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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 New, New Organizing

Now is the era of the end of false choices. Digital social media affiliations, hubs, and networks are creating broader common knowledge platforms incentivizing new forms of impact and outreach for both individual choices and collective action. Yesterday’s Hobbesian, “either-or” menu forcing workers to choose between good family and community sustaining jobs or a clean environment, or between racial and environmental justice, is being replaced with “all of the (good choices) above” to benefit connectivity-trending generations and populations regardless of location.   Compartmentalized hierarchies separated by silo information flows are breaking down into a more egalitarian digital commons overcoming imbalances between labor and capital, with emerging communities of freelancers, cooperators, entrepreneurs and worker- or employee-owners preferring to own their labor and rent capital.

Practitioners are beginning to aggregate. The Freelancers Union, headquartered in Brooklyn, is the nation’s largest labor organization representing the new, independent workforce of 260,000 members in more than 20 U.S. cities. With 53 million Americans freelancing today, more than one in every three workers, the Freelancers Union will continue to grow and offer a sense of solidarity for these otherwise disconnected workers. In four years, the American Sustainable Business Council, based in Washington, D.C., has become the nation’s fastest growing network of over 200,000 businesses and 325,000 business executives, owners, and investors focused on building a sustainable economy based on triple bottom line principles (people, planet, and profit).

These are private and nonprofit sector solutions where enlightened government is a minority partner but not a market-maker.

With less than 10 percent of Americans currently owning their own businesses and workspace, today’s “new, new organizing” on a fundamental socioeconomic level begins to address the skewed imbalances between capital and labor and the power this distortion produces and exercises. A first manifestation includes movements and policies pushing back to extend the “sharing” economy into an ownership-enabler and resist manipulative downgrades into a “rental” economy where labor becomes even more of a bottom-traded commodity without equity benefits.

It turns out that the “Free” market isn’t free. While there is bipartisan agreement on rising opportunity costs from America’s raging structural inequality disease (echoing the global epidemic where, according to the anti-poverty charity, Oxfam, the wealthiest 1 percent will soon own more than the rest of the world’s population), solutions break down along predictable ideological divides and remediating progress is painfully slow.

The current debate over multinational companies rigging transnational trade pacts to the detriment of local workers who would benefit from higher environmental, health, safety, remuneration and training standards has everything to do with the labor-capital mismatch. There is political and business community consensus throughout America that if left unchecked, structural inequalities will rot out the self-regenerating and recycling core of a gross national product that earns over 70 percent of its sticky valuation through domestic consumption. Heavily slanted towards repeatable experiences based on purchasing economies of scale (digital eyeballs, big box retailers, franchises, shopping mall replicas), even the main streets of local living economies feel the pain when consumers don’t have enough expendable capital to return the favor.

Citizens who vote now know they live in a disposable society where even the tax regimes of sovereign nations can be reversed through corporate tax inversions and profits that elude home country repatriation. Nations as well as individual workers have become low-priced commodities – if something stops working, we simply throw it out and go out and get a replacement  If corporations don’t like the country they are headquartered in, they just cancel out the old and go shopping for the new including low-wage workers on temporary contracts. International trade pacts to encourage global labor and country tax arbitraging fail to resonate with workers and their communities who struggle to be something more than tradable commodities without a voice and a vote.

Such a “race to the lifestyle bottom” incurs hidden costs through social safety net programs including food stamps or basic healthcare coverage that are later born by cash-strapped governments already deprived of their natural tax revenue. Public sector tax receipts end up funding these corporatist welfare transfer payments to off-set obdurate corporate minimum wage policies. Pump-primed executive pay scales based often on opaque and questionable value-to-shareholder metrics even in publically traded companies produce civic algorithms where corporate managers sometimes make more in an hour than their workers can make in a year. There is no solidarity factor in this equation beyond widespread desperation as commoditized economic classes and their impoverished communities are sliced, diced, and triangulated against each other to produce an end-game where only passive income beneficiaries, monopolists, and oligarchs win and win big.

With 60,000 U.S. factories closed since the 1992 NAFTA signing, rehashed political buzzwords paying empty homage to resolve the inequality triangle (wealth, opportunity, and mobility) leave a skeptical electorate unmoved and unbelieving. Neither standard clichés masquerading as redistributionist progressivism versus laissez faire capitalism, or Rising Tide versus Trickle Down, resonate with today’s digital voting public who want solutions that are more authentic, more personalized, and more directly relevant, neither rented nor shared but fully owned by those both buying and selling.

In contrast, emerging local-living economic ecosystems also exhibit innovation, competition, do-it-yourself bootstrapping, and entrepreneurial risk taking as best practices of succeeding worker- and employee-owned companies but with more democratic results. Creatively instructive and productive, not disruptive, “new mutualism” aggregators of independent workers and companies such as the Freelancers Union and the American Sustainable Business Council demonstrate how hybrid models represent the growing rule and not the one-off exception for new, new economy organizing.

America’s highly eclectic ownership movement is already facilitating the launch of relevant hybrid models such as union-cooperatives in key geographies (e.g. www.cincinnatiunioncoop.org). Chris Cooper, a principal in the nonprofit Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC) and a www.1worker1vote.org co-founder, writes that, “A unionized worker cooperative is a business that, 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, it’s simply a better way of doing business.” This approach not only enhances America’s defining hybrid-immigrant-melting pot national sense of itself, but also helps to break down inequality divides, finds people where they are but transforms into a compelling equation with local equity and inclusive innovation as bedrock principles (www.urbaninnovation21.org).

The future right around the corner appears to bear witness to more creative hybrids such as benefit corporation cooperatives, benefit corporation ESOPS (employee stock ownership plans), community-owned healthcare cooperatives and clinics, and a revitalized Labor movement with worker-ownership as a centerpiece of its organizing strategy starting with union coops. Fundamental model characteristics will include highly accurate marketplace evaluations for hybrid conversions, one class stock as opposed to multiple class stock, and in-depth, top to bottom worker-owner participation in democratic management that competes to win.

Perhaps incipient 2016 U.S. presidential campaigns will grasp this new bipartisan reality that is emerging based on single class, “one worker, one vote” share ownership, cooperative structures and practices, benefit corporation values and racial and environmental justice principles. Building on pioneering Main Street metaphors of land ownership symbolizing freedom and home ownership representing middle class prosperity, workplace ownership has now become a natural organizing principle for America’s rising generations and a compelling antidote to legacy structural inequalities.

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