Deputy Mayor Philip Thompson speaking about the need for economic democracy

Last Friday I went into the city for a daylong conference on Economic Democracy and System Change at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. Deputy Mayor Philip Thompson opened the day with a talk about why we need economic democracy, how economic democracy differs from the socialism and social democracy of the twentieth century, and what the city is doing to promote it.

Although the city government has spent over $8 million supporting worker coops over the past four years, Thompson says this is a drop in the bucket relative to the challenge of creating meaningful economic change. He described his vision for building what he calls civic infrastructure, “funding community organizing, labor organizing, and popular education on a massive and ongoing scale…democratically, without strings and conditions on what people can work on or advocate.”

He recounted first being alerted nearly twenty years ago to the opportunities cooperatives offer to mobilize community economic power by a cell phone coop in Colorado, “where some hippies, 5000 of them, organized to buy cell phone service together, collectively, in one contract.” The cell phone company paid the coop several nearly half a million dollars per year in contract incentives to get their business. Thompson described the “lightbulb” moment when he realized that “if you want to finance organizing, this is a lot better way to do it than begging money from foundations, where they tell you what you can and can’t do with the money. The hippies could do whatever they wanted with the money. It was their money.”

Shortly thereafter, he met the founders of a credit union for undocumented workers in North Carolina, whose explicit aim was not just to create economic stability and opportunity for their members, but also to organize and educate the community. “Ten years later,” Thompson said, “they had branches in seven cities in the state, they financially supported over fifty Latino community organizations, and they had their own nonprofit policy arm. So I learned that it’s possible to use banking to fund community organizing and politics.” Today Latino Community Credit Union has 77,000 members from over 100 countries and continues to provide financial education and promote housing affordability and economic development for immigrants throughout the region.

Thompson is now working on a plan to include a bank card chip on city municipal IDs that will allow access to low cost banking services for low income New Yorkers, who are currently paying high fees for services like check cashing and remittances. The system should be able to provide data that community groups and unions can use to negotiate collective consumer purchasing and bargaining with corporations and utilities. Even if only a tiny fraction of the resulting savings were used to fund community organizing work, Thompson says, “There’s real money here that could be used to start building a movement for economic democracy.”

The question of how to reach scale ran through many of the day’s discussions. Former State Assemblymember Roger Green described efforts by the Coalition to Transform Interfaith to develop a network of worker coops to serve the $40 billion annual purchasing needs of New York’s health care sector. In the process of developing a plan to save Interfaith Medical Center, one of the latest in a string of city hospitals in neighborhoods of color to face closure, Coalition members learned that city hospitals were directing most of their purchasing dollars to out-of-state corporations, many of which were actively supporting efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act through political donations. The Coalition now aims to redirect as many of those dollars as they can to democratically owned and operated local businesses that can start to transform the economic conditions that underlie many poor health conditions. They are in the process of starting a worker coop furniture manufacturer, creating an urban farm-to-hospital coop, with a high school education component, and converting a Brooklyn nursing home to a unionized worker coop. They ultimately aim to create a federation of worker coops serving the sector.

Deborah Groban Olson from the Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE) in Detroit described the Just Work initiative her organization is developing along with the Florida Public Services Union. In the face of increased outsourcing by local governments and school districts, the union would like to be able to bid on the outsourced contracts, but it lacks the organizational capacity to do so. Just Work, as a joint venture between the non-profit C2BE and the union, will serve as a worker-friendly leasing company or “hiring hall” to bid on these contracts and provide ongoing management and back office services to worker coops made up of union members, who will perform the work.

Iris Negron of CHCA, Shilpa Nandwani of Khao’na Kitchen, Steph Wiley of The Brooklyn Packers, and Maria Garcia of Caracol Language Cooperative discussing scaling from the grassroots

A panel devoted to Seeing Scale From the Grassroots took a different view of the scale question. Maria Garcia of Caracol Language Cooperative recounted hearing advice along the lines that, “These small coops are fine, but to achieve real change, you have to figure out how to get big.” Evan Casper-Futterman, Director of the Economic Democracy Learning Center at the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative suggested that the notion of scale as big versus small is often ill-posed. The international examples we look to — Mondragon in Spain, the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy, the Seikatsu consumer cooperative in Japan — are all networks, he said. “Often we talk about scale in a binary way. But in all the successful examples, they are complementary. Large and small not only coexist, they are mutually interdependent.” He suggested that our thinking about scaling in the US was still “adolescent” and asked the panelists, all members of New York worker coops, to describe what scale means to their organizations.

Iris Negron, Director of Human Resources of by far the largest worker coop in the US, Bronx-based Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), which has 2100 hundred employees and more than 1000 worker owners, recalled the transition as CHCA scaled in size. CHCA started with 12 employees in 1985. She said, “We knew we were providing better care and better jobs than other agencies,” and over time that created the impetus to grow. As they grew, they wanted to find ways to help everyone feel as interpersonally connected as they did when they were small. For a time, they had a committee whose job it was to help foster these connections through trainings and social events. But margins are very tight in their business, and CHCA has had to suspend the committee and cut back on events because of the costs of everyone’s time.

These days, scale to CHCA means diversifying the agencies and health care plans they work with to get their clients, Negron said. A key to CHCA’s growth and success had been the development of a sister company, Independence Care System (ICS), to funnel clients to them. But ICS recently ended its home health care program, because Medicaid reimbursements were not high enough to support the level of care its most disabled clients needed. CHCA is now working on other ways to diversify their agency relationships and client pool.

Maria Garcia said that, for Caracol, scaling was less about size and more about deepening and strengthening the networks they work within. This includes national networks of language justice workers, centered at the Highlander Research and Education Center, where many of Caracol’s interpreters were trained, and local organizations in the city that are growing their own language justice capacity. “Before we formed we were a network of volunteers, supporting community organizers, so we scaled from there,” Garcia said. “We see the coop as a growth from those collectives and volunteer networks. Part of scaling for us is sharing back our experience and centering the language justice work.”

“For us, scale is truly being rooted in the community.”

Steph Wiley, worker-owner at The Brooklyn Packers food delivery and logistics coop, said they see their mission as connecting food to people. “We try to understand what people want, and really focus on the engagement between the people and the business.” The coop came out of an internet food delivery business that failed after it accepted venture capital and grew faster than it could support. “We created our own company that contracted to them and then survived them, so we learned that just having a lot of customers and doing a lot of revenue every week doesn’t mean you can survive.” Now, Wiley says, they focus on stronger engagement with a smaller group of customers. They also partner with neighborhood organizations and businesses, mostly focused on wellness, like acupuncture and doula services, and they give part of their profits to community organizations. “So for us, scale is truly being rooted in the community,” Wiley concluded. “We can grow a bigger coop economy if we’re rooted first.”

Panel moderator Shilpa Nandwani of Khao’na Kitchen rounded up the discussion by observing, “I think the idea that small-scale grassroots organizing is a dead end is a mistake. Just take a look at all the communities around the world that are still thriving because they have worked out how to meet their needs cooperatively.” Good point! The industrial growth economy is obsessed with getting bigger, no matter what. The new economy is focused on meeting needs, however that works best for the people involved.

Another theme that struck me repeatedly throughout the day was an emphasis on the need for ongoing education and organizing, not just to make gains in economic democracy but to preserve them. Cooperative movements have long relied on education to get started. The famous Mondragon cooperatives in Spain’s Basque region began with a school, and founder Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, emphasized the centrality of education throughout his lifetime.

“Knowledge is power and in order to democratize power, one must socialize knowledge beforehand. We accomplish nothing with the proclamation of rights, if afterwards the people whose rights we have proclaimed are incapable of administering those rights or if, to be able to act, these people have no recourse but to count on only a few indispensable members in the group,” Arizmendiarrieta wrote.

Several stories told throughout the day illustrated this point. Alexander Kolokotronis of Yale University described the life cycle of a democratic high school in New Haven that arose out of teachers’ strikes in the late 1960s. It flourished, then declined, revitalized, and ultimately was weakened and finally disbanded in 2015 after students, parents, and union leadership lost their connection to the vibrancy of the democratic organization and stopped supporting it. In his remarks about mobilizing financial resources at scale, Deputy Mayor Thompson expressed dismay that unions too often think of finances in a “separate box” from their organizing to protect workers. For example, he said, real estate development that displaces workers from their homes has often been financed by union pension funds. “So we have to do a lot of education amongst ourselves, we have to build institutions among ourselves, to do development a different way.”

“There’s nothing magic about a coop that automatically makes it progressive.”

Thompson also recounted the story of Mississippi rural electric coops. Although they began in the 1930s as democratic organizations bringing electricity from Tennessee Valley dams to places corporations couldn’t be bothered to serve, over time they became top-down organizations that severed their governance connections to their members and began pursuing very conservative political goals. As of 2016, electric coops in eight majority black counties had become a major funding source for the Mississippi Republican party, so that, Thompson said, black ratepayers were unknowingly funding their own political opposition. Grassroots organizations are now mobilizing members to take the coops back. It’s a good reminder, Thompson said, that “there’s nothing magic about a coop that automatically makes it progressive. And you could say the same about a union. It takes a lot of education and staying on top of things to make that work.”

It all left me pondering how we can start educating ourselves about economic democracy, collaborative governance, and cooperative organizing in a sustainable way here in the Hudson Valley. I have begun talking with a few folks about forming a peer education group. If this is something that interests you, please get in touch.