability of a democratic economy, both in terms of ownership and management, capable of eventually replacing the corporate-managed economy that generates astounding wealth for those at the top while leaving nearly a quarter of the country living in poverty and half the population stuck in a debt trap with zero net assets.
“Profit should be for people, not for profit’s sake, and capital, while important, is subordinate to labor,” explained Ellen Vera, a founding member of both 1worker1vote and one of its member coops, the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative, or CUCI.
The claim conjures images of the clashes between labor and capital of a bygone era, and, more recently, growing grassroots protest for a democratic global economy that began in 1994 with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico and have continued during the first years of the new millennium with the global justice and Occupy movements. Although protest can bring people together and demonstrate popular support for addressing problems, only new, or reformed, institutions can deliver lasting solutions. Situated within a broader movement for a “new economy,” the CUCI and 1worker1vote are beginning to move beyond rhetoric and protest to explore what can and should happen after the protesters inevitably return home.
Founded in 2011, the CUCI, a Cincinnati-based network of cooperatives, hopes to bring what it calls “family-sustaining jobs,” with livable wages and hours and full benefits, to Cincinnati — a city that exemplifies our country’s long-term, corporate-driven economic decay. Beginning in the 1960s, American investment capital has increasingly financed the globalization of multinational corporate operations, a practice made possible by the ongoing logistics revolution fueled by rapid innovation in transportation and communication technologies.