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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.

The 2008 Beginnings of the End of Top-Down

“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” declares “Ulysses” author James Joyce’s alter ego character, Stephen Dedalus. Eerily in a back to the future moment, the 2015-16 presidential campaign debates and primary voting dynamics uncomfortably prove we are all Stephen Dedalus. America is fitfully waking up after digesting the 2008 Great Recession acidic nightmare of flagrant financial sector abuses, ideologically-sourced austerity policies, arbitraged manufacturing plant closings and primary residence foreclosures. What it sees in the mirror is the sagging gut of a democratically out of shape nation.

Waking up is painful and confusing. Socio-political inequality curves are beginning to flatten more from their own obscene weight than from conviction. Power is shifting from America’s “Divine Left” affluent donor class to a more broadly-based, progressive working class while the country’s conservative establishment has been upended and discredited by the insurgent Trump campaign.

One flattening curve result already apparent from the 2015-2016 creatively disruptive Trump and Sanders political campaigns is how both crowdsourcing and crowdfunding when intelligently fielded and combined can bypass established social and economic ordering of priorities and purpose. While a “late to the game” source to quote in this context, Harvard Professor Summers similarly insinuates in a recent Financial Times article that perhaps the elite-driven, top-down model has passed its sociopolitical marginal rate of useful returns.

Venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, doubles down on this theme in The American Prospect, that “If every company paid a reasonable wage, everybody would benefit as a result. Every worker would benefit from higher wages. Every company would benefit from higher worker productivity, lower turnover, and from increased demand for goods and services, without being squeezed by low-wage competitors. Every community would benefit from the jobs created by that extra demand. Every taxpayer would benefit from decreased need for poverty programs… A race to the bottom isn’t how you build an economy; it’s how you take advantage of it.”

This kind of thinking still represents an exception, not a rule, but it is becoming contagious with unpredictable tipping points that can scale nationwide. Recent similar exceptions include Chobani in New York, Market Basket Supermarkets in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Gravity in Seattle and HEB in Texas. Scaling momentum movements include the restaurant industry and SEIU’s “Fight for Fifteen” that has helped to motivate successful minimum wage upgrades in 14 U.S. cities and states starting last year. Subsequently, value chain linked, food industry “doing well by doing goodism” is beginning to spread across America’s agriculture sector as business interests take note and admit that farm workers post-Cesar Chavez need a living wage to survive and be retained for corporate farming “Big AG” to thrive. In Denver, Colorado, the majority of taxi drivers are now worker-owners in organically formed union cooperatives thanks to the precedent-setting efforts of the Communications Workers of America (CWA Local 7777 in Denver) and allies.

America’s politics are not far behind. Angry, deceived voters clog the traditional arteries of America’s 2016 presidential elections to reject conventional policy limits and leaders. Adamantly insisting on transformational instead of incremental change, the combined Trump-Sanders brigades defiantly swing for the fences, placing their hopes in political outsider change agents to end an increasingly unequal, disenfranchising, despairing but self-reinforcing status quo.

These voters may commute to elite-gated cluster bubbles but they do not live there and their commutes are getting longer. The Trump-Sanders electorate perceives a simple failed transaction underlying America’s accumulated misery index: big stuff bankers were saved by a taxpayer bailout eight years ago in the middle of the deepest recession since the Great Depression. However, small-time homeowners were abandoned in their hours of greatest financial need by a government they were taught in school and around the dinner table to trust and then by talk radio to disrespect and minimize. No lipstick exists that can dress up this pig.

In 2008, U.S. social policy force-fed a massive wealth and power transfer. Millions of working class homeowners who played by the rules were fracked by deliberately distorted, uncontrollable and exterritorial private sector market forces and equity robbed in their primary residences and communities. These market manipulation victims then became renters or squatters and were forced to either settle for less or give up and drop out. The refusal of government-backed Freddie Mae & Mac to even consider short sales for underwater primary residences exacerbated the accompanying public sector policy failure to activate homeowner stabilization programs that didn’t lump big crisis-enabling financial villains with community and mission-driven banks who actually knew who they were lending to.

Within the same timeframe, America’s public treasury granted almost $1 trillion to bail-out “too big to fail and go to jail” financial and insurance institutions, taxpayer-funded largesse that too often resulted in self-serving executive bonuses and shareholder windfalls, almost like a fat tax refund from someone else’s assets. Access to basic survival credit lifelines became synonymous with economic class distinctions by governmental policies that subsidized those at the top and effectively, if not intentionally, abandoned those at the bottom who had no other recourse.

In 2008, the country had just elected its first African American president which created false expectations of an imminent post-racist society. Civil liberties hopes morphed instead into the greatest civil liberties gutting since the 1960s starting with the Citizens United ruling and continuing with the reversal of Section Four of the Voting Rights Act at the hands of the Roberts U.S. Supreme Court. New voting restrictions blossomed throughout the former Confederate States. Corporations attained personhood while both citizen and non-citizen persons, and specifically their labor, became more and more commoditized. Even the so-called “sharing” economy digital dominators such as Uber and Amazon masterminded an enticing social media technology “bait & switch” by dividing newly empowered consumers from paycheck-dependent workers who themselves became increasingly involuntarily shared.

The 2008 publication of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded; Why We Need a Green Revolution – And How it Can Renew America was matched by an unrelenting, corporatist and rent-seeking war on climate science by those most responsible for polluting the nation and the world. America’s growing post-2008 income inequalities were freeze-framed in 2013 by a neo De Tocqueville French economist, Thomas Piketty, who offered up Capital in the Twenty-First Century as bipartisan numerical proof that wealth aggregation disparities were dividing the nation into one versus 99 percent lifestyle ghettos with few inter-connecting bridges. Actuarial tables rapidly diverging by economic class proved once again that relative poverty is not only the most expensive way to live but that it facilitates dying off quickly.

America’s post-industrial conceit retreated into a manufacturing forced march with over 60,000 homeland factories closed due to global labor arbitraged off-shoring and outsourcing since passage of the 1992 NAFTA trade agreement. Corporate inversions and offshore tax avoidance schemes favored those with the means to rise above geographical borders while abandoning an immobile workforce economically reduced to cycle in place. With top-level business schools proclaiming self-fulfillment glories of technology-induced “creative destruction,” the United States as a civic democracy proved itself extraordinarily inept, unimaginative, unmotivated and disunited in creatively retraining, rehabilitating and healing working class communities intentionally wrenched from their former local, living economic moorings. A dominating, beyond borders, global ownership shareholder class drank the Davos Kool-Aid that economically profitable ends justify socially disruptive means.

Post 2008, the so-called aspirational American Dream for those not already born into it self-placed on the national species extinction list. America’s underserved communities, still mostly black and brown, became increasingly and indiscriminately “lost in translation” while lower income, less educated whites swelled into a new cultural diaspora where facts became subordinate to image and perception and where reality-life was trumped by reality-fiction. In this timeless, alternate universe, Budweiser beer owned by a Belgium company re-brands itself “America,” President Obama is born in Kenya, Rambo after multiple reruns finally wins the Vietnam War, austerity works for poor people, climate change remains a hoax, prosperity gospel transforms into “I built it all myself,” “right to work” states no longer hover at the bottom of just about every progressive economic indicator, all Muslims are terrorists, transgender citizens have to BTOB (bring their own bathrooms), and building a giant border wall paid for by Mexico under threat of force improves Mexico – U.S. relations while stabilizing U.S. immigration policies.

Deep inside 2016’s political upheaval, hope is still locatable as the recourse of last resort for America’s civic Pandora Box if populist passion can recognize and optimize positive changes already in motion. Dumped out on the mean streets and left to their own devices, a new, diversified, bubble-up, more inclusive organic transformation movement of freelancers, free thinkers and freedom-seekers are beginning to reclaim their local economic sovereignty and workplace democracy. As chronicled by irreplaceable, authentic story-telling publications such as YES! Magazine, a resurging grassroots, local living economy tool chest is emerging consisting of applied solidarity and sustainability principles and experiences undergirded by workplace and self-managed time portfolio ownership standards, metrics and continuously reinforcing proofs of principles.

This “revolution-evolution” is proving especially applicable to resilient, real-time economic development. For example, worker-owned businesses were better at maintaining their fiscal health during the 2008 Great Recession. Now we are seeing that hybrid model worker cooperatives appear to be more resilient and have a higher rate of surviving the first five critical operating, start-up years. Metrics show that worker-owners at employee-owned businesses tend to earn more in income and retirement than their counterparts at traditional firms. The virtuous cycle struggle for relevance and greater acceptance, however, is just beginning with deeply entrenched challenges and obstacles combining to protect and enhance absentee landlords, unreconstructed shareholder institutional and infrastructure plantations at the expense of stakeholder rights, vanishing social mobility and the ability to earn a living wage in an economy that works for all.

As an example of what’s possible, starting in the spring of 2104 and resulting from the 2009 collaboration agreement between the United Steelworkers Union and the Mondragon Cooperative Group, 1worker1vote.org has set out to demonstrate that widespread workplace equity and democratic participation can return America to its original individual and local community ownership system condition. The 1worker1vote.org threefold intent is to:

  1. defeat embedded structural inequalities by deploying tested and proven hybrid ownership models (starting with the union-coop replicable template);
  2. build worker-owned and managed profitable enterprises within the context of inter-cooperating ecosystems following sixty years of Mondragon Cooperative experiences; and
  3. co-design projects, tools, enterprises and ecosystems that can replicate and scale.

Our intentional mission is to begin with America’s weakest and most disenfranchised economic links (underserved communities) to dismantle the crippling nationwide opportunity barricades that are quickly becoming insurmountable mobility and wealth aggregation ghetto walls separating predestined, unequal Americas.

Instead of managing for comfortable decline until it becomes visibly uncomfortable, 1worker1vote.org, the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI) and many other allies within America’s New Economy movement are demonstrating the liberating potential of combined crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Amy Cortese, author, founder and editor of www.locavesting.com, suggests that crowdfunding can be a powerful tool for expanding economic opportunity and empowering communities. “Crowdfunding levels the playing field for entrepreneurs and creates more economic opportunity. The data shows that women entrepreneurs have better funding outcomes in crowdfunding than offline fundraising, and proportionately have better success online than men. Similarly, these new crowd-based funding mechanisms can benefit minority groups and underserved communities, including those outside the major money/power centers like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco—that is, the bulk of the country.”

The next transcendental challenge on the country’s personal trainer docket is how to translate these changes into a more solidarity-infused nation with much greater convergence between economic classes. In this political and economic “brave new world,” transactive technology, multi-racial and gender-liberated demographics together with pervasive social media culture are slowly but inevitably combining to “swift-boat” traditional top-down relationships in favor of organic, bottoms-up transformation.

If we want to avoid reconstructing a repeat of past hierarchical pyramids that exploit labor as a commodity, movements like Platform Cooperativism make a good case for why it is imperative to insist on a public, “peoples’ commons” ownership of newly pervasive and often invasive, socially interactive information networks and infrastructure. Facebook’s recent algorithm relationship to impartial news feeds crisis represents the proverbial iceberg tip. Users may focus on customer and consumer interfaces and instant gratification but freedom fighters focus on the underlying assumptions. Now more than ever, freedom’s thread in an aspirational context hangs on local, living and equalizing, stakeholder-solidarity-infused community and workplace ownership principles and practices.

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