Co-ops Build Stronger Communities Poster” from TESA Collective.

The future of work is a favored topic of consultancies like Deloitte and McKinsey. As a theme, it tends to center on robotics and automation. Conventional analyses, however, often assume our economy will function in largely the same way even as the places and methods of work change. Environmental, social, and governance factors, or ESG, get a nod at most, as does social enterprise. The dominance of the corporate-led capitalist economic system that serves as the central organizing structure of today’s global economy is rarely questioned.

But what if the common assumption of underlying macro-level political-economic stability is entirely mistaken? If a shift “as significant,” as McKinsey puts it, “as the mechanization in prior generations of agriculture and manufacturing” is underway, why would we not expect our global macroeconomic structures to shift as well?

This provocative question underlies the latest biennial conference cohosted by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI). The two-day conference—which took place virtually last week, as nearly all major gatherings do these days—attracted over 1,700 participants. And the future of work was the theme. But at this conference, people, not robots, were at the center.

The tone of the conference was upbeat, even as the many challenges were readily acknowledged. As Gabriela Nacht of the Centro Cultural de la Cooperación of Buenos Aires put it in a recorded video, “The future of work looks…awful, unless we organize it more democratically around life needs, like we in the cooperative movement do.”

Worker cooperatives still form a sliver of the US economy, but their numbers and political weight have been growing in recent years. Their visibility today on Capitol Hill was made obvious by recorded support statements offered by notable political figures, including US representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Mark Pocan (D-WI), as well as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). This heightened profile is also reflected in considerable legislative accomplishments, such as the 2018 passage by Congress of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, as well as gains at the state and local level, as in Illinois, where a worker co-op statute was passed in August 2019.

Melissa Hoover, executive director of DAWI, noted that “the future of work” is a good buzz-phrase but stressed the importance of focusing on “the work of the future,” too, meaning “how we will work in the future, of course, but also the work of building the future that we want and that we need if we are to have any future at all. Because from here, the future is looking pretty difficult. No one is coming to save us. Our future is not guaranteed. We have to work for it. And we have to try to fix it.”

And for Hoover, this work “requires close alliances with institutions and social movements.”

“Sometimes,” Hoover observed, “we’re tempted to think that we can simply model the future we want into existence, but no amount of excellent worker co-ops…will magically lead to a transformation of our economy and society.”

Instead, as she put it, “the work of the future is the work of actively building that future—creating it, expanding it, contending for power in it, and finding solidarity with others towards it.”

Achieving “deep structural transformation” in the future of work, Hoover added, requires focusing on the green economy and movements for racial justice.

Lessons from Argentina

The keynote sessions both days spoke to these themes. The first day’s session had a guided conversation between Esteban Kelly, executive director of the USFWC; author Naomi Klein; and Klein’s husband, filmmaker Avi Lewis. Back in 2004, Lewis and Klein coproduced the documentary film The Take, which profiled worker takeovers of three factories in the wake of the Argentine economy’s collapse in December 2001, a month marked by extreme upheaval in which the presidency changed hands three times.

During this crisis, many owners shut factories down. In hundreds of cases, workers, faced with the loss of their livelihoods, took over the facilities and began to operate them on their own. Later on, worker ownership would be regularized under Argentine law. As of 2013, 311 of these enterprises employed 13,642 workers, according to a University of Buenos Aires study.

At the conference, Lewis noted, that, beyond the particulars, “there is a kind of radical pragmatism to worker cooperativism that has so much to offer in this moment.”

Klein added that The Take centers on “a response to capital flight and this moment of extreme economic crisis, where the elites absconded with their money.”

They shut down factories and workers in the middle of this economic crisis were fired. What The Take is about workers un-firing themselves and saying, look, “If you want to go, you can go,” but we can still use these machines because we don’t have the same imperatives for growth and profit that you do. Our imperative is employment and having enough to feed our families and if there is any excess supporting our communities.

Klein noted that in the film she and Lewis produced, they followed three factories in three different industries—ceramic tile, garments, and auto parts. Klein observed that with worker ownership, the customer base of the businesses changed. As Klein put it:

In Argentina, there was that really important interplay between direct action, the movements on the outside supporting them, and that had to do with what was being produced and the fact that it was going to the community. So, a garment factory that used to make suits made hospital uniforms. The tile factory started to make tile for schools to start doing important rebuilding work.

The fact that the businesses shifted to meet community needs also helped the businesses survive, as customers backed the businesses in their ultimately successful effort to win legal recognition. Kelly underscored the relevance of this point: “The power of meeting the needs of the market or your community is actually really important. And it is something we saw immediately when the pandemic hit six months ago. [Worker co-ops] were able to pause what their business-as-usual was, shift their business plan [and] say, ‘Listen, we are not going to have clients in here. We are going to turn our café/restaurant into a general store or a food hub for our community who need that.’ Or, ‘we are going to start manufacturing PPE [personal protective equipment] for healthcare workers, frontline workers, etc.’.”

Kelly added, “There is a bit of a fetishization of worker cooperatives as this like, other—like ‘once we’re free, we get to have worker co-ops, and that’s the solution and it means we’re liberated to do whatever we want.’ As opposed to actually remembering that democratic accountability means we’re in service of a broader context. And that has everything to do with running smart businesses and meeting those needs directly.”

Reframing Democracy

The lead speaker for the conference’s second day was Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. Mitchell noted that while he leads a political party and considers electoral politics to be critically important, there is a need to expand the definition of democracy, both in the political sense and in terms of workplace democracy as well.

A central theme of Mitchell’s talk was that our concept of democracy has been whittled away, narrowed down, and restricted to the ballot box.

People would have you think that democracy is limited to voting—that the very highest form of participatory democracy is showing up on election day, pulling the lever for your candidate of choice, going home, watching the returns on TV, and coming back four years later to do the same thing. That’s it. That’s the job. That’s your civic duty. But if we’re to succeed and build the country we deserve, one that cares for and cares about everyone, we need a different definition of democracy, one that’s much broader. I believe that definition starts with all of you, with workers and organized labor.

Michell added, “If most of our waking hours are spent in a hierarchical workplace at work, that isn’t democracy. That is the definition of capitalism. And there should be a tension there between a democratic society and capitalism.”

For Mitchell, one of the most important values that worker cooperatives can contribute today is their experienced-based knowledge in the practice of internal democracy. Indeed, Mitchell observed that movements often collapse when “the internal democracy of our movements aren’t rigorous, aren’t inclusive, aren’t vibrant.”

As NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez has noted, building what she labeled a “cult of democracy” requires viewing institutions and practices “as the playing field for democratic decision-making.” Mitchell made much the same point, calling for scaling up movement muscle around internal democracy. Worker co-ops, Mitchell pointed out, “are creating the conditions and modeling what it looks like where a mass of people deals with the challenges and contradictions and conflicts for deciding how the workplace should be run. Those same skills and organizing principles…must be applied everywhere.”

Mitchell also observed that while dismantling white supremacy is critical, democracy building must also advance economic justice. In South Africa, Mitchell noted, “you have a majority Black country with primarily Black elected officials, but an economy run by wealthy white elites, white minority capital, who make up around 10 percent of the population.”

On the surface, South Africa is everything some of us say we would like to have, leadership that looks like and reflects the demographics of the nation, yet representation is skin deep because organized capital has found a way to give people what they think they want, without giving up much power.

A key lesson of this, Mitchell said, is that a “real democratic society requires us to boldly participate in democracy beyond voting and build democratic structures within and outside of the electoral system and electoral politics. It is about owning production and owning our labor through co-ops and unions.”

Building the Future of Work: Making It Real

One of the challenges of virtual conferences is the absence of informal interaction where participants can discuss talks immediately with each other. There were three sets of breakout panels, which provided some ability to dive deeper into topics. They ranged from a discussion of reparations to the Green New Deal to an exploration of worker co-op partnerships with city governments. But there was also an effort to provide a space for a little reflection at the plenary itself. After his talk, Mitchell joined a virtual panel moderated by Natalia Linares of the New Economy Coalition and including two staff members:

  • Ajoke Williams, who heads the federation’s freelancer cooperative initiative, which is working on an initiative called Guilded that is focused right now in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC, and aims to help “gig” workers secure better pay and benefits
  • Philip Reeves, who works with DAWI on promoting the conversion of businesses to worker co-op ownership, typically through negotiated buyouts with retiring business owners.

At NPQ, we have written about the massive generational tsunami of business ownership transfers underway as Baby Boom-generation business owners begin to retire—with or without strategies for who will purchase the businesses they own. At stake, Reeves pointed out, are “$10 trillion in assets” which “employ one-in-six workers” nationwide.

“This is,” Reeves adds, “in a very real way, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transfer wealth for the first time to Black and brown workers.”

For her part, Williams noted that the freelancers’ co-op aims to realize a future of work that reflects the notion of a “people’s economy.” She added, “We want freelancers and contingent workers to have agency in their work. That means governance, the ability to make decisions, in addition to having economic power.” The work is just starting and is focused on artists so far, but it has obvious growth potential. A similar freelancer co-op based in Belgium now has more than 35,000 co-op members in over 40 European cities.

A lot of co-op building work may be technical, but panelists at the conference stressed the mutual dependence and interplay of the organizing and business development work. Reeves, for instance, readily acknowledged that a lot of his work involves negotiating with the owners of capital. But he pointedly added that the opportunity to convert businesses to worker ownership only exists because of the organizing work of Mitchell and others.

As Reeves put it, “The work on the ground, in the movements, the organizing, we can see in a real way that it is having an effect. It is allowing…the holders of capital to come to this realization that the way the economy is set up doesn’t work and it won’t work long-term.” Reeves added, “We are very much standing on the shoulders of those organizers and those protestors.”