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A Direct Stake in Economic Life
(Photo: SEIU / Flickr)

A Direct Stake in Economic Life

(Photo: SEIU / Flickr)

Part of the Series

This “Chapter Seven” is part eleven of Truthout’s continuing series of excerpts from Gar Alperovitz’s “America beyond Capitalism.”

That individuals work harder, better, and with greater enthusiasm when they have a direct interest in the outcome is self-evident to most people. The obvious question is: why aren’t large numbers of businesses organized on this principle?

The answer is: in fact, thousands and thousands of them are. Indeed, more Americans now work in firms that are partly or wholly owned by the employees than are members of unions in the private sector!

The Appleton company, a world leader in specialty paper production in Appleton, Wisconsin, became employee-owned when the company was put up for sale by Arjo Wiggins Appleton, the multinational corporation that owned it-and the 2,500 employees decided they had just as much right to buy it as anyone else. Reflexite, an optics company based in New Avon, Connecticut, became employee-owned in 1985 after 3M made a strong bid for the company and the founding owners, loyal to their workers and the town, preferred to sell to the employees instead. In the case of Science Applications International Corporation, the founder, Dr. J. Robert Beyster, has for more than thirty years simply believed that people “involved in the company should share in its success.”

This is an exclusive Truthout series from political economist and author Gar Alperovitz. We will be publishing weekly installments of the new edition of “America Beyond Capitalism,” a visionary book, first published in 2005, whose time has come. Donate to Truthout; and receive a free copy.

One factor that has contributed to the rise of employee-owned firms is that multinational corporations often must seek the very highest profit they can make on invested capital-whereas workers living in a community are content with substantial profits (rather than the highest possible) since the other benefits of keeping a plant in town outweigh differences in profit rates. (Often, of course, when employees take ownership, the change produces greater efficiency-and greater profits than those which the multinational registered.)

A major boost to employee-ownership came from passage in 1974 (and thereafter) of federal legislation providing special tax benefits to Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs)-the legal structure that most such firms now utilize. Technically an ESOP involves a trust that receives and holds stock in a given corporation on behalf of its employees.

At the heart of the ESOP idea is the basic financing concept urged by Louis Kelso for broadening the ownership of wealth-namely, if some form of guarantee or collateral can be arranged to provide loans for productive investment, new wealth ownership by diverse groups (in this case employees of a firm) can be developed and paid for by the profits that the investment itself generates.

Although ESOPs based on this principle date from the 1950s, the modern federal legislation gave tax incentives to corporations contributing stock to an employee trust and to retiring owners of businesses who sell their corporations to employees and reinvest the proceeds within a defined time frame.

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There are approximately 11,000 ESOPs now operating in communities in all regions of the United States. Asset holdings total more than $400 billion. The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) estimates that total worker holdings (of all forms of stock ownership and stock options) reached approximately $800 billion in 2002-that is, roughly 8 percent of all U.S. corporate stock.

W.L.Gore, the maker of Gore-Tex apparel, is one of the most impressive modern ESOPs. The company, owned since 1974 by (currently 6,000) worker-owners in forty-five locations around the world, has no bosses or formal titles. To ensure communication and innovation, those working at any one site number no more than 200. Depending on their particular skills, workers may lead one task one week and follow other leaders the next week; teams disband after projects are completed, with team members moving on to other teams. W. L. Gore revenues totaled $1.33 billion in 2003; the firm regularly ranks on the Fortune “Best Companies to Work For” list.

Another impressive ESOP, Weston Solutions, Inc., is the second largest environmental firm in the country. Its highly specialized services range from forestry and urban planning to high-hazard nuclear and chemical waste cleanups. The company has helped rehabilitate “sick” (asbestos, lead paint) school buildings from New York and Chicago to Decatur, Alabama. It was the lead information technology contractor in recovery operations after the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The company is 100 percent owned by its 1,800 employees. In recognition of its creative structure and its “consistent record of profitability, growth and financial stability,” Weston received the Environmental Business Journal’s top “gold” award for 2003.

ESOP firms are also common in nonspecialized areas: Fetter Printing Company in Louisville, Kentucky, is 100 percent owned by its 200-plus workers. The firm has annual revenues of $17.5 million and was recently ranked as one of the top twenty-five printers in the United States. Fastener Industries in Berea, Ohio, is owned by more than 100 worker-owners. Machinists who have participated in the ESOP since 1980 commonly receive the equivalent of an additional three months’ pay in dividends each year and retire with personal shareholding accounts of up to $350,000. Parametrix-100 percent owned by over 350 employees-is an environmental engineering firm headquartered in Sumner, Washington. The company was recently selected as one of the best companies to work for in Washington State-and was named 2001 National ESOP of the Year by the ESOP Association. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, ComSonics-100 percent owned by 160 employees-makes cable television (CATV) test and analysis devices and boasts the largest CATV repair facility in the United States.

A 1998 survey of Washington State firms found that median hourly pay in ESOP firms was 12 percent higher than pay for comparable work in non-ESOP firms. Worker-owners of ESOPs also ended their careers with almost three times the retirement benefits of others with similar jobs. A 1990 study by the National Center for Employee Ownership estimated that an employee making $20,000 a year in a typical ESOP would accumulate $31,000 in stock over ten years-no small feat, considering that median financial wealth was just $11,700 during this period. A 2000 Massachusetts survey found ESOP accounts averaging just under $40,000.

It is also clear that ESOPs-and worker ownership in general-have broad political appeal for both practical and philosophical reasons. The ESOP concept has been endorsed by (among others) Ronald Reagan, Ralph Nader, Mario Cuomo, William F. Buckley, William Greider, Jack Kemp, Richard Gephardt, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Coretta Scott King. Both parties backed the tax legislation that now provides over $2 billion in annual support to ESOPs. Other forms of federal help include loan guarantees and the financing of worker-ownership feasibility studies in the event of plant closures or major layoffs.

A number of state programs also provide support for worker ownership. One of the most widely recognized, the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, conducts feasibility studies for potential independent worker buyouts and for transition buyouts from retiring owners. The Michigan Workforce Transition Unit offers employee-ownership efforts feasibility-assessment assistance. Massachusetts funds the quasi-governmental Commonwealth Corporation, which provides technical and financial assistance to firms seeking to establish an ESOP.

The extraordinary growth of ESOPs over the last thirty years has brought with it growing sophistication, the development of expert advisory and technical assistance organizations, a group of advocates and a group of critics, and-what is important-an expanding and diverse constituency interested in next-stage development of the institution.

Critics of ESOPs commonly decry the lack of democratic control offered to workers in most trust arrangements. They point out that unlike such leaders as W.L.Gore, many-indeed, most-ESOPs do not involve real participation; they often function mainly as a tax-favored legal mechanism to help employees accumulate additional assets over time. (It is estimated that only between a quarter and a third of ESOP companies pass through full voting rights to worker shareholders.) Moreover, since ESOPs commonly award stock in proportions related to wage and salary levels, they do little to improve overall compensation ratios and in some cases actually increase internal firm disparities due to compounding effects when stock values increase or dividends are received.

Several considerations suggest that greater democratic participation and control of ESOPs is likely to develop as time goes on-hence, also open the way for broader support. First, a significant share of ESOP companies (some three thousand, or nearly 30 percent of ESOPs in privately held companies)are already majority-owned by workers. Of these, 40 to 50 percent already pass voting rights through to plan participants. Second, as workers within specific firms steadily accumulate stock they become majority owners as time goes on. Surveys by the National Center for Employee Ownership reveal that the proportion of privately held ESOPs that are majority-owned increased approximately 50 percent during the past decade. Majority-owned firms increased from 38 percent of ESOP association members in 1989 to 68 percent in 2000.

It is conceivable that as more and more ESOPs become majority-owned, workers will ignore the fact that in many firms they have little power. On the other hand, the more likely result-as Business Week observed in 1991-is that ultimately workers “who own a significant share of their companies will want a voice in corporate governance.” In Ohio (which has been closely studied) a survey completed in the mid-1990s found that 53 percent of majority-owned ESOPs passed through voting rights. It also found that employee ownership was becoming more democratic over time, with three times as many closely held companies passing through full voting rights to ESOP participants as had been the case in a previous 1985-1986 survey.

The third-and perhaps most important-reason to expect change is that several studies demonstrate that greater participation leads to greater productivity and thus greater competitiveness in the marketplace. In general, ESOPs have been found to be as productive or more productive than comparable non-ESOP firms. Annual sales growth, on average, is also greater in ESOP than in non-ESOP firms. When ESOPs are structured to include greater participation, however, the advantages of worker ownership increase substantially. Studies undertaken by the National Center for Employee Ownership, by several teams of economists, and by the U.S. General Accounting Office all confirm that combining worker ownership with employee participation commonly produces greater productivity gains, in some cases over 50 percent.

The number of ESOP-style worker-owned firms increased from 1,600 in 1975 to 4,000 in 1980, to 8,080 in 1990, and as we have noted, to roughly 11,000 in 2003. The number of worker-owners involved rose, correspondingly, from a mere 248,000 in 1975 to 8.8 million in 2003. There is no question that the feasibility and efficiency of wealth owning through worker institutions has been demonstrated, and that the basic concept has substantial potential for future development.

Likely directions for next-stage advances have been outlined in systematic proposals put forward on both the left and the right. During the Clinton administration one expert, Joseph Blasi, developed a comprehensive package that included tax and other benefits, along with substantial support for state-based technical assistance efforts. The Blasi plan also proposed restructuring tax benefits to redress the greater concentration of ownership among higher-paid employees as a result of awarding stock in amounts related to salary and wage level.

One of the most conservative Republican members of Congress, Dana Rohrbacher, went further. Rohrbacher introduced legislation-the Employee Ownership Act of 2001-the goal of which was to have “30 percent of all United States corporations . . . owned and controlled by employees of the corporations” by 2010. The proposed legislation would define a new entity, the Employee Owned and Controlled Corporation, (which Rohrbacher calls “ESOP-plus-plus”), in which over 50 percent of stock is held by employees, 90 percent of regular employees are enrolled in the plan, and all employees vote their stock on a one-person, one-vote basis. Various tax benefits would encourage adoption of the ESOP-plus-plus form.

The development in the 1970s and 1980s of broad Democratic and Republican political backing for employee-ownership ideas and supportive state and federal policies was in part related to the economic difficulties experienced by many communities during this period. Employee-owned firms not only embody new wealth-owning principles, they help local economies. The law that established New York State’s program makes the connection particularly clear: “The general welfare is directly dependent on the economy and plant closures are a problem. The purpose of this Act is to encourage employees of these plants to continue them as employee-owned enterprises, thereby retaining jobs.”

The 1990s economic boom tended to obviate such concerns. With the return of increased economic difficulties and the uncertainties created by globalization, supportive efforts are likely to build upon, and expand, the now well-developed and growing foundation of accumulated experience.

Traditional cooperatives also, of course, have long been based on democratic ownership ideas related to the Pluralist Commonwealth vision. It is rarely realized that there are more than 48,000 co-ops operating in the United States-and that 120 million Americans are co-op members. Roughly 10,000 credit unions (with total assets of over $600 billion) supply financial services to 83 million members; 36 million Americans purchase their electricity from rural electric cooperatives; more than a thousand mutual insurance companies (with more than $80 billion in assets) are owned by their policyholders; and approximately 30 percent of farm products are marketed through cooperatives.

Ongoing co-op development is likely to draw upon the experience of successful modern models like Recreational Equipment, Inc.-an outdoor equipment retailer and producer that employs six thousand people, operates sixty stores, and had revenues of $735 million in 2002. Recreational Equipment is owned by its 2 million members, each of whom receives a refund-usually about 10 percent-on purchases at the end of the year. Named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” by Fortune magazine from 1997 to 2002, Recreational Equipment offers employees a substantial profit-sharing plan and has taken part in numerous joint ventures with local environmental groups.

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