Written by Shay O’Reilly, Campus Progress
On 34th Street in Mount Rainier, Md.—just over the state’s border with DC—Glut Food Co-Op’s windows advertise an array of natural foods. Shelves cast dingy shadows in the clouded glass, belying the interior’s warm yellow glow. Inside, a tribute to the late Gil Scott-Heron hangs over an entrance to the bulk spice room; customers peruse fresh produce or scoop seeds and nuts out of bins, carefully labeling the bags with a unit price (as per the hand-written signs).
Minus the Scott-Heron poster, this is a scene that has been enacted for 40 years in this same spot.
Judy Davis has worked here for 30 of those 40 years. “Too long,” she laughs. Davis has lasted this long ringing up groceries and doing inventory, she says, because of the nature of Glut: It’s a worker-owned enterprise in which all decisions are made horizontally, through the democratic process.
Her coworker Ziah Ayubu leans over. “The schedule is flexible,” he says, and that’s why he likes it. When Ayubu wants a day off, he doesn’t have to approach a manager; the 13 staffers, plus more volunteers, collaborate on the schedules—just like they do on everything.
Glut Food Co-Op represents a massive reversal of the usual paradigm, in which overseers, managers, and bosses set the working conditions for all lower-level employees. And that current paradigm, and its illusory benefits for average Americans, is crumbling.
At times, the future of the American worker seems relentlessly dystopian; as wages languish at sub-living levels, productivity, corporate profits, and executive pay have been increasing steadily. A “jobless recovery” has further concentrated wealth in the hands of those bankers and lenders responsible for the initial crash.
But some workers, activists, academics and lawmakers are touting alternatives to the relentless privileging of capital over labor. The most vigorous of these alternatives is worker cooperatives like Glut, in which workers own their shops and factories, collectively, and make decisions through the democratic process.
While such ventures have always existed, worker cooperatives have drawn more attention in recent months due to the impending kickoff of the United Nations’ International Year of the Cooperative, a trenchant opinion piece in the New York Times, and a congressional push for a cooperative development office. All of these focus on the ability of cooperatives to transform the current economic model into something more just, more equitable, and more sustainable—something far from the present wholesale ransacking of working and middle classes alike.
And it is a ransacking, what Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian calls “the new normal.”
In a prominent piece for Foreign Policy magazine, El-Erian argues that the economic collapse is not a one-time plunge but a reduction of the baseline. The hallmarks of the coming years will be slow growth and high unemployment. El-Erian’s piece focuses on the downsides for investors, but cooperative advocate Dennis Kelleher points out the missing component of this economic analysis: What it means for workers.
“Where I find it to be particularly negative, is that [the new normal] will put continuing downward pressure on wages,” Kelleher told Campus Progress. “This ‘new normal’ of low economic growth is going to continue helping corporate profits … if your wages are low, then you can continue to squeeze your employees, forcing them to work harder but not paying as much.”
Kelleher, a former City of Chicago Deputy Treasurer, runs the site RebelCapitalist.com. His awakening to economic democracy came with the crash of 2008, which confirmed his skepticism toward Chicago-school economics.
“In a way, the old normal is no different than the new normal,” Kelleher said. “The only thing that’s different now than pre-2008, or pre-Lehman Brothers, is that there’s no debt.”
It’s a grim picture: An economy in which debt for years substituted for stagnant wages, now in a crisis that will slow that same debt. The illusion of a thriving middle class is crumbling; massive debt and high unemployment means a disparity in power that equals the disparity in income.
It is this disparity in power, manifested in workers’ lack of control over the circumstances of their labor, which cooperatives confront. All cooperatives follow the Rochdale Principles, seven guidelines that serve as the praxis for cooperative theory:
1. Voluntary and open membership
2. Democratic member control
3. Member economic participation
4. Autonomy and independence
5. Education, training, and information
6. Cooperation among cooperatives
7. Concern for community
Organizing around these principles provides a glimmer of hope in the form of an alternative economic model.
Photo from eddie.welker via flickr
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