Pope Francis & the Moral Right to “Own Our Labor & Rent Our Capital”

A Growing Hybrid-Model-Movement Ripe for Political Consolidation

In America, the world of work has already changed beyond conventional wisdom sense perceptions and the willpower capacity of elected politicians to understand and embrace it. This workplace relationship tsunami, “a historic shift that rivals the transition from farms to factories,” calls out the anachronistic redlining between company and society, employee or independent contractor, worker versus manager, part-time as opposed to full-time, blue or white collar, as well as unions or work councils.

Today’s wrenching workplace issues: wage theft, eligibility for overtime pay, equalizing and standardizing worker classification, elevating minimum wage standards including the federal minimum wage, overtime protection, facilitating employees of contractors and franchise operations to achieve a collective bargaining agreement – constitute many of the most necessary but still wholly insufficient solutions to the problems at hand. The existential dilemma facing the world of work is that these problems together with traditional remedies have lost their time-space moorings.

The notion that it’s still possible to equalize the balance of power between employees when confronting managers and owners in the interactive social media economy without borders is tantamount to positing that trench warfare is the preferred tactic in the global war on terrorism. Not only have the battle lines shifted to constantly reforming and deforming “task rabbit” swarms, but three dimensional rules of engagement, motivation and what constitutes victory equate to yesterday’s askew questions seeking tomorrow’s out of any box answers.

Much more than buggy-whip versus smart phone, this is about the reinvention of work and the social compact relationships involved in both producing and benefitting from it. It is also about the foundational return to individual ownership of land, home and now workplace as the ineluctable, “original American system condition.” Loyalty to this formula traditionally has set the generational stage to dream of successive self-betterment couched in participative democracy practices governing a “free market” that is not so freely abused by privilege.

Instead, deepening U.S. inequality challenges have jump-started a global diagnosis convergence just in time for a more profound 2016 presidential election campaign debate over whether labor is a commodity or a resource and whether capital, while necessary, “trumps” labor or supports it. In this vein, French economist, Thomas Piketty, has concluded that “free-market” capitalism as widely practiced results in rising and persistent structural and civic inequalities that are predatory, anti-democratic and if not corrected, socially unprofitable. Similarly, Pope Francis supports an economy founded on and sustained by “moral obligation” that is accomplished through “a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor.”

Advocating for labor as a disposable commodity, leading “Sharing Economy” practitioners such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos empirically sense and set out to prove that global capital markets reward relentless solutions-centric innovators who adapt and take new technology data manipulations and applications to scale. “Purposeful Darwinism” as a management means to this end efficiently slices and dices “survival of the fittest” at the altar of unfettered “productive economies” for consumers. In this scenario, profits are granted or earned by the lucky and deserving corporate few or purchased by passive income shareholders in the form of market options and shares.

As part and parcel of this new economic reality seeking a vision, production workers struggle with minimum wage conditions and social media-induced Taylorism that recreate a “back to the future” permanently servicing, post-industrial underclass. Increasingly pigeonholed into a part-time, asset-free existence, the “Sharing Economy” paycheck-dependent worker is both condemned to “share” and be shared because other options are running out of juice.

One of Mr. Piketty’s key points is that consumers and the working poor are not mutually exclusive but in fact constitute a rapidly growing majority coinciding with Pope Francis’s plea to build consistent and sustaining “productive economies for the poor.” Instead, in “Quantitative Easing for People: The UK Labour Frontrunner’s Controversial Proposal,” Ellen Brown notes that “the rich are getting richer from bank bailouts and very low interest rates, but the money is not going into the real economy, which remains starved of the funds necessary to create the demand that would create jobs.”

Sara Horowitz observes that, “Freelancers, a rapidly expanding share of the electorate, have become a legitimate political constituency, and nobody is effectively speaking up for their needs.” One of the lasting 2011-2012 political campaign debate memes between the Clinton “it takes a village” observation to the Romney “I built it all myself” reaction, and then the Obama-Warren “you didn’t build it by yourself” rebuttal has now become, through Pope Francis’ intervention, a moral imperative to pay down the world’s accumulated “social mortgage” so that stakeholders can finally become shareholders and the lions can co-invest with the lambs.

Not to be outdone, Democratic Presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, is promoting Mondragon-style worker ownership. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his principal competitor (and current front-runner), in turn has embraced an outline of the Center of American Progress’s “Inclusive Capitalism” road-map that also highlights the Mondragon cooperative ecosystem experience. In fact, Mondragon’s founder, Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, who started out as a simple village priest, began his life-long mission by teaching the value of worker collaboration and cooperation more than 60 years ago. Mondragon is now the world’s largest industrial worker cooperative and Spain’s 7th largest multinational with $14 billion in 2014 sales, 74,000 employees in over 51 countries (where circa 60,000 are worker-owners, or “associates,” who own assets in their individual cooperative and can be elected to the General Assembly, the body that oversees Mondragon under a “one worker, one vote” framework), and maintains its own bank, insurance mutual and university. In last Saturday’s major upset internal elections, Britain’s new Labor Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, declared,  “We don’t have to be unequal, it doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable”.

Such activist philosophy benefits from strong historical antecedents with Pope Francis as the latest in from a long line of impactful Catholic Church interaction with worker cooperatives practicing virtuous cycle capitalism founded on individual ownership. Historically, the Rerum Novarum papal encyclical announced by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1891, was long considered the Catholic Church’s preeminent social doctrine statement and its response to the rising challenge of socialism as a public policy antidote for the masses who endured “truly miserable conditions, unworthy of human dignity.” The Leo encyclical insisted that socialism “is unacceptable to the workers” since the purpose of work is the ownership of private property which is sanctioned by divine law and which socialism seeks to abolish. Notably, Leo recommended cooperatives as an ideal form of private enterprise.

More recently, U.S. Catholic bishops called for cooperative ownership in their 1919 Program on Social Reconstruction.  On February 27, 2016, Fordham Law School in Manhattan will host a declaration on worker cooperatives planning conference co-sponsored by Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, Fordham Law School, CUNY Law School, and 1worker1vote.org.

As a result, recognition of the imperative for greatly expanded worker ownership rooted in local, living economies to push back on Pope Francis’ depiction of a “new colonialism” is increasingly becoming widespread and bipartisan.  Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin’s Governor, Scott Walker, stopped by Mondragon for a photo-op this past spring. Local activist union leaders in Denver, Colorado and community organizers in Cincinnati, Ohio, are launching new union coops in the transportation, energy efficiency, and food commons sectors. High-impact, “New Economy” associations of nationally acclaimed corporate social pioneers (e.g. Dansko, New Belgium Brewery, Eileen Fisher, Ben & Jerry’s, & Patagonia) such as the American Sustainable Business Council representing over 200,000 triple-bottom-line (people-planet-profit) businesses continue to prove that “doing well by doing good” uplifts hosting communities, worker-owners as well as quarterly earnings.

Another ASBC member, 1worker1vote.org, has launched an embryonic “Declaration of Worker Ownership Independence” designed to build profitable private sector enterprises deploying Mondragon principles that appeal to the U.S. political Right and Left. This “mission statement” eschews any government hand-outs but asks for a level policy and tax playing field on behalf of worker owners that is equal to investor owners; acknowledges the overriding values of boot-strapping, entrepreneurship, and best business practices in a free and fair marketplace; commits to extend one worker/one vote equal share ownership to as many working Americans as possible; and believes that individual ownership creates a higher civic ethic and allows worker-owners to give back more to their hosting communities.

Similar in intent to its famous predecessor, this declaration holds certain truths to be self-evident: that every worker has the potential to be a job creator, that widespread ownership represents freedom through individual and collective accountability and responsibility, and that every American worker deserves an equal workplace opportunity to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 1worker1vote.org co-founder, Chris Cooper, writes that worker-owned businesses such as union-coops, if successful, “will on average have higher profitability metrics; higher productivity metrics; lower rates of employee turnover and other negative metrics. While a unionized worker cooperative provides no guarantee of profitability or longevity, it’s a business built on the simple idea that an ownership stake, and a voice, in the business in which one works is not only good for workers, but it’s simply a better way of doing business.”

Pope Francis suggests that Americans can find their true moral compass by reinvesting more fairly in themselves. In this context, accumulated wealth, rent seeking, and passive income owned by an elite few pales in comparison to the economic returns America is capable of generating by turning legacy “social mortgage” debt into collective equity through successive principal down payments to combat impoverishing inequalities.

Sara Horowitz envisions “portable benefits” for the new freelancing workforce (53 million freelance workers nationwide including 38 percent of millennials who contribute $715 billion annually to the United States economy). Portable benefits, perhaps undergirded by individual “portable ownership” accounts, transferrable and earned on a pay-go basis could represent a major step forward to achieve Pope Francis’ “Inclusive Community” vision that would then self-empower to “create fairness, equity and dignified livelihoods for the poor.” More than a pathway out of poverty, one worker-one vote style cooperative ownership represents a pathway to individual and collective prosperity that cannot be outsourced, disenfranchised, off-shored or arbitraged by exterritorial purveyors of capital.

Regional examples and budding ecosystems to do this are already set in motion through “do-it-yourself” hybrid business models operating at grass-roots levels across America. What remains to be seen is whether the 2016 elections dynamic will seize this worker ownership-centric “Bernoulli Effect” and elevate politicians, policies, politics and the constituents they supposedly serve and represent to a more equitable, and socially productive place.

As the most globally admired catalyst for this movement, Pope Francis is coming to the United States for the first time in his papacy and life. He arrives as a modern version of Daniel willingly entering a chummy, self-reinforcing “Club for Growth” lions’ den on September 24th to preach moral economic truth to ideological economic power highlighted by his formal address to the U.S. Congress.

Staring into the sharpened teeth and wide open jaws of America’s extreme “throw-away culture” where human beings are intensely marketed as interactive consumer nodes while perversely marginalized and cast aside as powerless laboring commodities, the Pope comes to “Rome on the Potomac” but not with a message to throw the money changers and oligarchs out of democracy’s temple.  Instead, he will remind his audience that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:18-27).

Perhaps Pope Francis’ next encyclical will be on worker cooperatives.