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1worker1vote.org and Mondragon International North America are building a national network of unionized worker-owned cooperative businesses to overcome inequality of opportunity, mobility, and income.

It’s never too late to do something different.

“It’s never too late to do something different.” is how Christina Jaus summed up her comments leading up to her Left Forum panel presentation this weekend. Jaus will join 1worker1vote.org’s Michael Peck and Carmen Huertas-Noble along with April De Simone, Roger Green and Alex Van Shaick on Saturday, May 21st to discuss “Putting a Premium on Workers Rights: Making Capital Subordinate to Labor through the Expansion of Worker Coops and Union Coops.”

The annual Left Forum gathering brings participants together “to discuss differences, commonalities, and alternatives to current predicaments, and to share ideas for understanding and transforming the world.” The perfect place for 1worker1vote.org and many of our allies. The Workers Rights panel, moderated by Huertas-Noble will focus on how individuals and organizations are creating alternative institutions organized by workers who are the most vulnerable to exploitation and economic marginalization.

The common theme in conversations with Jaus, Peck and De Simone leading up to the panel was just this: Billions of dollars and billions of hours have been spent on the top-down, “we have the solution for you” model to solve intractable social ills which are made worse by social embedded inequality. Top down has not worked. It’s time to engage local communities – those most vulnerable and marginalized – in the hard work to rebuild and re-create what is needed to support families and neighborhoods across the country.

April De Simone, from Designing the We, will share the work she is doing to help engage communities, specifically in Trenton and the Bronx. De Simone said, “If co-op businesses are to thrive, they have to be part of the bigger ecosystem – the neighborhood and its history – where they are built. The participatory design process will help achive this goal.”

For example, in Trenton, an urban farm project – through a participatory design process – became more connected to the community and represented ways that local stakeholders could engage in cultivating local social change. The project moved from an urban farm to an urban commons and brought people together in different ways to create a multi-stakeholder cooperative model. De Simone and her colleagues conducted more than 200 surveys with community members, they walked through the community, held pop up events in libraries and vacant storefronts and worked with other local groups to gather input. Through this participatory process, the project evolved from an urban farm to also include bee keeping, youth-led walking tours, a multipurpose space and a food truck to get the farm-raised food to workers in the downtown area of the city. The enterprise brings in additional revenue and is owned by locals.

“We noticed when people were engaging in farm conversations, what got their interest was the history of where the farm was to be located,” said De Simone. “What really got the community engaged was the history of how their community had gotten to this point, how government policies had real impact over time and how decisions they made today would impact tomorrow.”

This is what De Simone is doing in other communities as well – creating WElabs – local public spaces with community partners where they bring together research, mapping and anthropology to engage people from the community co-create local models that drive impact. (More on Community-Engaged Design.)

Michael Peck brings not only the experience of helping create the union co-op model in the United States, but the history of the Mondragon experience from Spain as Mondragon’s North America delegate since 1999 to the discussion. Peck emphasized that in Mondragon, it took the community decades to decide to establish the cooperative, worker-owned structure that so many want to replicate today. This model evolved organically, as it needs to in other communities if it is to succeed.

“We are so in love with the savior-on-horseback idea in this country,” said Peck. “What Mondragon has shown – and what we are showing in our Living Lab in Cincinnati with the union co-op model – is that it takes a lot of time and sweat equity to make real, lasting change that benefits entire communities. This is definitely not a top-down solution to impose on anyone. But done right, it offers exciting opportunities to make a real difference in people’s lives and their futures.”

He added that what we are seeing in our politics reflects the rejection of top-down solutions across the U.S. “The angry insurgencies of Trump and Sanders are a reaction against top-down policies and attitudes. If we are to appeal to these communities – not ignore them or think they will go way – we have to understand their realities and work with them.”

Christina Jaus, from WHEELS Collective, is an accountant turned mechanic and always an activist. After quitting her job as an accountant, Jaus went to mechanic school because she was interested in using nontraditional employment as an alternative to poverty – particularly for women. Because just 2 percent of mechanics in this country are women (and she was the only woman in her class of 250), Jaus believes there is an opening for more women to excel in the profession and she is particularly focused on bringing formerly incarcerated women into the trade. In her mechanics school, about half of the men in the program were on probation and they were there because their probation officers told them to either get a job or find a training program. Women on probation, however, aren’t offered training options; they are told to get a job.

“I founded WHEELS Collective in 2012 and I have been working ever since to connect the programs and institutions throughout New York City to use WHEELS as a way to promote entrepreneurship and a path forward,” Jaus explained. “Why should we just offer a job as an option? We can help these women – and the rest of use – see each other as producers of our own economy.”

She said people are apprehensive, but she hopes they will trust and look beyond the stereotypes. “We have to do something to shift the system. We have to look out for ourselves and our own communities. That’s cooperative development – it’s changing the lives of the people you live with,” said Jaus.It’s never too late to do something different. We can think about others and not just ourselves.”

The Left Forum panel will highlight the union co-op model, the relationship between worker co-ops and economic and social justice organizing and provide examples of projects that are: advocating for the conversion of hospitals slated to close into union co-ops, creating multi-stakeholder urban farm co-ops that will provide affordable and fresh food and creating re-entry cooperatives for people who have formerly been incarcerated. Leftforum.org

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