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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Rebuilding the Yellow Brick Road

December 30, 2013
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A new worker-ownership evolution-revolution featuring more virtuous capitalism communities of practice is demonstrating that doing well can realistically and profitably be based on doing good. This brave new economic world is emerging from green-shoot, “made in America” antidotes to structural unemployment and income inequality, sprouting ubiquitously among increasing absentee-owner-plagued urban and rural geographies. Hybrid home, land, and workplace sovereignty-recuperation models through local equity enterprises are building a “new green economy” equation, where labor seeks to operate in a permanent seller’s market as does domestic energy sourcing with renewables and distributed generation serving as means to better, more sustaining, stakeholder-centric ends.

Societal benefits from this approach are inclusive and sustaining. Comparative labor advantages are sourced locally, stakeholders equate to shareholders, and profits recycle to the businesses and communities that produce them. Local labor regains its natural place-based sovereignty in regards to its relationship with local and exterritorial capital which, while necessary and hopefully sufficient, is subordinated to the needs of the working class people and communities it finances instead of the reverse. Under this approach, solidarity as a founding American immigrant-inspiring and hosting community principle so closely aligned with freedom and daily liberties is reborn, rewired, and reused.

Not surprising, Washington, D.C. politicians and policymakers are oblivious to this development. Instead, despairing conventional wisdom in the nation’s capital holds that the U.S. domestic political debate has reached pre Civil War polarization levels. Growing and widespread income inequality serves as a reality-check handmaiden to pull the policy curtains back from elected and appointed Oz wizards who either can’t or won’t equate job creation speech with deed. All bets are off whether the upcoming November 2014 mid-term elections offer a chance to go beyond the predicable that hasn’t worked in favor of experimenting with the transformational that just might.

For this to happen, domestic political conversations need to exchange self-comforting ideological echo chambers for more innovative and creative, mission-driven, “laboratories of workplace democracy” launching pads with not a moment to lose. Equal opportunity and social mobility graphs continue to trend sharply downward with very few credible policy options able to reverse engineer the growing divide between the top ten percent and everyone else. America’s sharply rising misery index characterizes the growing life style and life expectancy differences between paycheck dependants and passive income beneficiaries to the point where actuarial tables can predict individual destinies based on economic class.

Despite so many promises, contemporary economic development necessity has not yet become the mother of job creation invention or even reinvention for three self-fulfilling and related reasons.  First and irrespective of political alignment, U.S. politicians while opportunistically mouthing job creation platitudes overwhelmingly choose short-term partisan political gain over the harder task of creating long-term, high impact opportunities. Second, technology and productivity gains coupled with global trade policies favor “companies beyond borders” whose interests are wholly and only transactional while location-indifferent.  Third,  letting private sector corporations off their country of origin hook in technology and infrastructure give-back and reinvestment terms serves to prioritize global shareholders over local stakeholders and redirects profit flows towards increasingly exterritorial investment pools controlled by more elite recipients and decision makers who do not hail from fly-over dog-patch.  Rural loses out to urban due to infrastructure amenities while urban markets come in second to locations where headquarters are based.

This ever more visible dichotomy between global means and domestic end results has spurred an end-to-capitalism-as-we-know-it call to arms and wariness of meaningful entitlement reform positioning on the progressive left. With political pressures seeking policy vacuums, liberal intensity is matched by resistance to raising the minimum wage above survival levels (i.e. without recourse to food stamps), equal access to basic healthcare, and meaningful transparent tax reform on the Tea Party right. What’s left in the diminished U.S. political center sputters on empty about the role of government and the increasingly irrelevant austerity versus stimulus debate over which choice serves best as after the fact viable pathways out of stubborn poverty and recession after effects.

Ironically, the modern Internet-driven “free market” economy depends on global labor arbitraging which has become the new slave-trading platform of choice, now through virtually managed economic strata data in the predatory “capitalist cloud” that is initially based less on indigenous race and more on economic class and geography.  Over time, this new format, labor as a degraded buyer’s market commodity, proves unable to transcend neo-racist human capital-trading business practices which operate beyond the reach of legislating borders and easy geopolitical remedies. The results are African conflict diamonds bought on Wall Street, textile factory fires in Bangladesh, Foxconn suicides in China manufacturing next generation Apple products, and American rust-belt factories either packaged up and shipped to overseas sweat shops where safety nets pass for human resource policies or left to rust and decay like their stuck in place dependant populations with few replacement options besides underwater home values and insufficient service jobs to bridge the gaps.

Paul Krugman in “The Fear Economy” juxtaposes labor supply versus corporate demand and profits showing that both are rising but not equally and in different directions. Working and middle class equity is a spent financial force still disintegrating from the 2008 Great Recession that obliterated over one-trillion dollars in saved assets through dark pool, interest-conflicted transactions built on failed and criminally-concocted real estate bubble instruments and unchecked market speculation.

Manipulated as an “other people’s money dumb client,” worker pension funds got to pay twice for the privilege of dealing with the ownership class, first at the bargaining table and second on the trading floor. Meanwhile, the current inability of traditional government structures deploying both micro and macroeconomic policies to break through the income inequality log-jam underlines the growing inadequacy of basic definitions and conventional practices to capture momentous societal and technological changes that have turned labor into a cheapened commodity while transforming corporations into empowered persons that aren’t owned by design by the labor they’re cheapening.

Can a society built on these principles overcome the “Fear Economy” to eliminate rising systemic income and transactional opportunity inequality? If not, how can comparative advantages be recast and inherent structural inequalities be renegotiated in the everyday marketplace equation that must be transformed into something more place-based and more just? Can there be “no place like home” if America’s yellow brick road is permanently disabled to the extent that rising working and middle class or Millennial Generation home ownership no longer exists?

Fighting to salvage America’s 21st century dispossessed to bring them back home means understanding that the Wal-Mart anti-worker solidarity model has come full “reducto absurdam” circle. Constant national and global expansion on the backs of race to the bottom wages with no contractual equity benefits for workers to off-set their compensation sacrifices in each hometown marketplace produces an eventual consumer race to elsewhere. When nothing consumed is made locally then depressed local working class consumers finally can no longer afford to shop where they live. This is how working class America gets hollowed out, resized, and resettled onto newly constituted “class plantations” where working for the company store means shoveling packages in an Amazon warehouse.

Reality based and recovering local worker-stakeholders operate from traumatized city centers, deserted factory lots and empty union halls while living the line in the Broadway musical, “Miss Saigon,” when a gangster notes that America is like an éclair “where they’ve sucked out the cream.” Eschewing hand-outs and voting for a self-reliant hard climb to the ownership quadrant, worker-stakeholders first generate local productive means to make something to sell to themselves and others that serves as first steps to transcend their underwater homes, ravaged pensions, and discounted labor status in a marketplace that overwhelmingly doesn’t respect humane rules for humans.

Those who are “born free yet everywhere find themselves in chains” desperately need a system reboot to help cast off the structural shackles depriving America of its basic ownership economy and culture oxygen. Revamped community enterprise solidarity through equal access to equal share ownership, “one worker, one vote,” remains the path not yet taken in any measure of its transformational potential.

- Michael Peck blogs at the One Worker, One Vote blog.

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