Posted 7 years ago on June 27, 2014, 1:46 a.m. EST by LeoYo
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Will German Workers Declare Independence?
Thursday, 26 June 2014 10:12
By John Clay, Arbeitskammer | Report
At a time when Americans are looking abroad for alternative economic strategies to rebalance our unequal economy, some worker advocates in Germany are asking if an American form of cooperative enterprise—the union cooperative—might be the way to economic independence.
Ever since the United Steelworkers International Union, the Mondragon cooperatives of Spain, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center launched the “union co-op initiative” in 2009, cities across the US have been exploring the model—cooperatives whose worker-owners choose to join a labor union—as a path to jobs, a stake in the economy, and hope for the future for local communities. Now worker advocates in Germany are taking notice.
US advocates might count the model a success if union cooperatives can help local economies here at home. But as shareholder corporations increase their global reach, the union cooperative ultimately may need to prove its benefits for local communities across the globe as well.
This summer I was invited to the Saarland Labor Chamber in Saarbrücken to talk about the role union cooperatives might play in Germany. In the days before the presentation, I engaged in discussions with Saarland’s Left Party, nonprofits, unionized workers at Saarstahl and Halberg-Guss steel companies, and representatives of Germany’s largest industrial union, IG Metall. 
Some questions asked were similar to questions here in the US: Why should labor unions and cooperatives partner together? Can the model work for large industrial firms? Are cooperatives as viable as conventional firms?
Other questions were more specific to historical successes and failures of social solidarity in Germany, but could apply to the US as well: Don’t labor unions already provide enough job and wage security for working people? Isn’t there a risk that the cooperative eventually would squeeze employees with more work and less pay like any conventional firm?
What follows is an early step toward answering these questions.
Union Cooperatives and Economic Democracy: An American Perspective
Thank you for inviting me to speak with you about union cooperatives and economic democracy. Democracy can be sustained only where there is a balance of power among all persons. And a balance of political power requires a balance of economic power. This spring, the US state of Minnesota, where I live, raised the state minimum wage above the national minimum. The original statewide campaign plan was geared toward the important work of door-knocking voters and lobbying legislators. After discussions, I was asked to write into the plan a new section on recruiting nonprofit institutions.
Although some nonprofits already were onboard, there had been no explicit strategy for recruiting more. I knew that a strategy for community partnerships, as also resolved at the AFL-CIO 2013 Convention, was crucial, because to convince the people inside the Capitol—the legislators—you first need to convince the people outside the Capitol. 
And not just the general public. Public opinion surveys showed that the public wanted to raise the wage, but legislators were saying, No. That's because many business owners in Minnesota did not want to raise the wage, and persons who own or control more economic resources, right or wrong, have a louder voice.
Although labor unions were fighting hard to raise the wage, their economic resources were small compared to business owners. So our best chance was to recruit nonprofit organizations and add their modest power to the power of the unions. And as the balance shifted, and nonprofits and even some small business owners started saying yes, then, only then, did the legislators follow the general voting public to say yes as well. 
To wield power we must own power. To have democracy in our society, we must have democracy in our economy. We must all own a piece of raw economic power, and we must believe, as a matter of moral principle, that everyone has an inalienable right to own it. Economic power combined with principle makes culture, and culture is power in action.
The union cooperative is a furnace of economic value and moral principle in which a culture of economic democracy can be created.
First, What is a Union Cooperative?
A union cooperative is a worker-owned cooperative whose workers are covered by a labor union collective bargaining agreement, and whose workers believe everyone has a right to own the full fruits of their labor. Being a worker-owner means sharing in the decision-making, the profits, and the losses of the cooperative. The name "union cooperative" does not mean that the union owns the cooperative. It means simply that the worker-owners are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. In 2012 the United Steelworkers, Mondragon, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center gave more definition to the model by releasing a how-to guide called "Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model." 
The protection of collective bargaining might seem unnecessary where the workers themselves are the owners. But the division of worker-owners into management and non-management roles means that even within a cooperative there is a situation of conflictual partnership. And typically there are some workers who are not owners. In the USA, newly hired workers must study cooperative finance and decision-making for up to two years to qualify for ownership. And some workers choose not to join as owners. Collective bargaining ensures that all of the workers have a voice, even those who are not owners.
Beyond improving the daily lives of working people, the union cooperative can help us attain social goals. It can inspire new membership in labor unions and in cooperatives. It can cultivate common interests and a shared agenda for unions and cooperatives, creating opportunities for building political coalitions together.
The union cooperative also can create stronger local economies. The key to a healthy economy is a cycle of production and consumption built from the local level. If in every city and state the people who live and work there are paid enough to purchase what they themselves produce, then the economy is meeting it's fundamental natural goal of sustaining labor and life.