Union co-operatives: what they are and why we need them

Jan 13, 2017
United Kingdom

13-01-2017-usw-590.jpg The United Steelworkers headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Flickr user Joseph under a Creative Commons Licence

Neoliberal policies contribute to alienation, disempowerment and non-unionised jobs, but a new model for unions could break the vicious circle, argues Simon Taylor.
Trade unionist Jimmy Reid described alienation as ‘the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making’. This frustration is endemic in contemporary neoliberalised economies, and according to commentators, including George Monbiot, it contributes to the rise of populist backlashes and disempowerment.
Unions play a vital role in counter-balancing alienation and frustration, responding to organizations imposing alienating practices on their workers. However, neoliberal policies have contributed to a long-term decline of union membership and influence in the Anglosphere and elsewhere.
But workers and unions can counter alienation and other negative effects of neoliberal policies – such as outsourcing, precarity and union decline – in new and imaginative ways.
The United Steelworkers (USW) union in the US is one of many good examples, responding to decades of deindustrialisation and declining union membership. They are developing worker co-operatives that place unions at the heart of enterprises, a model known as union co-ops. They have modified the resilient Mondragon worker co-op model by replacing its social council in co-operatives with more than 50 workers with a Union Bargaining Committee. The committee represents the worker co-operators interests as workers, while other structures represent their interests as owners. Worker representation structures are important according to Mondragon and the USW because there is an inherent risk in worker co-ops that when enterprises achieve scale, workforce engagement in decision making is diluted.
The benefits of worker co-ops have been discussed widely elsewhere. They include empowering workers by involving them in the crucial decision-making processes affecting their working lives, overcoming the alienating factor of lack of control. Indeed, the USW believes that worker co-operators are unlikely to offshore or outsource their own jobs, to design precarity into their employment, or to make themselves redundant in response to business downturns – all tools that neoliberalism makes attractive options regardless of the consequences to workers and communities.
The USW also believes that the active involvement of unions in worker-coops will result in higher union membership within the enterprise, thereby contributing to trade union renewal efforts in some measure. After all, placing unions at the heart of the enterprise allows them to find potential members in a way that is impossible in other contexts.
In a recent study, I examined union co-ops in the US, and Britain’s experience of union involvement with worker co-ops. It sought to determine whether UK unions should be noting the example of their US counterparts, and considered whether lessons can be drawn that should be applied to Britain’s context (and elsewhere).
In the study, I found that the USW’s and other organizations’ efforts to establish union co-ops in the US are ongoing. They have considered the role unions can play in establishing and supporting enterprises to become sustainable, while forging an effective bargaining and representational role.
In Britain, I found that unions often struggle to carve out a role for themselves in worker co-ops, choosing not to engage with them and favouring their traditional role in conventional employment models. Despite sharing common historical roots addressing the iniquities of industrialisation, union and co-operative movements have often nonetheless been wary bedfellows.
The closest parallel to the union co-op model found in Britain was the relationship between Suma Wholefoods (a worker co-op wholefood wholesaler) and the Bakers Union (BFAWU). Suma is a long-established business, and operates a flat pay structure – meaning all its worker/owners are paid the same. They sought to recognise a union, and came to an agreement with the BWAFU, working collaboratively wherever they can, only moving to opposite sides of the table when a dispute or issue arises. I found that the arrangement is working well, suggesting that the BFAWU have successfully defined a beneficial role for themselves in worker co-ops. The BFAWU cite Suma as a good employment model to others, and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other worker co-ops.
A sector that may be ripe for the union co-op model in Britain is adult social care, although it is noteworthy that the USW and others are developing union co-ops in the industrial sectors they organise in. Skills for Care, an organization working with employers to increase skill levels in the social care industry, report that the number of adult social care jobs in Britain in 2014 was estimated at 1.55 million, and since 2009 local authority jobs in the sector had shrunk by 50,000, while the private sector had grown by 225,000.
However, in my study I found that some unions seemed to be failing to target this growth area of employment in public services. Instead, they were choosing to adopt an ideological mantra that public services should be delivered by the public sector, or were oblivious to the opportunities presented by alternative models of work organisation.
Arguably their ideology or lack of interest flies in the face of the trajectory of the neoliberal assault on public services, and it abandons workers to largely non-unionised employers operating alienating work practises, and denying unions the oxygen of membership growth and innovative thought and action.
There are already examples in Italy, the US, Britain and elsewhere of how social care coops are successfully meeting rising social care demand in the private sector, often encouraging union membership and participation in the process.
Perhaps, it is time that the union movement in Britain and elsewhere took note of what the USW and others in the US are doing in respect of unionised worker co-ops. It’s worth considering how the union co-op model could be applied to their own context, how it may counter alienation amongst their members, and how it may contribute towards their renewal efforts.
Simon Taylor recently completed the MA International Labour and Trade Union Studies at Ruskin College.
You can find him on Twitter: @SimonTaylor920.

Simon Taylor




Drive to change. (BILLNOLL/GETTY IMAGES)

Reinventing the School Bus-iness




Monday, July 17, 2017, 5:00 AM

For years, the yellow school buses traveling New York City streets have had parents, elected officials — and even school bus workers — seeing red.

The Board of Education pays more than $1 billion a year to private bus companies that have little incentive to upgrade or improve service. The buses are prone to breaking down, lack air-conditioning and spew diesel pollution that harms our planet. Concern about wages prompted the de Blasio administration to subsidize the wages of bus drivers through the School Bus Drivers Grant Program — shelling out tens of millions of dollars through a program of questionable legality that skirted the city’s procurement process by rewarding the very contractors that were willing to pay their drivers less. Even with the program, many bus drivers, mechanics and on-board monitors are still struggling to make ends meet.

There is a better route forward.

The city’s Transport Workers Union Local 100 — yes, the same men and women who run city buses and subways — are proposing a pilot program that will demonstrate how New York City can ensure better school bus service, reduce pollution, give parents a seat at the table and create good union jobs with solid wages, affordable health care and good pensions.

Here’s our plan. Let’s establish a unionized, worker-owned cooperative to transport students in non-polluting (and air-conditioned) electric school buses. For the pilot, we envision the worker cooperative entering into a contract with the Board of Education to provide service on approximately 15 existing routes that are not permanently assigned to any private company. !

Why electric buses?

There are approximately 9,000 diesel and gas-powered school buses traveling along thousands of school bus routes in New York City. These buses emit tons of pollution into our environment and contribute to global warming.

A group of leading scientists last year outlined what was in store for our city in the coming decades unless the burning of fossil fuels is curbed: By mid-century, the number of heat waves per year could more than triple, the number of days over 90 degrees annually could double, and the sea level could rise by nearly two feet. By 2100, the city’s flood zone could cover 99 square miles.

It’s 2017 — long past time the nation’s biggest city to adopt an Earth-friendly alternative. Electric buses are made in New York State, and a contractor providing bus service in Copiague on Long Island started using all-electric buses in September.

A pilot program utilizing all-electric buses could support local manufacturing and the creation of much-needed blue-collar jobs in the region. If New York City starts to shift towards electric school buses, more manufacturers would look to set up shop in the state. !

Why a worker cooperative?

Establishing cooperatives — where the workers themselves own the business — is a smart way to address the daunting problem of income inequality. Instead of enriching faceless investors in multi-national corporations or a small group of individual owners, profits are directed toward ensuring that workers are paid good wages and benefits on which they can raise their families. The workers themselves have strong motivation to deliver a good product: job security and a better quality of life.

City Hall has already recognized the personal and societal gains worker cooperatives offer. Two years ago, the city’s Department of Small Business Services, along with partner organizations, launched the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative. With more than $3 million in funding provided by the City Council, the it has been providing technical, financial and educational support to help create or sustain worker cooperatives.

In both fiscal year 2015 and 2016, nearly 50 worker cooperatives were created or assisted by the initiative, including a grocery store in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; a catering company in the Bronx; a landscaping business in Queens, and a janitorial services outfit in Manhattan.

“Worker cooperatives have the potential to provide entrepreneurs with access to meaningful and stable employment and improve the economic landscape across New York City,” Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop and City Chief Procurement Officer Michael Owh wrote in the latest SBS report on the project.

A board of trustees would govern this school bus cooperative. Workers would elect representatives, with some seats being set aside for other stakeholders, including parents. The board would hire a chief executive officer and staff to handle the day-to-day operations, while families would have a real voice and direct access to the highest level of the operation.

The yellow school bus situation has been an intractable mess for far too many years. It’s time to give the green light to a solution that’s better for kids and workers alike. !

Samuelsen is international president of the Transport Workers Union. Garodnick represents Manhattan in the New York City Council

In Memory of Frank Adams

US Federation of Worker Cooperatives Logo Farther.Faster.Together


Posted on March 27, 2017 by Liz Anderson
Honoring of Frank Adams

The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Democracy at Work Institute deeply mourn the passing of Frank Adams. Frank was a tremendously influential worker cooperative advocate, developer and educator, and a founding board member of the USFWC.
In memory of Frank we share here an obituary from Rebecca Bauen, Senior Program Director at DAWI:

This week we mourn the passing of Frank Adams, a giant in the worker cooperative movement. Frank is known best for his seminal work, Putting Democracy to Work: A Practical Guide to Starting and Managing Worker Owned Businesses (with Gary B. Hansen). We also know Frank as a champion for building a movement of worker cooperatives, as a founding board member of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (2004-06).
Frank was an educator, historian, writer. He was also a colleague and mentor to  many of us.

Frank was the best teacher I have ever had. He embedded in me the belief that education is foundational for shared ownership to really take hold. And, he was committed to exploring this right to the end. When I visited Frank in Knoxville, a year ago this March, I was looking for ideas about how to form a school to teach participatory management and the culture of worker ownership. Frank shared with me his research on a little-known school called the Work People’s College organized by the IWW in the early 1900’s, in the upper Midwest, that taught immigrant workers to become managers and owners of their own businesses.

Frank Adams from U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops on Vimeo.

This wasn’t the first time we’d talked about education for ownership. It began in the winter of 1996, when Frank shared his library with me, and we met weekly in his Boston home and talked about the books he had had me read on the English levelers, Kant, management theory, organized labor, worker self-management, and radical adult education. He helped me build a theoretical, historical, philosophical and practical foundation for starting worker cooperatives, teaching about them, and now, through my work at DAWI, building the leadership of the next generation of worker cooperative developers.

Frank offered the gift of his intellect, experience and insight to so many of us committed to changing the nature of work, the direction of capital, and expanding the power of ownership. His often times thorny provocations made us tougher for the battle.

The work continues, and Frank, your legacy lives on.

[Photo of Owen Brown, son of Rob Brown, CDI Coop and Conversions Developer, 2017]

Browse Frank’s voluminous work, which is a testament of his influence and dedication to the worker cooperative movement.

Cooperative Organizing
Adams and Hansen – Putting Democracy to Work (3rd edition) (book)
Adams – Starting a Worker Owned Cooperative
Hansen and Adams – ESOPS Unions and the Rank and File

Adams – Making production, Making Democracy: a case study of teaching in the workplace
Caspary – Education for and by Worker-Owners The Vision of Frank Adams

Workers Owned Sewing Company
Adams and Shirey – Workers’ Owned Sewing Company Making the Eagle Fly Friday
Egerton – Workers Take Over the Store

Blue Ridge Paper Company
Loveland – Under the Workers’ Caps: From Champion Mill to Blue Ridge Paper (book)

Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership (SACCO)
Bothwell – Taking Democracy to Work
Hansen and Adams – ESOPs and you
Adams – Remarks to the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit

Adams and Horton – Unearthing Seeds of Fire: the Idea of Highlander (book)

Gary Hansen
Meeting Frank Adams and Writing Putting Democracy to Work

Maine lobstermen’s union votes to buy Hancock County lobster business

Maine lobstermen’s union votes to buy Hancock County lobster business Portland Press Herald

Posted February 25
Updated February 25

Maine lobstermen’s union votes to buy Hancock County lobster business

Purchase of Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound’s wholesale operation means lobstermen will have more control over the prices they get for their catch, a spokesman says.

The Maine Lobstering Union voted Saturday to buy a wholesale lobster business near Mount Desert Island to help its fishermen net a bigger share of the profit in the booming, $1.5 billion-a-year industry.

At a closed-door meeting in Rockport, members voted 63-1 to buy the wholesale side of the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, which includes a tank that can hold up to 180,000 pounds of lobster, for $4 million, said Local 207 President Rocky Alley.

“We can’t wait to start buying and selling our own lobsters,” Alley said. “Right now, fishermen sell at the dock, and we get what we get, with no control. But there is lots of money made off lobsters after they leave the dock, and some ought to stay with us fishermen.”

The vote enables the Maine union to borrow money from a Kansas City bank and to borrow $1.1 million from fellow locals in the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers as far south as Maryland to purchase the Lamoine-based wholesale business.
Rocky Alley of Jonesport listens to Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher during a 2014 meeting about the state of the lobster industry. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

The Trenton Bridge manager, Warren Pettegrow, will stay on as the chief executive officer of wholesale operations, as will the employees. The operation will continue to ship live lobsters nationally and abroad, including to the European Union and Asia.
Pettegrow said he wasn’t looking to sell Trenton Bridge, a pound that’s been in his family for four generations. When he started talking to the union about two years ago, Pettegrow said it was “all about how to help better the lobstermen’s position in the industry.”

“This really is all about putting lobstermen in the best position to secure their future and their way of life for future generations,” said Pettegrow, who operates a boat that transports lobsters and has been buying MDI lobsters for years.

Eventually, the lobstering union expects to buy Pettegrow out, officials say, but he will still be owner of the family’s well-known retail operation on Route 3 in Trenton, located just over the bridge on the drive to Mount Desert Island.
When the purchase is finalized, union lobstermen from Jonesport, Mount Desert Island and Vinalhaven can sell their lobsters directly to the union cooperative, which was established in 2013, for storage at the Lamoine facility and eventual sale.
Union fishermen who sell to the co-op will get market price for their lobster, but they will also receive a share of cooperative profits, or a dividend, at the end of the year once operational costs, like trucking and employees, are covered.

In time, the union hopes to expand its buying territory to the whole Maine coast.
Reached after the vote, Alley said he wanted to thank IAM president Robert Martinez and the executive board for believing in the lobster fishermen of the state of Maine.

“This has been a dream of ours for two years, and we couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.

The Maine Lobstering Union formed in 2013 in the wake of an infamous 2012 spring glut that drove boat prices to a season average $2.69 per pound, down from about $4 per pound during recent years and the lowest yearly average in 20 years.
The union has lobbied the Maine Legislature on behalf of its members, and has raised some objections to local projects that would affect their members – such as dredging in Searsport and in Casco Bay – but it has long wanted to launch a statewide cooperative.

Lobstermen often complain about the large gap between the boat price for lobster and what a consumer pays to eat a lobster, even in a Maine restaurant. They don’t understand why rising consumer prices don’t always translate into higher boat prices.
“Now we’ll be able to track how the price system works, and we’ll be able to get a piece of the back end,” Alley said. “It will be huge. This is going to change the lobster industry in Maine. It was our goal from the first day we unionized.”

The union has about 500 members who have been active at some time since its launch, but not everyone pays the $62.70-a-month union dues on time. That is why the vote tally on Saturday was so low, union organizers said.

There had not been a fishing union in Maine in more than 75 years, when efforts to revive an earlier union ran afoul of federal price-fixing laws. But IAM lawyers found a loophole in a 1934 fishing law that allows a union to negotiate prices on behalf of fishermen.

Canadian fishermen have been organized for decades, but most don’t negotiate catch prices. Deep-sea fishermen that work on halibut, sablefish and crab boats off Washington and Alaska have union representation, too.
David Sullivan, the head of IAM’s eastern territory, applauded the results of Saturday’s vote.
“The members of the Machinists Union are proud to stand beside the lobstermen of the state of Maine as they fight to preserve their communities and their way of life,” Sullivan said.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:
Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

Car washers celebrate their car wash business in South Los Angeles After the owner closed the company from one day to another, 13 workers were organized and re-registered the service as a cooperative



After a battle to get unionized, the Vermont Gage Car Wash was one of 16 businesses that did it in 2014. But before enjoying the benefits of the union, the workers had to face a crisis.

Miguel Cruz was one of the 13 unionized workers of the car wash who already enjoyed worker protections. In 2015, the 31-year-old Mexican, who lived near work, saw one night that they were getting things out of business.

” The owner closed the business without telling us anything, ” recalls Cruz.
The next day the employees came to work and the car wash service did not open nor did the owner appear.

“We were waiting three days for answers and for our check and she told us that she had already given it to the union,” said Cruz, saying it was a lie.

They Form a Cooperative

The disappointment of losing their job, instead of cowing them, strengthened the 13 workers who decided to start the business themselves . With the help of their union United Steelworkers Local 675 and the Los Angeles Union Cooperative (LUCI) they began to raise funds.

The group registered the business again but this time as a workers’ cooperative . In this case the business is controlled by the workers who have invested some money. The profits of the business are equitable and the board of directors of the cooperative is in charge of voting in the decisions. Workers continue to benefit from their union and LUCI advises them on business development.
Union representative Manuel Ramirez said United Steelworkers Local 675 represents about 30 car wash businesses ranging from San Diego to Pasadena.

” We strive for workers to have safe drinking water, on-time breaks, overtime paid, contracts with a percentage above the minimum wage, and we also negotiate holidays and get paid for sick days that they do not use ,” Ramirez said.

Most important, in this case, is that workers now feel they have a voice and feel they are being heard, the representative added.

Happy employees

José Manuel Zúñiga, 56 and part of the group of 13 carwashers that make up the cooperative said that when he saw the strength of his colleagues to fight for the business he decided to join. Zuniga had a little fear of losing his job, but he did not lose faith.

” I am happy to be part of this group because now I know it is a very strong obligation ,” he added.

Rusty Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation (AFL-CIO), who was present at the car wash celebration said that this group of employees is a role model.

” The fight for workers to have a better life began in this same place four or five years ago and now we are back where the employees have advanced and they have shown us that if you want something done right you have to do it yourself ” , Hicks said congratulating them on having the courage to continue the business under his command.

Carwasheros celebran su negocio de lavado de autos en el sur de Los Ángeles


Carwasheros celebran su negocio de lavado de autos en el sur de Los Ángeles

Después de que la dueña cerrara la empresa de un día para otro, 13 trabajadores se organizaron y volvieron a registrar el servicio como una cooperativa.
Carwasheros celebran su negocio de lavado de autos en el sur de Los ÁngelesLos propietarios del Vermont Gage Carwash celebran el aniversario de su iniciativa conjunta y emprendedora. FOTO: AURELIA VENTURA / LA OPINIÓN

¡Lee y Comparte!


Después de una batalla por conseguir la sindicalización, el lavado de autos Vermont Gage Car Wash fue uno de los 16 negocios que lo logró en el 2014. Sin embargo, antes de disfrutar los beneficios del sindicato, los trabajadores tuvieron que enfrentar una crisis.
Miguel Cruz era uno de los 13 trabajadores sindicalizados del car wash que ya gozaba de protecciones al trabajador. En el 2015, el mexicano de 31 años, quien vivía cerca del trabajo, vio una noche que estaban sacando cosas del negocio.
“La dueña cerró el negocio sin decirnos nada”, recuerda Cruz.
Al día siguiente los empleados llegaron a trabajar y el servicio de lavado de autos no abrió ni la dueña apareció.
“Estuvimos esperando tres días por respuestas y por nuestro cheque y ella nos dijo que ya se lo había dado al sindicato”, dijo Cruz, asegurando que era mentira.
02/22/17 /LOS ANGELES/Car washero Miguel Cruz joined coworkers and owners from Vermont Gage Carwash celebrate with the community their anniversary and their union contract. The celebration included music from Los Jornaleros del Norte, vendors, merchandise from other local cooperatives, to celebrate the hard working spirit of this unique group of car washeros. (Photo Aurelia Ventura/La Opinion)Miguel Cruz en la celebración del aniversario de Vermont Gage Carwash (Foto: Aurelia Ventura/La Opinión)

Forman una cooperativa

La decepción por haber perdido su empleo, en lugar de acobardarlos, fortaleció a los 13 trabajadores quienes decidieron levantar el negocio ellos mismos. Con la ayuda de su sindicato United Steelworkers Local 675 y la cooperativa Los Angeles Union (LUCI)comenzaron a recaudar fondos.
El grupo registró de nuevo el negocio pero esta vez como una cooperativa de trabajadores. En este caso el negocio es controlado por los trabajadores quienes han invertido algo de dinero. Las ganancias del negocio son equitativas y la junta directiva de la cooperativa se encarga de votar en las decisiones. Los trabajadores continúan teniendo beneficios de su sindicato y LUCI los asesora en el desarrollo del negocio.
Manuel Ramírez, representante del sindicato dijo que United Steelworkers Local 675 representa alrededor de 30 negocios de lavadores de autos que van desde San Diego hasta Pasadena.
“Nosotros luchamos para que los trabajadores tengan agua potable, descansos a tiempo, tiempo extra pagado, contratos con porcentaje arriba del salario mínimo y también negociamos los días festivos y que se les paguen los días de enfermedad que no usan”, dijo Ramírez.
Lo más importante, en este caso, es que los trabajadores ahora sienten que tienen una voz y sienten que están siendo escuchados, añadió el representante.
02/22/17 /LOS ANGELES/ Vermont Gage Carwash worker owners celebrate with the community their anniversary and their union contract. The celebration included music from Los Jornaleros del Norte, vendors, merchandise from other local cooperatives, to celebrate the hard working spirit of this unique group of car washeros. (Photo Aurelia Ventura/La Opinion)Los 13 trabajadores que decididieron unirse y formar una cooperativa celebran el aniversario de su negocio (Foto: Aurelia Ventura/La Opinión)

Empleados felices

José Manuel Zúñiga, de 56 años y parte del grupo de los 13 carwasheros que conforma la cooperativa dijo que al ver la fortaleza de sus compañeros por luchar por el negocio él decidió unirse. Zúñiga tuvo un poco de temor por haber perdido su trabajo, pero no perdió la fe.
“Me da mucho gusto ser parte de este grupo porque ahora sé que es una obligación muy fuerte”, añadió.
Rusty Hicks, director ejecutivo de la federación laboral del condado de Los Ángeles (AFL-CIO), quien estuvo presente en la celebración del car wash dijo que este grupo de empleados son un modelo a seguir.
02/22/17 /LOS ANGELES/ Vermont Gage Carwash worker owners celebrate with the community their anniversary and their union contract. The celebration included music from Los Jornaleros del Norte, vendors, merchandise from other local cooperatives, to celebrate the hard working spirit of this unique group of car washeros. (Photo Aurelia Ventura/La Opinion)La comunidad participó en la celebración, que incluyó música de Los Jornaleros del Norte entre otras atracciones (Foto: Aurelia Ventura/La Opinión)“La pelea para que los trabajadores tengan una vida mejor empezó en este mismo lugar hace cuatro o cinco años y ahora estamos de regreso donde los empleados han avanzado y nos han demostrado que si quieres que se haga algo bien lo tienes que hacer tú mismo”, dijo Hicks felicitándolos por tener el valor de continuar el negocio bajo su mando.