Previously in this series:
Last Min. Notice: The Growing Cooperatives Movement & How You Can Get Involved. Yes! Mag - Conf Call - Includes some information on cooperatives and YES! Magazine, an important resource for understanding New Economy and other subjects of relevance to progressives, especially those inclined toward direct action.
Call Transcript, Pt 1. (Sarah van Gelder, Laura Flanders)
Conference Call Participants
Sarah van Gelder, Executive Editor, YES! Magazine
Laura Flanders, GRITtv and the Laura Flanders Show
Omar Freilla, The Green Worker Cooperatives
Eric Bowman, The Northwest Cooperative Development Center (NWCDC)
Ted Howard, Democracy Collaborative, Evergreen Cooperatives
Mike Beall, The National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA)
We've found that there's something very different that happens when human beings can make decisions driven by all of the things we care about: our communities, the freshness of our air and the [?] of our water, our children and their children down to the seventh generation, as our native friends say--all of these can come to the forefront if profit and loss statements and returning profits to those who are already wealthy isn't our dominant concern. -Sarah van Gelder
What did the workers do this time? Well, this time, in 2012, they took over the factory. They made it their ask of their owners, the ask for the right from the owners to bid on the equipment. Sure, back pay and severance, but right to the workers to bid on the equipment and on the factory operations was a big part of their demands in that second takeover.Call Transcript, Pt 2 (Omar Freilla)
And they won. They won a promise from the company that they would be able to bid. They had the backing of the group I mentioned, Working World. They had the backing of the United Electrical Workers. They had two years of thinking and training and relationship building under their belt. And, more or less, since the winter of 2012, they've started on this campaign to being their own bosses. - Laura Flanders
This is an opportunity for people who are interested in cooperatives, people who are interested in businesses, business development, and not just to go with the lowest common denominator and accept any kind of a business, but to really push the envelope and develop businesses that actually generate wealth, generate a community and maximize the kind of wealth that you're paying a community and at the same time have people working in the place and making decisions who really have the community's interest at heart, because they actually live there. That's really central to us. - Omar FreillaCall Transcript, Pt 3 (Eric Bowman)
...coops that are dynamic and relevant in our modern economy, they're doing very strongly in terms of sales, assets, employment levels. I mean, these have never been higher.Sarah's conversation with Ted Howard follows.
There's about 29,000 coops that serve about 43% of the U.S. population, whether it's rural electric or a credit union or a farmer coop. And these are businesses that have an internationally recognized set of principles, you know, such as democracy.
And they're really the only utopian vision that can actually operate in a highly complex economy.
The top sectors that we're focusing on at NWCDC are:
1) number one, food systems. So local foods, like food coops, online ordering, like Idaho's Bounty...ad marketing for small farmers.
2) Two would be housing...specifically manufactured housing. I think there's a massive opportunity right now to convert existing communities into cooperative ownership.
3) And finally, low income workers. Home care, house cleaning... I'm a little reluctant to point this out, but we're all on track to become low income workers. - Eric Bowman
SARAH: Ted Howard, if you could go next. Ted is the founder and Executive Director of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, a co-founder I should say. The collaborative is recognized as a national leader in the fast-growing field of community wealth building strategies and [???] development. He lives in Cleveland, OH, where he helps direct the Evergreen Cooperatives initiative. And, for readers of YES! Magazine, you may have read about the Evergreen Coop. We're huge fans out here. So, tell us a little bit about what's going on with that model and especially what it is that's making a lot of people get interested in emulating it.
TED: Sure, Sarah. Hi everybody, happy May Day, and thank you for giving time--I know everybody's got a lot a do--for giving time to this call, which is, I think, Sarah, terrific.
Sarah, you were mentioning possibly posting links to stories that were in YES! Magazine. And I was remembering, it was all the way back in 1995, I think, when I wrote an article for you called "Why Ownership Matters." [snip] ...
And I, I completely agree with Eric that there has been just an extraordinary explosion of interest in cooperatives and other types of shared ownership strategies, including ESOPs and other sorts of mechanisms.
It was only a few years ago, when I would talk to people about the need to broaden ownership over capital, and speak with people about Mondragon and the fact that, in their system, they place labor above capital. They know that capital is absolutely essential to having any effective business, as we all know; but, labor's in first place. And, which is a very different concept than our system. And, when I would talk to people about that, including in foundations and the press, people would sort of look at me cross-eyed.
But I think because of the crises that we've had, the Great Recession, the various first-hand housing bubbles, the great pain of that...the, according to the Census Bureau, last October, there are more people living below the poverty line in our country than there ever has been since these figures were kept for fifty years. The growing concentration of inequality and wealth-holding. All of these things have opened up a lot of our perspectives on new approaches to the economy, to jobs, to how to organize work.
So, it's a very, very exciting time right now. And, again, as Eric said, and this is rarely a statistic that is taken into account, you know, when you read about the economy in general, you rarely read about cooperatives, unless you're reading YES! Magazine. And yet...
...there is something like 130 million Americans, well over a third of the population, that is intimately involved in coops, whether it's through credit unions or consumer cooperatives or all the things. And the coop sector in America controls over $3 trillion dollars in assets. I believe that's something like 16, 18 percent of the entire gross domestic product of the country.So it's a huge sector. Now worker cooperatives that we've been talking about in particular is a much smaller sector. But it's growing.
The model's a three legged stool to leverage the purchasing power of anchor institutions--those kind of place-based institutions like hospitals, universities, city government, the kinds of things that, when traditional corporations come and go, they stay behind--and leverage their procurement and purchasing power to drive business locally...and then build up a network of locally owned, community-based cooperatives that can do business with those institutions and ensure that the companies lift their leg of the stool by being green.
We have three companies up and running right now. The most recent is our large evergreen food production green house that is about three and a quarter acres under glass. It's the size of two football fields. We're growing three million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of herbs, like basil, every year for the local food markets.
And it has all the hallmarks of what we plan to do:
- It's a business based in the community,
- in a very low income neighborhood, one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Cleveland. I think the medium income in the neighborhood is below $14,000.
- It hires people locally, including
- people with barriers to employment, whether it's educational attainment levels or criminal records.
- It is providing healthy food at a competitive price to the local food hubs in local food zones. Most of the lettuce and herbs in Northeast Ohio are trucked in 1,500 miles from Arizona and California, so we're substituting for all that carbon and keeping the food local and keeping the money local.
So, that's the model and, you know, I've been to Mondragon in Spain, which is, I know you're familiar with Romagna [Emilia-Romagna], that it's one of the grandparents of the modern cooperative movement. Everybody knows the system of Mondragon. But when you go there you're so impressed with what they've done and one of the refrains they say to you constantly is "you know, as good as all of this looks, as impressive as it, we are not angels and this is not heaven." And, I think I should reiterate that about Evergreen.
There's a lot of excitement about Evergreen. The model's not yet proven, it has lots of difficulties, as any small business development strategy--whether it's a traditional one or a coop one. We're very hopeful that we're making progress. We're learning as we're going. But it's just one of many, many models, as you've heard on this call. And I think this is a time of great experimentation in this country.You know, we talk about the 1920s as this sort of learning laboratory of democracy, and the early 1930s. When FDR and the New Deal came along, that wasn't just hatched by FDR and some smart people from Harvard sitting around the White House. What they drew upon was the extraordinary experimentation that was happening at the local level all over the country, because of the levels of pain, frankly, and the difficulties people were facing. And I'm hopeful that while we're in this era that, while we have these tremendous challenges nationally, there's such a crucible of experimentation going on around community wealth-building in this country, one form of which is cooperatives, that hopefully we're learning the kind of things that over time can be really scaled up for really significant national impact...
SARAH: Alright, thank you, thank you. Thank you very much, Ted. We've been so inspired by what the Democracy Collaborative has been up to and in particular this Evergreen model and, as I said, we will be sending out links to some of those stories.
TO BE CONTINUED
Part 5 is now available here.