How Democracy At Work Can Revive Rochester's Economy

The state of the economy is on everyone's mind this election season. Which is only natural. Many members of our community are unemployed, underemployed, underpaid, or overworked. And at the end of the day, despite all our efforts, we still can't pay the bills. We ask for our society to help us our in our time of need, but are told there simply isn't enough to go around. Of course, our politicians have plenty of money available for bailing out Wall Street, bombing Middle Eastern countries, and incarcerating large segments of the population. But we aren't supposed to talk about that, are we?

Meanwhile, CEO's at bankrupt companies such as Kodak receive bonuses while they cut their workers' healthcare benefits and pensions. They receive annual salaries hundreds of times that of their lowest paid workers, despite those workers doing work just as essential to the operation of those companies. And once they've done their damage and had their fun playing with the lives of our community, they sell our companies to out-of-town and foreign corporations who lay us off and close our factories. You may say, “But that's just how our economic system works, right? Darwin's survival of the fittest?” The thing is, it doesn't have to. Cooperation is just as much a part of evolutionary biology as competition, and that should apply to our economic system, as well.


Another word for cooperation is democracy - working together for the common good. You like democracy, right? That's the ultimate good in our country, we're told. That is, until we enter our workplaces. Then we have to give up all those rights and just do what the boss tells us. But again, it doesn't have to be that way. Millions of people across the globe have experienced their workplaces in a much different, much better way. Let's take a look at some examples, and learn why worker cooperation and economic democracy are really the best way forward to creating a stable, sustainable economy here in Rochester, and in our society at large.

While there have been various attempts at democratized economies throughout history and across the globe, one of the most well-known and most studied is the Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque Country in northern Spain. Founded in 1956, Mondragon has grown into the world's largest worker-owned and worker-managed company with nearly 100,000 worker-owners. Mondragon produces everything from bicycles to laundry machines, runs a chain of grocery stores across northern Spain and southern France, and even has its own university. All of this is managed by the workers themselves and when there is a surplus in revenue it is turned back over to the workers, not outside profit-motivated investors.

While not every worker in a Mondragon cooperative receives equal pay for their work, strict rules are in place to ensure that everyone receives just compensation. In 2012, the ratio between the salary of corporate CEO's and their workers was 354:1. That's right, CEOs in the United States make 354 times that of their workers. However, because salaries are determined via a democratic vote within a cooperative, the difference in pay between the lowest and highest paid workers at Mondragon is 5:1. Putting that in perspective, instead of Antonio Perez “earning” just over $1 million annually, if Kodak were worker-owned, and certain workers were still only making minimum wage, his salary would only be $75k per year. Because of this principle, Mondragon is able to pay its workers much higher wages than a conventional corporation.  And the people of the Basque Country are able to live much happier, fruitful lives because they don't have to worry about how they're going to pay for their children's next meal.

Ownership of the cooperative by the workers also ensures that their factories aren't closed and outsourced at the whim of the corporate Board of Directors because they feel they aren't extracting enough wealth. Again, because of the nature of ownership, such decisions would be made by the company as a whole through the democratic process. And when you have the opportunity to vote on whether to outsource your job, what do you think is typically the response? This system has worked for the Basque Country for over 50 years, weathering several economic downturns, and doesn't appear to be falling apart anytime soon. While the economy of Spain as a whole is in shambles, with an unemployment rate of 26%, within the Basque Country, that rate is only 13%.  The influence of Mondragon is clear.

It is my vision, politically and personally, to recreate Rochester in Mondragon's image. Instead of the tried and forever failing corporate welfare that the City of Rochester and COMIDA engage in, with fresh, visionary politicians in office, we can bring economic democracy to our region and create vibrant communities. There are already many cities across the country experimenting with ways to do this, with the most notable being our neighbors in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 2008, the City of Cleveland brought together various anchor institutions within the community to launch the Evergreen Cooperatives. With institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, and the University Hospitals at the table, they discovered that many of these groups were sending their laundry out of the city for cleaning. They decided instead to commit to contracting with a new worker-owned, environmentally-conscious laundry service within Cleveland. And with the assistance of the Cleveland Foundation and local government agencies, Evergreen Laundry was established in a low-income neighborhood in Greater University Circle. Since then, two more cooperatives have been established with the total number of living-wage jobs created standing at around 250. And as the years go on, cooperative surplus will be kept within the local community, spurring further economic growth and new cooperatives based on the needs of Cleveland's citizens.

Again, with the proper political support, this is what Rochester could be doing and should be doing. That is why I am running for Rochester's City Council. And it's not just me. All of the Green Party's local candidates support the implementation of this incredible economic vision. So this November, demand an end to the inefficient and unjust corporate welfare that does nothing but further entrench local poverty. Instead, vote Green Party for worker democracy and cooperation. Vote Row F.


This article was originally published on the Smugtown Beacon.

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