“…The hundreds gathered at Jackson Rising spent the weekend exploring and discussing how to fund, found and foster a different kind of business enterprise – democratically self-managed cooperatives….”
For a long time now we’ve been fed and been feeding each other the story that uplifting black communities means electing more faces of color to public office and creating more black millionaires. Those wealthy and powerful African Americans, in the course of their wise governance, their normal business and philanthropic efforts can be counted on to create the jobs and the opportunities to largely alleviate poverty and want among the rest of us. The only problem with this story is that it’s not working, and in fact never really did work.
It was a myth, a fable, a grownup fairy tale which told us nothing about how the world and this society actually functioned.
In the real world, we now have more black faces in corporate board rooms, more black elected officials and more black millionaires than ever before, alongside record and near-record levels of black child poverty, black incarceration, black unemployment, black land and wealth loss. The fortunes of some of our most admired black multimillionaires, like Junior Bridgeman and Magic Johnson, rest firmly on the continued starvation wages and relentless abuse of workers in his hundreds of fast food and other restaurants.
Over the first weekend in May about 320 activists from all over the country, including 80 or more from Jackson and surrounding parts of Mississippi converged on the campus of Jackson State University for Jackson Rising. They came to seek and to share examples of how to create not individual success stories, but stories of collective self-help, collective wealth-building, collective success and the power of mutual cooperation.
The hundreds gathered at Jackson Rising spent the weekend exploring and discussing how to fund, found and foster a different kind of business enterprise – democratically self-managed cooperatives. They reviewed future plans for and current practices of cooperative auto repair shops, laundries, recycling, construction, and trucking firms. They discussed cooperative restaurants, child and elder care coops, cooperative grocery stores, cooperative factories, farms and more, all collectively owned and democratically managed by the same workers who deliver the service and create the value.
Participants at Jackson Rising learned a little of the story of Mondragon, a multinational cooperative enterprise founded in the Basque country, the poorest and most oppressed part of Spain. That country now has about a 25% unemployment rate, but in the Basque country where Mondragon cooperatives operate factories, mines, retail, transport, and more, the unemployment rate is 5%. When a Mondragon factory or store or other operation has to close because of unprofitability, Mondragon retrains and relocates those workers to another of its enterprises. Mondragon’s cooperative ethos makes it so different from other enterprises, one representative explained, that they’re about to have to offer their own MBA program, to guarantee they get trained managers without the bloodsucking, predatory mindset taught and valued at most business schools. They heard that Mondragon is now partnering with the UFCW and local forces to establish cooperative grocery stores and enterprises in Cinncinnati.
Those attending Jackson Rising heard about the concept of a solidarity economy, an economy not based on gentrification or exploitation or the enrichment of a few, an economy based on mutual cooperation to satisfy the needs of many, to stabilize neighborhoods and communities, to provide needed jobs and services.
Cooperation, or as it’s sometimes called, “the cooperative movement” is a model that is succeeding right now in tens of thousands of places for tens of millions of people around the world. It’s a model than can succeed in the United States as well. The dedicated core of activists in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, MXGM, after deeply embedding themselves locally in Jackson Mississippi and briefly electing one of their own as mayor in the overwhelmingly black and poor city of half a million, are determined to show and take part in a different kind of black economic development.
To that end, they’ve formed what they call “Cooperation Jackson,” with four short term objectives
- Cooperation Jackson is establishing an educational arm to spread the word in their communities about the distinct advantages and exciting possibilities of mutual uplift that business cooperatives offer.
- When Mayor Chokwe Lumumba was still in office, Cooperation Jackson planned to establish a “cooperative incubator.” providing a range of startup services for cooperative enterprises. Absent support from the mayor’s office, some MXGM activists observed, a lot of these coops will have to be born and nurtured in the cold.
- Cooperation Jackson aims to form a local federation of cooperatives to share information and resources and to ensure that the cooperatives follow democratic principles of self-management that empower their workers. We’ve always said “free the land,” observed one MXGM activist. Now we want to “free the labor” as well.
- Finally Cooperation Jackson intends to establish a financial institution to assist in providing credit and capital to cooperatives.
The MXGM activists are serious thinkers and organizers. They conducted door to door surveys of entire neighborhoods in Jackson, complete with skills assessments to discover how many plumbers, plasterers, farmers, carpenters, construction workers, truck mechanics, nurses and people with other health care experience live there, and how many are unemployed. You’d imagine any local government that claimed it wanted to provide jobs and uplift people might do this, but you’d be imagining another world. In Jackson Mississippi, local activists are figuring out how to build that new and better world. The US Census Bureau gathers tons of information useful to real estate, credit, banking and similar business interests, but little or nothing of value to those who’d want to preserve neighborhood integrity and productively use the skills people already have.
In the short run, new and existing cooperatives in Jackson or anyplace else won’t get much help from government. Mike Beall, president and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association pointed out that the federal budget contains a mere $7 million in assistance for agricultural cooperatives, and that the Obama administration has tried to remove that the last two years in a row. There was, he said, no federal funding whatsoever to assist non-agricultural business cooperative startups or operations
By contrast, Wal-Mart alone receives $7.8 billion in tax breaks, loophole funds and public subsidies from state, federal and local governments every year, and according to one estimate, about $2.1 million more with each new store it opens. Another single company, Georgia Power is about to receive $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees and outright gifts for the construction of two nuclear plants alongside its leaky old nukes in the mostly black and poor town of Shell Bluff. When it comes to oil companies, military contractors, transportation infrastructure outfits, agribusiness, pharmaceuticals and so on there are hundreds more companies that get billions in federal subsidies. Cooperatives get nothing. In the state of Mississippi, according to one Jackson Rising workshop presenter, non-agricultural cooperatives are technically illegal.
All these traditional corporations have one thing in common. Unlike democratically run cooperatives which share their profits and power, traditional corporations are dictatorships. Their workers don’t, in most cases, have the freedom of speech at work or the opportunity to form unions, and certainly don’t get to share in the wealth their labor creates for their bosses. To normal capitalist corporations, those workers, their families and communities are completely disposable. Detroit used to be a company town for the auto industry. When that industry grew and consolidated enough to disperse production in lower wage areas around the world it quickly abandoned Detroit and its people leaving a shattered, impoverished polluted ruin behind.
The new mayor of Jackson, who ran with developers’ money against the son of the late Chokwe Lumumba and narrowly defeated him, locked a number of city employees affiliated with the old administration out of their offices immediately after the election, before even being sworn in. The city removed all sponsorship and assistance to the Jackson Rising conference. There was a campaign in local press branding its organizers, communists, terrorists, unpatriotic and unfit to discuss the serious matters of job creation and building local economies. But the conference ran smoothly anyway, with invaluable assistance from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, an organization that has help save the land and land rights of more black farmers over the last forty years than any other, and the Praxis Project, the Fund for Democratic Communities, the Highlander Research and Education Center, and several others.
“At Jackson Rising, hundreds of movement activists from around the country discovered, rediscovered, began to visualize and explore cooperation and the solidarity economy…”
“This new mayor of ours made a big mistake. What would it cost him, even if he imagines cooperatives cannot succeed, to give his blessing to this gathering?” asked Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson. “As an organizer I can now ask why he’s against job creation? He’s got no answer to that…. It’s hindsight of course, but maybe we should have paid attention to this piece first, and the electoral effort only afterward. Who’s to say that if we’d done it that way we would not have been more successful in retaining the mayor’s seat.”
This past weekend was the 50th anniversary of the first freedom rides which kicked off the youth-led phase of the southern Freedom Movement. Something of similar importance happened in Jackson Mississippi last weekend.
At Jackson Rising, hundreds of movement activists from around the country discovered, rediscovered, began to visualize and explore cooperation and the solidarity economy. They met with their peers from North Carolina, Ohio, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and of course Mississippi already engaged in pulling it together. It’s an economy not based on gentrification as black urban regimes in Atlanta, New Orleans and other cities have and still are doing. It’s not based on big ticket stadiums or shopping malls or professional sports teams, none of which create many permanent well paying jobs anyway. It’s not based on fast food and restaurant empires that follow the McDonalds and Wal-Mart model of low wages and ruthless exploitation. It’s about democracy and collective ownership of business, collective responsibility and collective uplift.
It’s coming. Jackson Mississippi is already rising, and your community can do the same. Black Agenda Report intends to stay on top of this story in the coming weeks and months.