Forum Post: Can Unions and Cooperatives Join Forces? An Interview With United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard
Posted 6 months ago on May 24, 2013, 4:59 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Can Unions and Cooperatives Join Forces? An Interview With United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard
Friday, 24 May 2013 00:00 By Amy Dean, Truthout | News Analysis
United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard talks to Truthout about the challenges and opportunities of a new labor model: the union co-op.
As the economic crisis festers for many long-term unemployed and underemployed people, the idea of worker-owned and worker-run cooperatives has become ever more appealing as a possible pathway toward an economy that works for everyone. Theorists such as Gar Alperovitz have argued for the importance of cooperatives in providing a nuts-and-bolts alternative to dominant methods of economic production: They offer an example of a different way of doing business that people can see and experience in their own lives. As someone who loves to see organized labor on the move in any form, I am interested in the role that unions can play in promoting co-ops - and I have been excited to see the United Steelworkers take an especially proactive role in bolstering the cooperative movement. I spoke with Steelworkers President Leo Gerard about how union/co-op hybrids could change the experience of work for those who clock in every day and about the depth of vision it will take to make union co-ops a serious part of the American economy.
Given that cooperatives currently make up only a tiny percentage of our economy, I first asked Gerard whether he thought co-ops could be viable at a larger scale.
"People don't realize there are millions of people in the United States and Canada that are already members of co-ops," he said. "When I was a kid growing up in northern Ontario, my parents used to shop at a food co-op. I think that there are already a lot of these businesses; people just don't know it."
Gerard next discussed the structure of "union co-ops" that the Steelworkers have begun, in partnership with Spain's Mondragon cooperatives. Here’s how it works: Employees can join the union of their choice, and they are guaranteed a living wage, benefits and a collective bargaining agreement. In some of the new union co-ops, workers get ownership shares in the enterprise, which they pay for a little at a time out of their paychecks and which accrue equity over a period of six or eight or 10 years. Workers vote on the composition of the management team and collectively bargain with that team to set workers' wages, benefits, and procedures for handling disputes. I asked Gerard about how the union's work with Mondragon came about.
"After the business cycles of corruption and manipulation destroyed so many enterprises since '07, '08, '09," Gerard said, "we started to have a discussion amongst some of our officers. I had read about the Mondragon a long, long time ago, and we started a dialogue with them. We came to an understanding on what we call the 'union co-op' model. We'd use some of the structure of Mondragon and some of their experiences, knowledge and skills. And we'd try to find enterprises [in the US] where we could adapt that."
"It has evolved slowly," he continued. "I'd rather go slow and build a good foundation than go fast and fail. We've developed a pretty broad network of allies and supporters. We've got some projects going on, including a green laundry concept in Pittsburgh. In almost every major city, there are industrial laundries. The work is hard, it's dangerous, and it doesn't pay very well."
The Steelworkers have helped launch a cooperative laundry in Pittsburgh that allows workers to benefit from the profits of the business and that uses environmentally friendly technologies. "It's going to have roots. It's going to have customers. It's going to have structure," says Gerard of the Pittsburgh laundry. "We're talking to universities, hospitals and hotels. They get the advantage of being in a green laundry that's efficient. They get to be in a progressive organization like a co-op and then build forward."
I asked about what expansion would look like.
"Once it's successful," he said, "we take the model to other cities and try to build a network of green laundries. At the same time as we're building that network, we would look at the manufacturing of the green laundry equipment. If you've ever seen one of the modern green laundries, it reminds me of a steel mill or a paper mill. If you've got a modern steel mill or a modern paper mill, you put the raw material in at one end, it comes out at the other end, maybe half a mile later, with .0001 of an inch of deviance, never touched by human hands. [With the laundries,] you put the raw material in, which is sheets and pillows and all that, and it's an assembly. It comes out at the other end, folded, and piled up and identified for where it's going to go."
Gerard says the plan is for the cooperatives to expand from providing the service work at laundries into actually manufacturing the machinery. Moreover, he's committed to nurturing their development over the long haul: "This wouldn't happen in six weeks. It might take 10 years to evolve. You've got to have a vision." I next asked him if industrial laundries were chosen as a target for a cooperative because - unlike traditional manufacturing industries - the jobs can't be outsourced to other countries.