Renewing the Cooperative-Union Bond

A new culture of work renewing the original cooperative-union bond = workplace democracy, equity, solidarity & greater resiliency

Since the 1970s, America has counterbalanced high per capita GDP with rising unequal income distribution. “Winners-take-all” results produce stagnant wages, declining mobility, increased economic class divisions and racial tensions at levels not experienced since the Great Depression. This dynamic drastically altered the November 2016 electoral equation. Today, America is increasingly politically polarized, economically unequal and socially on edge recalling 1960’s turbulence, anticipating the outlines of ongoing civil disruption.

Blindly, top-level business schools, policymakers, funders and innovators proclaim self-fulfillment glories of technology-induced “creative destruction.” Meanwhile, the U.S. as a civic democracy proves extraordinarily inept, unimaginative, unmotivated and disunited in creatively retraining, rehabilitating and uplifting immobile working class communities intentionally wrenched from their former economic moorings and reduced to cycling in place or going backwards. There is no creative or intellectual thought movement at scale focusing successfully on “creative reconstruction” as an antidote for communities left behind and uprooted.

Trickle-top-down formulas haven’t worked except to postpone America’s metastasizing inequality cancers. Scaling projects don’t meet basic ROI or outreach expectations while victimized economic classes (including those growing millions of working poor, underserved, marginalized and second class consumers who realize that lowest prices at minimum wages with no local, co-production value chain constitute a dead-end) multiply in political revolt. America is “lost in translation” between “I built it all myself” and “it takes a village,” crisscrossed by victims of sustained economic-class-based violence and rising racial underpinnings.

President Obama in 2013 called inequality the greatest challenge of our times. “A house divided against itself cannot stand” becomes a metaphor for an unequal nation dependent on individual consumer consumption for 70 percent of its GNP while refusing to recognize that its oligarchic, absentee owner red lining breeds widespread environmental and infrastructure injustices.America needs a bottom-to-top, systemic solidarity culture intervention redesign and this starts by reconnecting cooperatives and unions.

The modern co-op movement originated with the 1840s Rochdale principles in Manchester/UK as did industrial unionization. Cooperatives and unions evolved separately but today’s extreme solidarity deficit imperatives compel renewing and scaling the union co-op aligns union locals and worker center collaborators with top tier cooperative developers and mission-driven institutional allies from scratch to create an inclusive, “Rise of the Rest of Us” solidarity and economic development catalyst with nationwide reach.

As a hybrid, immigrant nation, a first socioeconomic response demands an urgent civil society cultural intervention at scale to bind high-impact union solidarity with the democratic power of cooperative ownership.  This will give more working people, especially those in distressed and underserved communities, genuine control over their economic lives through a new enabling and ennobling culture of work. Meaningful employment can be created from a renewing and empowering solidarity culture, especially starting with broadening, deepening and equalizing stakeholder ownership (individual, community, public-private partnerships). Intentional policies  and projects can not only raise the minimum wage but also restore meaningful productivity and a sense of accomplishment and contribution, decent living standards and an aspirational mindset to all American workers regardless of background or location. Instead of running away from technology, innovative thinkers can start to reposition human beings in the center of new socio-technological equations and stop reacting to each new application as a zero-sum transaction.

Worker/employee-owned enterprises offer two hope-metrics: (1) earning more in income and retirement than counterparts at traditional firms; and (2) appearing more resilient with a higher rate of surviving the first five critical start-up years, for example, sustaining better fiscal health during the 2008 Great Recession. Direct beneficiaries include underserved working class communities, those experiencing sector-devastating downward mobility spirals, and paycheck-dependent workers often in temporary contracts without benefits or periodically jobless – more than one-third of the U.S. workforce. Management/Ownership also benefits as shareholders for whom a return to an upwardly mobile and fair civic-eco-democracy by more empowered stakeholders increases profitability, cohesion and competitiveness.

The role of worker and community stakeholder ownership in this rapidly evolving societal process cannot and must not be understated or “under-imagined” – especially in rural America where upgrading, deepening and broadening local ownership equations hold the potential to transform. Union and cooperative members provided many of the 77,000 votes in three rural Midwest states that propelled President Trump to electoral college victory.  We need to step through this looking glass with concrete metrics and critical mass so that ethnocentric nationalism doesn’t get away with substituting for regenerative democratic populism.