|However, we chose to start our class based organizing initiatives by trying to forge an alliance between the trade union and solidarity economy movements because when combined they possess the positionality, resources, skills, and tactical means to launch a substantive campaign to democratize the economy. As a united force, they could employ their combined strength to transition countless businesses, locally, regionally, and nationally, into worker owned and controlled social production units. They could also use this strength to occupy and buy-out businesses reluctant to engage in a democratic transition, like New Era Windows Cooperative did in Chicago, Illinois in 2012. Or they could directly seize those that are resistant or outright hostile to a democratic transition like numerous workers did in Argentina in the early 2000’s.
In order for a democratic transition of the economy to happen, we have to build class conscious organizations that are ready and willing to take on this challenge and all that comes with it. And to be clear, we are talking about moving beyond developing organizations that are positioned in the class, that is entities that exist to press for benefits within the capitalist system. Rather, we are talking about entities that are aware of their comprehensive social positioning as the producers of the vast majority of the surplus value underscoring bourgeois society as a reflection of their universal interests and advocate for the construction of another social system that will end capitalist exploitation and expropriation of the social surpluses produced by the working class. We are talking about organizations wherein its members have a consciousness of themselves as a “class for itself”.
We are clear that a democratic transition will require far more than declarations or symbolic gestures, such as the one we committed in 2014 when we started. Our own experiences over the past 9 years trying to build worker cooperatives, develop a vibrant community land trust, and other institutions and tools of the solidarity economy in Jackson has been more than a notion. Our work has been balanced by a series of triumphs and tragedies, successes and failures. But, throughout it all, we have maintained that we are not seeking to build cooperatives for cooperatives sake, we are trying to build institutions that will help us transition out of capitalism. We are not going to coop our way out of these exploitative social relations. It is going to take a lot more than just cooperatives or self-directed social production units to get us where we need to go. But, to the extent that we have to start this journey by building class conscious organizations, we want to share some principles drawn from our experience about what we think it takes to build class struggle oriented cooperatives. Here are some Basic Principles of Class Struggle or Class Conscious Cooperatives that we would like to share that we think that cooperatives not just trying cooperatives for cooperatives sake must be committed to:
- Serving as instruments of working class self-organization, with the aim and objective of enabling the working class to own and control the fundamental means of production to enable the democratization of society and the regeneration of the earth’s ecosystems through coordinated planning to produce the use-value oriented instruments and necessities needed to improve the overall quality of life of the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants within the ecological and material limitations of our precious planet.
- Engaging in active solidarity with other workers, worker formations, and workers self organizing campaigns and initiatives towards the objectives of helping them become self-directed, democratic institutions committed to the socialization of production, the democratization of society, and the regeneration of the earth’s ecosystems.
- Demonstrating the principle of non-competition with and between other workers. We need to be clear that when and where we compete has to be directed against capital and its representatives to deliberately break capital’s domination over the means of production and the relations of production. On a practical level, this type of competition must entail supporting the organizing initiatives of the workers in the firms we are struggling against to help them unionize and take over the enterprise and turn it into a worker cooperative. These worker cooperatives must be willing and able to become social production enterprises willing to engage in participatory planning processes to manage the economy.
- Encouraging all existing unions, worker centers, and other worker formations to organize themselves to seize (socialize) the means of production by converting their workplaces into cooperatives or commons or social based sites of production, and support them with training materials, resource mobilization, mutual aid, consultative advice, and strategic deployment when and where necessary.
- Organizing the un and under organized sectors of the working class, who constitute the vast majority of the class, particularly in the US, into vehicles of self organization that best fit their local conditions and enable them to engage successfully in the class struggle at every progressive stage of our development and scale of deployment.
Oriented in this fashion, cooperatives can do more than just maximize returns for their members, which is the standard orientation of cooperatives following the entrepreneurial school of thought that dominates how most cooperatives are trained, developed, and positioned. The adoption of this orientation we argue, wil help bridge, and eventually, eliminate the historic divide between the cooperative and trade union movements in the US that started in the 1860’s, with the rise of craft unions, and was formalized in the 1930’s after the compromises and concessions made by leading elements of the trade union movement to facilitate the institutionalization of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), or the Wagner Act.
The main compromise committed by the forces of the AFL-CIO in adopting the Wagner Act, was agreeing to the concession of keeping the trade unions from acting as a class. Instead, it compelled the trade unions to act as individual, largely isolated organizations that bargained with private employers on their own, by dividing essential tasks and roles into specialities and divisions, even within one corporation. So, instead of one bargain unit holding ground at Ford Motors or Walmart for instance, the law enabled and encouraged shop workers, truckers, clerks, etc. to each form their own bargaining units to compete with each other and negotiate with ownership and management. The act implicitly forbade formations like the International Workers of the World (IWW), which called for workers to organize under the banner of “one big tent”, to work in unison to transform the economy, society, and the state. Since the 1930’s, most trade union bosses have viewed efforts by workers to form cooperatives as either a distraction, because of their struggles to grow to scale due to their lack of access to capital, or as outright enemies when they grow to scale and appear to steal market share from their employers. Given the present weaknesses of both the trade union and cooperative movements, particularly as it relates to membership scale and density, both of these sectors desperately need each other, if only to give themselves more leverage to contend with capital. So, it is pivotal that those of us in the cooperative and solidarity economy sector be clear about how and why we want and need to engage the trade union movement in particular, and workers movement in general overall. The road is clear, we either unite or perish, because our present conditions necessitate that we build ecosocialism or face extinction.
As our dear comrade, ally and mentor Tim Schermerhorn used to say, “the working class has to use all of the tools in our toolkit, and all of the weapons in our arsenal” to unite the working class and defeat the forces of capitalism and imperialism in order to usher in a new world. We hope this little contribution shared on the occasion of International Workers Day 2023 and the 9th anniversary of Cooperation Jackson will help stimulate some much needed debate first and foremost amongst the cooperative and solidarity economy sectors of the working class about what it will take to transform the economy, and more broadly amongst the billions of toilers of the world, about what is needed to hasten our unity and bring the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the death cult of capitalism to an end.