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Democratic Ownership and the Pluralist Commonwealth: The Creation of an Idea Whose Time Has Come

There is an alternative to capitalism.

An abandoned facility of the defunct Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. (Photo: stu_spivack / Wikimedia)

Charles Derber offers a guide to the new era of organizing in Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times. With guest contributions from Medea Benjamin, Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky and more, this book makes a compelling argument about how movements must come together. Order your copy today with a donation to Truthout!

The following piece by Gar Alperovitz forms one of the guest “interludes” in Welcome to the Revolution.

On September 19, 1977 — a day remembered locally as “Black Monday” — the corporate owners of the Campbell Works in Youngstown, Ohio, abruptly shuttered the giant steel mill’s doors. Instantly, 5,000 workers lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and their futures. The mill’s closing was national news, one of the first major blows in the era of deindustrialization, offshoring, and “free trade” that has since made mass layoffs commonplace.

What was not commonplace was the response of the steelworkers and the local community. “You feel the whole area is doomed somehow,” Donna Slaven, the wife of a laid-off worker, told reporters at the time. “If this can happen to us, there is not a secure union job in the country.” Rather than leave the fate of their community in the hands of corporate executives in New York, New Orleans, and Washington DC, the workers began to organize and resist. And they joined with a new coalition of priests, ministers, and rabbis — headed by a Catholic and an Episcopal bishop — to build support for a new way forward. I was called in to head up an economic team to help.

Working together, the steelworkers, the ecumenical coalition, and our team put forward a bold proposal to re-open the mill under worker–community ownership. With support from a creative Carter Administration official, a study was financed that demonstrated the feasibility of a plan to put the old mill back into operation with the latest modern technology. A worker–community-owned facility could operate efficiently, re-employ 4,000 people, and generate a profit.

Peace activist, civil rights advocate, and labor lawyer Staughton Lynd worked with me and the coalition to develop the transition effort. Lynd subsequently wrote:

What was new in the Youngstown venture was the notion that workers and community residents could own and operate a steel mill. … Employee–community ownership of the Campbell Works would have challenged the capitalist system on the terrain of the large-scale enterprises in basic industries. … This was the ownership model the workers themselves chose.

The coalition knew that their only chance against big steel was to build a popular political base around the state of Ohio and even around the nation. They understood it was important to universalize the idea, to make it clear that the problem of Youngstown was a problem many communities would face. One of their themes was: “Save Youngstown, Save the Nation.”

They also had to overcome the opposition of the national leadership of the United Steelworkers union which, in 1977, had no interest in the idea of workers owning a mill (or young activists getting ideas about organizing power!). A major victory of Youngstown’s local, state, and national campaign was the 1978 decision by the Carter Administration to support the plan with millions of dollars in federal loan guarantees.

Perhaps not surprisingly — given how innovative the plan was in the 1970s — the coalition did not win the battle of Youngstown. After the mid-term elections of 1978, the Carter Administration withdrew its loan guarantees amidst pressure from industry lobbyists and antagonistic government officials. Without the loan guarantees, the effort collapsed.

The story, however, does not end there. The steelworkers and the ecumenical coalition knew they were up against some of the most powerful players in the country. They were fully aware they might well lose the battle. They also knew, however, that they were on to a very important idea, one whose time would come.

A centerpiece of the strategy was an all-out effort to help educate the public, the press, and the politicians in the state and around the country. And, in fact, the inspiring example of the Youngstown workers and ecumenical coalition has had ongoing and profound impact. There are now many worker-owned businesses in the state of Ohio, and the simple idea that workers can and should own their workplace is commonplace not only among workers, but also among businesspeople, many of whom (aided by certain tax benefits) now sell their successful businesses to former employees when they retire. Also in Ohio, the late John Logue, a Kent State professor inspired by the Youngstown effort, established the Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University, a support system for worker ownership in the state that is one of the best in the nation.

It is not just Ohio. The concept of worker ownership has become commonplace across the country and the world. A 2004 film, The Take, by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, documented the struggle of Argentinian workers to turn their factory into a worker cooperative, and it inspired many people to develop worker cooperatives. Also in 2004, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) was established. Starting with just $7,000 in the bank, the USFWC has grown to represent and support more than 160 democratic workplaces and organizations, representing more than 4,000 workers, and has been instrumental in pushing state and local governments to support worker cooperatives as part of their economic development strategies.

In New York City, a coalition of grassroots community organizers and cooperative advocates — including the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives, an affiliate of the USFWC, and The Working World (an organization founded by a young New Yorker who was motivated by The Take) — recently secured $1.2 million from the city’s budget to support worker-owned businesses in low-income communities. One of the driving forces behind the New York City legislation is Cooperative Home Care Associates, the largest worker cooperative in the United States with more than 2,000 workers, most of whom are women of color, who enjoy above-average pay and benefits.

In Madison, Wisconsin, a measure has passed the city council earmarking $5 million over 5 years to support cooperative development. In Jackson, Mississippi, before his tragic death, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba was preparing an ambitious strategy to combat economic inequality in the heart of the Black Belt by building a “solidarity economy” — one that connected community and cooperative enterprises to municipal procurement and remains underway.

In 2008, the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative was launched in Cleveland, Ohio — where the population has fallen from more than 900,000 in 1950 to below 400,000 today. Here, a number of cooperatives are linked together with a community-building non-profit corporation and a revolving fund designed to create more such connected, community-building businesses. The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry operates out of a LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Gold-certified building, uses around one-fifth the amount of water that conventional laundries use, and has an advanced water heating system that saves energy. Evergreen Energy Solutions recently installed one of the larger urban solar fields in the country. And Green City Growers Cooperative — a 3.25-acre hydroponic greenhouse — can produce roughly 3 million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of herbs per year. An important new strategy in Cleveland uses anchor institutions — hospitals and universities in the area that purchase more than $3 billion a year in goods and services — to provide a long-term market for the worker-owned cooperatives.

The United Steelworkers, whose national leadership once opposed the Youngstown effort, has also evolved. The union has adopted a major strategy to help build “union co-op” worker-owned companies around the nation. Efforts are underway, in particular, in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

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This is not, however, simply a story about worker coops. It is much more about how change can happen — and about how an idea whose time has come actually “comes.” The spirit of Youngstown lives on. At this time of writing, a major new initiative — “50 by 50” — aims to organize 50 million workers in worker-owned enterprises in the United States by 2050. And in many communities, other new initiatives have been building momentum. Philadelphia and Santa Fe, for instance, are actively considering new public banks to develop much more broadly democratized local economies. Activists in Boulder, Colorado, have won two major referenda to take over the local electric utility and convert it to less climate-destroying approaches.

Beyond this, the Bernie Sanders revolution gave millions of people a sense that things might move faster than the steadily developing worker coop revolution. So, too, Black Lives Matter activists have turned their attention to new community-building economic strategies. At another level, the Next System Project, backed by some of the nation’s leading scholars and activists, along with 10,000 engaged citizens, is considering developmental trajectories that begin, like Youngstown, in the here and now, but look forward even to such major changes as turning the big Wall Street banks into public utilities, and nationalizing oil companies and other firms in the interests of dealing with climate change, on the one hand, and corporate power, on the other.

Slowly, like an image emerging in a photographer’s darkroom, the basis of a different economy is beginning to appear, first in outline form, then perhaps with increasing pace over time, with more and more elements at all levels — community, region, nation. It might be called a “Pluralist Commonwealth” in its bringing together of different forms of democratic ownership, from neighborhood to community to region and beyond. At its core is a vision of community, one made real by the forms of economic life it nourishes.

The late Margaret Thatcher, conservative Prime Minister of the UK, famously declared that “There Is No Alternative” to capitalism, and the acronym “TINA” became a way to stifle new thought and action. What Youngstown, the myriad new experiments, the climate change and Black Lives Matter movements, and the Sanders revolution all suggest is precisely the opposite: there is an alternative — or rather, there is a powerful and fast-developing process underway that offers promise, though surely not inevitability, of a new way forward. And the Youngstown idea of linking both workers and community in a much broader universalizing model is fast developing, not only in Cleveland, but in cities like Rochester, New York State, and Richmond, Virginia.

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