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Unions and cooperatives

The history of the relationships between unions and cooperatives has been turbulent. At times, unions have seen cooperatives as a competition for membership. At other times, unions have embraced cooperatives as a means for giving workers ownership and control over their workplaces and therefore promoting job security and happiness. Now, however, the tide seems to be moving back in the direction of warm relationships between worker co-ops and unions. Below are some historical and modern examples of worker co-op, union, and workers organizations' collaboration.

Knights of Labor and Cooperative Development

All quotes in this section are from For All the People by John Curl.[1]

Emerging out of the great railway strike of 1877 and the oppressive union busting tactics being employed at the time, the Knights of Labor was formed in secret in Philadelphia. At their core were many of the ideals that are prominent in the cooperative movement still. For example, their purpose was “to secure to workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create, to harmonize the interests of labor and capital.” Furthermore, when forced to go public with their intentions, they showed their true cooperative nature: “We will endeavor to associate our own labors, to establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system.” The KOL was not a trade union, so members were organized by geography, not trade; as such, the Knights’ goal was to organize “one big union” whose distinct geographic entities would be the seeds for a future “cooperative commonwealth.” Before the Knights were weakened by the fallout of the Haymarket riots and the surge in the unskilled industrial labor pool, they had great success developing cooperative organizations that were designed to empower employees and provide them with the “stepping stones for self-employment.” After an unsuccessful bid to cooperatively run and own a mine due to pressure from big industry, the KOL switched over to a more decentralized plan, in order to allow more local constituencies the ease to start cooperatives at will. In turn, it is estimated that 334 worker-cooperatives opened between 1880 and 1888. While the KOL was eventually suppressed by corrupt government bodies and large corporate forces, their efforts speak to both the natural points of crossover between unions and cooperatives, and how a widespread and successful cooperative movement will have to think outside the confines of the Union system.

The founding of Union Cab in Madison, WI

{{#evp:youtube|oYasp49_tyY|The Union Cab Story.|right|400}}           For Union Cab's full story, please check out their page on Cultivate.Coop.

During the summer of 1973, a union organizing drive began at Yellow Cab, Madison's largest permit holder. After 5 months and a 3 plus hour strike, they were successful in obtaining a contract. But, within a year, they were back on the picket line. After it became apparent to the negotiators that management wanted to break the Union. The employees went on strike in April, 1975. On July 1, Yellow went out of business. Many of Yellow's ex-employees went to Checker Cab, which purchased Yellow's equipment and captured Yellow's market share. But Checker's equipment was generally substandard, and it remained that way despite the large increase in revenue. Employee morale was low. Workers had few benefits or rights, and little control of their workplace. After 2 more years of musical chairs with different Unions, the now Checker’s employees were back on strike again, and shut down all of Checker’s operations. In December, rumors surfaced that Checker would stay closed permanently. Some were frustrated and angry because the union was unable to reach a negotiated settlement. Some began to feel that if Checker did close permanently, it would be better than working for its management again. In January, 1979, ex-Checker workers Steve Krumrei, Jim Cooley, Dave Everitt, Jim Symon and Jim Applebaum resolved to create a worker owned company. They felt they had, amongst the membership, enough expertise to be successful in the taxi business. When it became apparent that Checker management would not reapply for taxi permits, Union Cab incorporated.[2]

The founding of Collective Copies in Amherst, MA

The former print shop Gnomon Copies was a poor workplace in every way: the environment was awful, the machines were faulty, pay was low, and to top it off, management didn’t care. In 1983, the workers unionized, and within months walked out. The strike dragged on through the fall, with workers collecting strike pay — a fraction of their already low pay. A resolution squeaked through just barely ahead of the winter. Then, days after negotiations were successfully concluded, Gnomon was given an eviction notice. By mid-December, the strike was finished, and so was Gnomon Copies. Then, in March of the following year, after pooling their skills & experience, the old Gnomon workers launched their own shop above Wooton Books. The shop that emerged from the preceding autumn’s strike was owned by its workers and run collectively. Twenty five years later, Collective Copies has changed: entirely digital and with triple the original staff and three stores around the valley, the business is thriving and through collective ownership and the cooperative model, it is stronger than ever.[3]

COLORS Cooperative in New York, NY

In the aftermath of 9/11, the chefs, busboys, waitresses, and and more that worked at the restaurant at the top of World Trade Center all found themselves displaced and out of work, and with an ownership that refused to support them through this hard and turbulent time. Rather than simply giving up, the workers formed the Restaurant Opportunities Center – now the country’s largest restaurant worker organization. Many had a vision to create a new restaurant that was representative of all those working in it, and which they could own and control with dignity. It wasn't easy, though. According to the blog American.Coop: "Dramas include losing deposits to shady real estate deals, visiting Italian cooperatives to court investment, debating whether attendance at protests earned sweat equity, and fending off a dissident faction that picketed the new cooperative's fundraising dinners." Yet, they continued to struggle, and in 2006, the former WTC workers opened COLORS - which reflects "the culinary traditions of the 22 countries from which our proud worker-owners hailed."[4][5]

The United Steel Workers and Mondragon Collaboration

After a couple years of discussions, in the March of 2012, the United Steelworkers (USW) and the Mondragon Cooperative Complex (the largest worker co-op system in the world, based in the Basque region of Spain, with nearly 100,000 worker-owners and hundreds of co-ops) formally announced a plan for collaboration entitled “Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model.” In sum, the idea is for the Mondragon system to help the USW leverage its power and membership into organizing industrial worker-owned co-ops in the USA, in some ways based off the success of the Mondragon industrial co-ops. This is a major shift to the USW’s past perspective on worker co-ops. For example, in the late 1970’s, the union viewed worker-ownership as a threat; when a group of workers and religious organizations put forward a plan to explore worker-owned institutions in Youngstown, the USW opposed the effort. Now, the current president of the USW, Leo Gerard, has embraced worker-ownership. He had this to say about the potential impact of the USW and Mondragon's collaboration: “To survive the boom and bust, bubble-driven economic cycles fueled by Wall Street, we must look for new ways to create and sustain good jobs on Main Street…. Worker-ownership can provide the opportunity to figure out collective alternatives to layoffs, bankruptcies, and closings.”[6]

References

  1. http://www.foodforthoughtbooks.com/book/9781604865820
  2. http://www.unioncab.com/History
  3. http://collectivecopies.com/about/history.htm
  4. http://www.colors-newyork.com/
  5. http://www.american.coop
  6. http://www.thenation.com/blog/167048/worker-ownership-21st-century