Outperforming Structural Inequalities

One Worker One Vote BlogThere are two major and intertwined, socio-cultural movements driving local economic sovereignty change on a nationwide basis regardless of red or blue state affiliation. The first is land and rooftop-based community solar and the second is the ubiquitous springing-up of worker cooperatives. Connecting these two transformation trends can center the shifting and often contradictory thematic currents driving populist energy and enthusiasm leading to consensus just in time for the 2016 presidential elections.

First, cooperative community solar. In red states such as Georgia, Florida, and both Carolinas, Green Tea Parties consisting of conservative and libertarian activists in collaboration with local Sierra Club members on both consumer and retail levels are proving that mounted solar panels are taking on the twenty-first century role that satellite dishes once occupied in the twentieth. Forming procurement and ownership cooperatives through land and rooftop solar gardens and neighborhood block solar platforms, individually and community-owned solar energy provides a “voice and a vote” as well as incoming energy and revenue streams to relatively starved rural and inner city communities. (See examples like purchasing co-op Amicus Solar Cooperative, and worker-owned coops like Namaste Solar and Sustainergy.)

Feeding into America’s overwhelming penchant for “do it yourself” (DIY) merchandizing, “solar-liberation” optimizes two bipartisan and founding cultural qualities, individual bootstrapping and a quest for personal energy independence (freedom from oppressive corporatism through monopoly utility-imposed rate-payer conditions). As a result, Georgia is today’s number one solar state based on rate of adoption-acceleration. Even better, the majority of solar-deploying cooperatives serve territories which once were considered unsuitable for solar and where median income is below the national average.

Second, worker cooperatives. Sarah van Gelder, YES! Magazine editor, in an op-ed for The Guardian with transatlantic implications, “Six ways the US is building a people-powered economy,” recently summed up the state of worker cooperative development and empowerment throughout the U.S. As six municipal examples show, in 2014 New York City awarded $1.2 million to form worker cooperatives to a number of groups revolving around City University of New York (CUNY) Law School’s Community Economic Development Clinic (CEDC). (See Forbes.com “If Apple Were A Worker Cooperative, Each Employee Would Earn At Least $403K.”) Not to be outdone and in contrast to current anti-worker polemics buffeting this state, Madison, Wisconsin’s city hall will be awarding $5 million over five years to form worker cooperativesDenver, Colorado is fast becoming a laboratory for worker cooperative reinventionSeattle, Washington became the first city in America to raise the minimum age to $15/hour over time.  In Ohio, the Cleveland Foundation has dedicated $15 million to form the Evergreen Cooperatives platform, while in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative is literally making union-coop development history working with a broad tent of local supporters and labor organizations to create a new, worker-empowered economic reality in areas such as food deserts and urban renewal. These six cities represent the tip of the new, inclusive innovation and worker-owned economy.

This new rising political and moral center, Main Street worker cooperative communities of practice, bounding up and reaching out to outsourced vacant urban centers, and gathering strength from the “promise ether” of America’s founding history and self-actualizing culture – is waiting to be politically recognized. Abandoned and ignored by both Republican and Democratic national political parties but growing in practitioner numbers and local beloved communities, this nationwide momentum towards bottoms-up, earned civic and corporate equity stakeholders and place-rooted enterprises not only confronts America’s bludgeoning mobility, opportunity, and wealth inequalities but also incentivizes and encourages marketplace self-reliance, bootstrapping, and social responsibility.

In this bipartisan scenario, unchecked corporatism becomes the common bipartisan threat against the goal to transform oligarchy-favoring “invisible hands” tilting public and private marketplace playing fields. Instead, ordinary, inspired and inspiring Americans from all walks of life are swarming, networking, and socially interacting to build transparent “self-helping hands” of virtuous cycle, community-beneficial enterprises versus predatory capitalism one-percent plantations. The latter focuses on competitive zero-sum leverage to practice global labor arbitraging for pennies on the dollar while creatively destructing communities, industrial sectors, and rising working class lives. The former deploys civic and workplace ownership formulas and models to “leverage-up” human capital and offers pathways out of predestined economic class-based dependency on public sector redistribution and failing conventional job creation measures limited to fixing the symptoms while incapable of challenging the nation’s invasive inequality disease.

So who are the enemies, the barbarians battering down local-living economy gates to crash the worker ownership, civic equity empowerment party and take small business owners, alternative labor communities, sovereign Main Street and worker cooperatives hostage?

In “For Solution to Income Stagnation, Republicans and Democrats Revise Their Playbooks,” The New York Times journalist John Harwood highlights the frustration  experienced by Harvard economist, Richard Freeman (who, together with professors Joseph Blasi and Douglas Kruze of Rutgers authored “The Citizen’s Share…Putting Ownership Back Into Democracy”) to transition the cause of widespread worker ownership into a practical, market-based policy panacea both to raise American competitiveness and diminish rising structural inequalities. “That would involve expanding incentives for workers to acquire stock in their employers, and for employers to offer workers incentive pay tied to the firm’s profitability,” Harwood writes. “We presented some of these things to the Obama administration and the Wall Street guys just killed them,” said Professor Freeman…”

This indeed is the new culture war battleground – between the hegemony of capital over labor and the desire of oligarchs, monopolists, and their financial enablers to advance the structural inequality status quo. Centered on values and virtue, the debate and its concomitant struggle come down to whether people are commodities, whether corporations are people, and whether one dollar equates to one vote. Fortunately, hard core metrics are beginning to prove that “owning one’s labor while renting one’s capital” can become more profitable than the reverse.

In “The new culture wars,” the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne notes that, “The other issue gaining resonance is often cast as economic, but it is really about values and virtues: Why is the hard work of the many, those who labor primarily for wages and salaries, rewarded with increasingly less generosity than the activities of those who make money from investments and capital?  Politically, this could be explosive. What is at heart a moral battle could rip apart old coalitions, since many working-class and middle-class social conservatives are angry about our shifting structures of reward.”

Indeed, this is exactly what is already happening. The New York Times is right to finger Wisconsin as the Rorschach test state for the 2016 presidential elections (“Wisconsin, Workers and the 2016 Election“) leading to a tale of two Americas. One America will soon comprise 25 states with 13 others potentially in the queue who will have legislatively chosen to commoditize human labor as a disposable resource without recourse. The Times points out that the other America is forming through 28 states proposing to raise minimum wage standards while 29 states plus the District of Columbia and many other progressive cities such as New York and Seattle “already have minimums above the federal level.”

The choice couldn’t be more stark: is America going to vote for the right of a few to practice global labor arbitrage on the many resulting in sanctioned higher economic caste buying, selling, leasing, and discarding of lower economic caste humans based on comparative market value measured by predatory and increasingly exterritorial pricing mechanisms?  Or, will America’s New Economy movement – that places value on planet-respecting, place-based businesses that can’t be off-shored or outsourced and which elevates labor as a treasured, locally owned resource producing family and community sustaining jobs over capital which is merely a means to that end – be allowed to grow and flourish? The Times editorial notes that, “Right-to-work laws do not attract businesses and create jobs, as proponents claim. Rather, they are linked to lower wages, fewer benefits and higher poverty.”

As Marjorie Kelly has noted, widespread, bottoms-up ownership remains the ineluctable American system condition – there is no stronger, ideologically free, culturally intrinsic, color, racial, and gender blind, healing, righting momentum in waiting. On the enlightened center-right, noted entrepreneur and employee ownership thought and practice leader, Dr. Robert J. Beyster, declared in 1986 when establishing the Foundation for Enterprise Development (FED) that, “It is fair and just that those who help create the wealth should share in it, and in proportion to their contribution.” On the center-left, the recent Center for American Progress’ Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity by Lawrence Summers and Ed Balls holds that America’s new inequality is structural, not cyclical, that growth is necessary but not sufficient, and advocates for increased employee ownership as a way back from the country’s impending oligarchic abyss.

Today, less than ten percent of Americans own their own businesses. Can we imagine what civic equity and marketplace competitiveness America might demonstrate if that number was increased to 50 percent? 75 percent? Given that more than 70 percent of the nation’s GNP depends on middle class consumer spending, this would seem to lead to a Henry Ford slam dunk realization along the lines that if workers are paid enough to buy the cars they are building then car sales will rise. For this to happen, for a newly empowering structure based on worker ownership to beat back crippling inequalities, oligarchs and their Wall Street enablers first need to park comfortable but outdated predatory capitalist ideology and get over their vested privilege lock on passive income entitlement which is about to hit the tipping point of declining marginal returns based on the inability of those socially and economically marginalized to spend what they can’t earn and borrow. Basically, it’s time to facilitate designing, building, and launching solar and worker cooperative equations to solve America’s New Economy new math.

Update: See this Washington Post article on regulatory challenges in the solar industry: “Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar.”

– Michael Alden Peck is the North America delegate for Mondragon and a co-founder of www.1worker1vote.org