December 29, 2018

Building union co-ops

Portside --The Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative is a nonprofit founded in 2009 with the mission of incubating unionized businesses that are cooperatively owned by their workers. CUCI believes that bringing together unionization and cooperative ownership creates a powerful tool to generate family-sustaining jobs that can be the foundation of an economy that works for everyone.

Worker co-ops differ from Employee Stock Ownership Plans, which UE has vigorously opposed because they shift investment risk onto workers while leaving bosses and corporate owners in control. ESOPs have also frequently been used by bosses as a means of getting workers to accept wage concessions. In a worker co-op each worker-owner holds exactly one share, and workers maintain control over the enterprise (although in certain hybrid models they share decision-making authority with other groups of co-op owners, such as customers).

Nationally, thousands of union members work for — and co-own — worker co-ops. Among the largest are Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, whose more than 2000 workers are members of SEIU, the Maine lobstermen’s cooperative Lobster 207, a local of the Machinists’ union, and Green Taxi Cooperative in Denver, where close to 1000 drivers are members of the Communication Workers. UE counts worker co-ops among our own ranks: Collective Copies in Western Massachusetts, where workers are members of Local 274, and New Era Windows Cooperative in Chicago, which was started by members of Local 1110 after fighting plant closings by occupying their factory — twice.

Although the number of union members in CUCI’s projects in Cincinnati is still relatively small, their vision is big, and spreading to other parts of the country. CUCI envisions, and is actively building, a family of unionized, worker-owned co-ops that support each other economically and share educational and other resources.

CUCI organizers see unionization as crucial to the success of their business model. This is backed up by the experience of the Mondragon cooperatives, who emphasize that a culture of solidarity — a willingness to work together for the common good — is indispensable for thriving cooperative businesses. That is why Mondragon established a formal relationship with the United Steelworkers in 2009. In 2012, Mondragon, the USW, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center produced “Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model”, the template that CUCI uses for building sustainable, worker-owned and unionized businesses.

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