The New “Union Co-op” Model

by Gar Alperovitz

(March 26)The new model for a “union co-op,” one which combines principles of worker ownership and labor solidarity—jointly announced by the United Steelworkers, the Ohio Employee Ownership Center and Mondragón on March 26, 2012—represents a major and positive historic advance in community wealth-building. Their work is helping to forge the building blocks of a new economy.

The late John Logue, who founded the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, would have been thrilled by this news. John long viewed cooperative worker ownership as a critical tool to defend workers against the ravages of a globalized economy.

The proposed model, however, does more than establish worker ownership. The involvement of the Steelworkers revives the American tradition of union participation in cooperatives, which began with the Knights of Labor more than a century ago. At Mondragón co-ops, a “social council” makes sure that the “primacy of labor” so central to their values is in fact honored in practice. Here the Steelworkers union will play this crucial role, repurposing the traditional collective bargaining agreement in a new framework, one designed not around conflict, but around balancing the imperatives in a cooperatively owned workplace.

Importantly, this proposal is animated by a larger vision than just the individual workplace. It looks towards Mondragón’s model of inter-cooperation, co-ops helping co-ops, sharing resources in the spirit of solidarity and mutual aid—for instance, by providing access to union-scale benefits plans, which might otherwise prove to be a massive burden on a smaller firm.

Today’s announcement also heralds the potential for real on-the-ground developments—and further efforts in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and elsewhere.

The Steelworkers, Mondragón, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center are to be commended on their achievement, and on the further advances projected for coming months.

Gar Alperovitz is the author of America Beyond Capitalism, the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, and cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative.

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