Building the Worker Co-op Movement
I am in Quebec City this week to attend two worker-cooperative-related conferences. I am here as the president of the board of directors of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives together with the rest of the board, our staff and our Canadian and Quebequois counterparts. Joining us are cooperative movement leaders from Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and Argentina.
At the end of the week, we will officially sign a declaration and launch the North American regional body of CICOPA, the international organization of worker cooperatives. Worker cooperative federations in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil have formed a similar organization in their part of the world in the hopes of building toward a pan-American organization that has the capacity to resist the forces of neoliberal economic exploitation.
It is difficult to be away from my family, friends and work in Madison at a time that feels so volatile. As Occupy Wall St. demonstrations continue to grow in cities throughout the country and confrontation with police ramps up, I worry about the people who are putting their bodies on the line. Several young Madison activists, fresh from being pepper sprayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, spent their first day back home in jail for refusing to sign a signature bond that stipulated they would not break any administrative rules at the Capitol made by the Department of Administration.
The train wreck of Scott Walker’s power and resource grabbing agenda that I have been chronicling this past year is picking up steam this week. A charter school proposal that shamelessly trades on the ills of society to secure public funding for its private organization is getting rammed through our school district without proper scrutiny. My own worker coop, Union Cab of Madison, is struggling with a downturn in business due to the privatization of state-funded medical assistance transportation. And my parents are moving across the country and into our basement for the winter as we gut and rebuild the house next door for them.
On top of all that, Europe is imploding. This Friday and Saturday, Timothy Geithner and finance ministers from the other G-20 countries will meet in Paris to prepare proposals for their summit next month. They will continue to negotiate which deck chairs go where on the sinking ship that is the Eurozone in an attempt to forestall another meltdown. On Saturday massive protests and “Take the Square” actions are planned for dozens of European cities.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting in windowless hotel conference rooms with a group of amazingly dedicated, tenacious (and surprisingly funny) people who are developing organizational structures and institutional relationships based on solidarity that build meaningful working class power on an international scale.
Worker cooperatives are businesses that are owned and operated on democratic principles by the people who work in them. Because they are organized around the will, talents and needs of the human beings who work in them rather than the imperative of growth and ever-increasing profit margins, worker coops have the capacity to promote and extend new, humane and imaginative ways of meeting the material needs of people by producing and distributing goods and services in society.
When dozens, hundreds and thousands of these enterprises pool resources and cooperate with each other based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity, a fundamental transformation of culture and society occurs. This has taken place most notably and enduringly in Mondragon, Spain, where worker co-ops drive the economy and fund and control social services, health care, retirement and education.
So as my heart breaks for the burning of Rome (or Athens), the life cycle of my family, the gutting of public education, the depth of the suffering and indignities visited on the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our communities through false austerity and punitive laws and policies, and the abuse being hurled at the brave, young people who dare to stand up for them, I redouble my efforts to strive with others through differences of opinions, communication styles and languages to build the worker cooperative movement. If the Basque people of Mondragon could do it under the iron fist of Franco, we can certainly do it here.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.
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