“Amid the gloom, apprehension, and anger surrounding the election of Donald Trump, it’s easy to overlook those places in our society where democracy…”
For the full article:
Where Democracy’s Still Alive and Well
By Andrew Moss
Amid the gloom, apprehension, and anger surrounding the election of Donald Trump, it’s easy to overlook those places in our society where democracy is still alive and well. Yet if you look closely enough, you’ll find sites where the democratic spirit is still vibrant, and it’s not a stretch to say that one of those sites is the workplace itself. The workplace, in fact, may hold a key to a revitalized democracy in the future.
A few hours prior to completing this piece, I was privileged to join a gathering of housekeepers who had assembled in the early morning hours outside the place of their employment: an upscale hotel not far from my home. Joined by community activists, including an interfaith social justice group to which I belong, they had met for one last time before entering the hotel to vote on the issue of forming a collective bargaining unit. The majority of the hotel’s housekeepers were present at this pre-dawn gathering, and by the time I finished writing this column later in the day, they had indeed secured the right to bargain collectively.
Only a few weeks earlier, the workers had announced to the hotel management their intent to organize, and I was fortunate to witness the courage and tenacity they displayed at that meeting as well. Speaking mainly in Spanish to the hotel’s general manager (with translation assistance provided by English-speaking colleagues), they proclaimed that they would no longer put up with exploitative labor conditions. “We are not machines,” several declared, and in the subsequent weeks they withstood repeated attempts by the hotel owners to intimidate and divide them. In their fierce determination to exert greater collective control over their working lives and destinies, they continued to exemplify the spirit of democracy at its best.
It may be argued, of course, that this particular victory stands in contrast to a bleak national picture for workers’ rights. Yet the same networks of community activists who helped support these housekeepers were also actively involved in successful local efforts to raise the minimum wage and to secure protections against wage theft. This past year, similar raise-the-wage alliances and networks had swung into action elsewhere in the nation, as local struggles and successes were replicated in many cities and states. It’s now difficult, if not impossible, to suppress the instantaneous flow of information and ideas that can move a justice agenda forward.
Yet there is another way in which workers gain greater democratic control over their working lives. Every day, there are people across the nation who are going to their workplaces, not as employees but as worker-owners, producing goods and services while having a say in the management of their enterprises and in the allocation and distribution of the revenues. In an estimated 300 cooperatives nationwide, worker-owners contribute to the economy in a wide range of sectors, including manufacturing, transportation, construction, food services, retail, and home health care. For an example, you might want to take a look at the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, which now has six thriving worker-owned bakeries in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Worker cooperatives are not employee stock option plans; they’re enterprises in which workers have a critical say in the management and future direction of the business. With revenues shared among worker-owners, there is no “wage system” as it is understood in traditional enterprises, nor is there a separate owner class that determines how revenues will be allocated. In the U.S., the median size of cooperatives is 10 individuals, but there are cooperatives with more than 100 employees. And researchers have found in studies of cooperatives in Europe and Latin America that coops tend to have a staying power; workers are invested in the success of their enterprises, and the idea of a coop uprooting itself in search of a more favorable local tax or worker wage environment is a contradiction in terms. The coop and its worker-owners belong to the community; it is their home.
Of course, 300 cooperatives may seem miniscule in number when viewed against the backdrop of a mammoth U.S. economy. Yet there are many thousands of worker coops around the world (25,000 in Italy alone), and interest in coops is growing in our country. As automation continues to displace workers, and as corporations continue to show indifference to the precarious economic plight of many millions of working Americans, a democratic workplace may start to seem less exotic to more and more people.
Indeed, Americans have demonstrated adaptability, resilience, and the capacity for self-education in past crises, and there is no reason that we cannot do so today. The challenge is to remain clear about the essential values sustaining a democratic workplace: the value and dignity of every worker no matter what his or her background may be – and the importance of a workplace community in supporting that individual.
Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an emeritus professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.
AVAILABLE FOR REPRINT. Copy and use freely. Please help PeaceVoice by notifying us when you use this piece: PeaceVoiceDirector@gmail.com