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Occupy the Workplace, Permanently

Michael Moore’s doc Capitalism: A Love Story spends some time at a company called Republic Windows and Doors, where laid-off workers were holding what I think was the first big sit-in strike since the 1930s. The strike garnered widespread support, and it succeeded—the workers got money they were owed.

Which was a limited goal, but before the workers dispersed some of them were at least thinking about bigger ideas. Here’s one worker:

“It’s really beyond what we had first initially imagined, and so now we’re dreaming a little bit. You know, we even had a conversation: ‘well, what if we just tried to run the factory as a cooperative?’ . . . We’re having those kind of conversations and the workers are thinking about it, and it’s—it’s a difficult thing, because, you know, if you’ve been told your whole life that things are the way other people tell you they are, to be able to think ‘well no, I can make it different’ is quite a— quite a big deal.”

I almost put that quote in my book, but the workers had dispersed so I thought that was it.

But a tweet by Naomi Klein just pointed me to the ongoing story; it turns out that another company bought the plant and rehired the workers. And when the new company announced they would be closing it, the workers sat in again. The company backed off.

And now the workers really are thinking about running the factory as a cooperative.

Pretty radical, huh? Except it’s really not very radical at all. In other parts of the world cooperative workplaces are pretty common, including big ones.

Heck, back in the 19th century people thought cooperatives would be the natural culmination of capitalism. John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, the econ textbook between its first publication in 1848 and Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890) had this to say:

The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and workpeople without a voice in management, but the association of the laborers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves. [p133 of the Penguin Classics edition]

If cooperative workplaces still seem horribly radical, consider another radical idea: co-op housing. Instead of paying rent to a landlord, what if the tenants owned and managed the building themselves? They’d be scary commies, right? Except that co-ops are very common (at least in New York), and co-op owners are not about to demand a socialist society any time soon.

Co-op housing is also a good demonstration that cooperatives aren’t magic; a bad co-op board can be a nightmare. But then, so can a bad landlord. Like my landlord, who’s famously bad.

So why don’t we have more co-op workplaces? Are they less productive? No, cooperatives generally run more productively than traditional workplaces, which is hardly a surprise, really–you’re going to work harder when you have some sense of ownership.

So why? Well, duh: in a co-op business the profits don’t go to investors and to Wall Street. Or to overpaid CEOs. If our businesses became co-ops, a lot of very rich people would be out on the street, which would be fine except that they’re the ones making the decisions.

Really, wondering why businesses don’t become cooperatives is sort of like wondering why dictatorships don’t suddenly become democracies, given that democracy is clearly so much better. In both cases, the people in charge like being in charge, and to hell with the greater good.

Which raises a larger point: Why do we, who demand that even the tiniest town be run democratically, allow enterprises with hundreds of thousands of workers (and more power and money than some nations) to be top-down dictatorships? Shouldn’t we demand more workplace democracy as a matter of principle, whether or not it’s more productive? I’m not talking about small business here, but in a sane world it would hardly be radical to say that the bigger the business, the more democratically it should be run.

And remember Mill’s phrase “if mankind continue to improve,” above. Mill understood that a person who gets a say in the decisions of her workplace will be a better, more fully developed person, just as a citizen of a democracy will, all else being equal, be a better person than a subject of a despot simply because the citizen will have a reason to think and debate about the larger issues of the day. (For that matter, think of how the tenants of a co-op building learn how to run a building rather than just call the landlord when something breaks). There’s no end of people who are happy to point out that taking responsibility for our own lives as individuals makes us better people; the same is true when we take responsibility in democratic groups.

I have no idea how much of the decline of our democracy can be laid at the feet of how we organize big businesses. But certainly, it’s unreasonable to expect that people who spend their whole workday taking orders will suddenly become vibrant democrats after hours.

Speaking of larger points, co-ops are a part of a bigger question: whether worker self-management of any kind (there are several kinds) is a good idea. Here’s a relevant quote from my book (if quote is the word for a comic):

So, here’s hoping that the Republic workers succeed. It might be the start of something big.

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