Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Co-op Power: A Model for Local Investment, New Business Development and Job Creation

Cooperative Power!
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Co-op Power: A Model for Local Investment, New Business Development and Job Creation

Webinar Speaker:
Lynn Benander of Co-op Power and Northeast Biodiesel

Date and Time:
Tuesday, January 10 at 10am PT
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Coop Power
About the topic:
Maybe you know that cooperatives use their shared ownership structure and member fees to fund the cooperative itself. Join BALLE to learn how Co-op Power – a consumer-owned energy cooperative serving southern New England and eastern New York – is stretching the bounds of the cooperative structure and yielding amazing community capital returns in the process.

Co-op Power's Local Organizing Councils have:

Raised more than $300,000 in member equity, $600,000 in member loans, and $850,000 in local investment to support the development of community-scale clean energy projects.
Worked together to support a growing number of new living economy enterprises, like a 3-million gallon biodiesel processing plant.
Created more than 100 jobs over just five years.
Focused on working with communities of color and limited resource communities to build a multi-class, multi-racial movement for a sustainable and just energy future.

Explore this cutting-edge use of cooperative structure for going beyond member equity to finance local businesses and create new jobs – and how you can put the cooperative model to work in your community.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Top 10 Ways to Save Money through Sharing

From Shareable.net
By Jeremy Adam Smith

The members of this neighborhood group in Santa Rosa, California, save money by borrowing tools from their tool-lending library. Photo by Dustin Zuckerman, from the Shareable.net article, "Is Sharing Contagious?"

Sharing stuff and services conserves resources and builds our ties with our neighbors—but it also saves money, sometimes a lot of money. The first step is to do an inventory and look at the ways you're already sharing; I bet you'll be surprised. Then ask yourself, what else can I share?

Here are ten of our top suggestions, culled from a year's worth of content on Shareable.net—and we’d love to hear yours in a comment!

10. Tools & lawn equipment. Dustin Zuckerman in Santa Rosa, California, worked as both a librarian and a handyman. When he discovered that residents of Oakland and Berkeley could check out tools like books from local libraries, he decided to combine his two passions and start his own tool-lending library.

"Today, routers, power tools, shovels, painting kits, saws, sanders, are packed into every conceivable spot of his apartment and garage," writes Rachel Botsman. "In a camper van in his driveway he keeps weed whackers, power hoses and other bulkier equipment."

There might be a tool-lending library in your community, offered by someone like Zuckerman, or through your local library.

And while you're sharing tools, why not also save money by sharing fixing skills? The Brooklyn-based Fixers' Collective brings neighbors together once a week to share tools and help each other fix broken goods that would ordinarily get thrown away. This saves money in more ways than one! Why not start one in your neighborhood?

9. Gardens & yards. You can also share yards and gardens, which saves money on tools and food, among other things. According to attorney Janelle Orsi, "Yard-sharing has many benefits, from access to fresh food to stronger neighborhood connections to environmental sustainability." In The Sharing Solution, Janelle walks readers through all the steps to yard-sharing, from setting expectations to overcoming rules forbidding gardens in front yards.

"After all, such rules are archaic and predate our society's growing awareness of problems such as farmland depletion," she writes. "People everywhere have decided to grow food, not lawns!"

While you don't need technology to share a yard, a service like Hyperlocavore can help you manage the process, and perhaps more importantly find potential yardshare partners.

If you live in an urban area and don't have a yard to share, many cities have launched community garden programs, where neighbors share plots in a common space. But you can also start your own public, cooperative garden: When friends went to the city and asked if our neighborhood group could plant a garden in our local playground, the park and recreation department said yes, and even provided tons of support.

8. Your home. Orsi also notes that "Sharing is one solution to an unforgiving housing crisis, and it may even be a trend." Again, in The Sharing Solution she describes many examples of how people saved money and resources by sharing houses, and provides detailed, nuts-and-bolts guidelines for different kinds of homesharing arrangements.

There are also economical models for homeownership including cohousing, community land trusts, and limited equity cooperative housing that leverage shared assets to decrease costs.

There are other ways to share the costs of housing, even if you do not actually own a house. For example, if you live in an apartment building or dense urban area, there is truly no need for each household to have its own private wireless router. Talk to your closest neighbors and see if they'd like to participate in the same wireless network — you'll be able to cut your monthly bill in half, at least, and you might go in together on the cost of the router.

Another example: If you pay a monthly fee for trash pickup, for example, try sharing cans or arranging two-can pickups. Again, you'll probably be able to cut your monthly bill in half.

You can also save money on home maintenance by working with your neighbors on home repair and weatherization. The members of one "work group" in Oakland, Calif., take turns doing repair projects on each other's homes. Another group in Cambridge, Mass., has been organizing monthly weatherization "barnraisings." The barnraisings save energy and money, of course, but they also build community.

Then there's the time honored practice of taking in borders, which has been given a facelift by services like Airbnb — a marketplace for spare rooms, houses, stunning lofts, and even cabooses!

7. Food. There are many ways to save money on food by sharing, and many of them also lead to healthier food on your table. You can organize potlucks and dinner nights among friends, of course, but today there are so many other ways to share healthy food.

You can get involved in helping to grow and harvest the crops. You can join a local community-supported agriculture program or a community-supported kitchen, start a farmers market, and share beef and eggs through regional cooperatives. You might even sign up for a "crop mob" that will give you a chance to get your hands dirty for a day in exchange for a little food.

In addition, people in cities around the country have organized foraging programs that collect fruit from people's yards and redistribute them throughout the neighborhood and to people who can't afford fresh fruit. Neighborhood Fruit has a web site and an iPhone app that can facilitate your foraging.

Believe it or not, there are also restaurants around the world that allow people to barter for food. "I don't know that our five foot bartering wall will be the thing that turns this local economy in the right direction, but I do think we can make a significant impact," says Omer Orian, twenty-something co-owner of Off the Waffle in Eugene, Ore. He argues that his town possesses ample "human and natural resources" to sustain itself. "The lack of cash flow due to the economy should not stop this city from prospering."

6. Stuff. There are now dozens of websites that exist to help you share, exchange, or rent stuff, from furniture to electronics to books — almost anything you need in daily life you can get for low or no cost on the Internet. There's Craigslist and Freecycle, of course, but also start-ups like Rentalic, NeighborGoods, Closest Closet, and EcoModo.

If you look around, you'll likely also find local "really really free markets" where people meet face to face. Share Tompkins, a volunteer-run group based in Ithaca, N.Y., organizes monthly Community Swap Meets, where people give away and barter everything from homemade apple butter to original art to musical instruments. Beyond the tangible activities, writes Shira Golding, "We feel we are contributing to the creation of a social fabric rich in giving and sharing."

5. Babysitting. Parents around the country set up babysitting cooperatives, where they either take turns watching each other's kids or hire a sitter together.

It is less common for parents to share a regular nanny. A full-time nanny can earn $400-$700 per week, which is beyond the budget of many working families. Sharing a nanny cuts those costs substantially.

"Costs are split in any number of creative ways, often evenly split between the families," writes Kathleen Webb. "In a nanny-share arrangement, the nanny usually earns 10-20 percent more than her counterparts employed by a single family. Split down the middle, however, this creates a win-win situation for the families and the caregiver."

4. Knowledge. Are you an expert on homebrews, bicycle repair, or mending clothes? Do you want to know how to do these things? You could spend money on classes...or you could teach your skills to somebody else and learn something from them in the process!

Brooklyn Skillshare in New York organizes meet-ups where people show up and share their personal expertise. According to Meg Wachter, "Everyone really has something to teach, and something to learn. The seeds for the Brooklyn Skillshare began in the spring of 2009 when I attended a similar event in Boston and was inspired by the weekend-long workshops offered on a regular basis, free of charge." Today, Meg helps organize Brooklyn Skillshare events throughout the year.

And as long as you're pursuing free knowledge, don't forget libraries (the original shareable institution!) and online educational resources like the Open Educational Resources Commons.

Credit: Olli Doo

3. Clothes. My wife walked into a laundromat seeking change for a dollar, and there she discovered the "sock exchange," where customers pin single socks to a board for anyone to take and match. Such gestures make city living more fun, and they save money!

There are lots of ways to share your old duds or get your hands on someone else's recycled fashions. In addition to conventional routes — buying from or donating to Goodwill — you can swap clothes online at sites like thredUp and Freecycle. At thredUp, for example, participants list what clothes they want to share on the company's site and exchange items through the mail.

Clothing-swap parties are easy to organize and are becoming popular throughout the country — round up your old clothes, invite your friends over, and swap apparel. In New York, a group called Score! organizes mega-clothing exchanges and parties across the city. They bring DJs, artists, and fashion photographers to take pictures of attendees in their "scored" outfits. Why not organize one of these in your town?

2. Bikes. There are now almost 200 citywide bikesharing programs around the world, which use GPS and internet and mobile phone access to connect people with bikes. For example, each bicycle in Denver's new B-Cycle program can track mileage, calories burned, and amount of carbon offset — and each user is able to monitor their own fitness and see their contributions to the city's sustainability!

No bikesharing program in your city? Why not help start one? A new technology called Social Bicycles promises to unleash the promise of DIY bikesharing. For a more ambitious citywide program, Boston's official "bike czar," Nicole Freedman, says that the first step is to do a lot of research. "Learn if your city is already looking at it," she says. "City government has to be involved; it has to be a public-private partnership, because no bike sharing program can work without using public space. Anyone good in government is listening to the public; we're hired by the public, and hearing people's requests is one of the best ways to hear what's good."

And the number one money-saving shareable is (drumroll, please)....

1. Your Ride. How much does car ownership cost? Most studies estimate that the average American spends $8,000 a year on cars. Not me — I don't have a car and I spend about $1,500/year on transportation (excluding plane travel), with most of it going to public transit, cabs, and very occasional car rentals. I'm not a superhero — I'm a family man and I like convenience as much as anyone.

In fact, it's easier than ever to live without a car. You can start by exploring options like biking, walking, and public transit, which are all better for your wallet, your health, and your environment. Of course, sometimes you'll still need a car — and that's where carsharing services come in.

Between 2007 and 2009, membership in North American services like Zipcar and the nonprofit City Carshare rose by 117 percent — and is projected to hit 4.4 million members within six years.

Own a set of wheels? You can still share them. We're seeing a proliferation of new peer-to-peer carsharing services like RelayRides, Spride Share, and WhipCar, which allow both neighbors and strangers to rent each other cars. Let's say, for example, that you're visiting Baltimore, Md., for a day and need a car for touring the city. You'd look at the RelayRides website, find the nearest participant who is renting out her car, check availability and reserve the time, and then go get your ride. There are also many new companies — such Avego, Zebigo, Zimride, and Carticipate — that connect carpoolers and ridesharers over the Internet.

And there it is, our top ten list of ways to save money by sharing. I hope you enjoyed reading about them all, and hope you find a way to bring some or all of them into your own lives. If you have more suggestions or any questions about anything on the list, please do leave them in a comment!

This piece was originally written for the Wells Fargo Environmental Forum. Parts of it also appear in Yes! magazine's special issue about community resilience, on newsstands now.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Greece in Chaos

From Counterpunch
December 19, 2011

“Who knows what tomorrow will bring?” people ask in Athens, Salonika and right across Greece. There’s a sense of collective imprisonment, individual uncertainty and impending catastrophe. Yet Greece has had a turbulent history, and the Greeks have always seen themselves as a gifted people, sturdy and accustomed to adversity. “There have always been difficult times, and we always made it through. But now, all hope has been taken from us,” said a small business owner.

While the austerity measures are piling up, an avalanche of laws, decrees and edicts is sweeping aside the social, economic and administrative frameworks. Yesterday’s reality is crumbling. As for tomorrow — who knows?

Greek citizens are subject to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with its incomprehensible, fluctuating regulations. Addressing colleagues, a civic employee in the Cyclades said: “People want to conform to the law, but we don’t know what to tell them, [the authorities] haven’t given us any details.” A man had to pay € 200 and present 13 papers and proofs of identity to renew his driving license. Salary cuts among public employees have disrupted the public sector. “When you call the police to alert them to a situation, they reply, ‘it’s your problem, you deal with it’,” said a retired engineer officer from the merchant navy. Tensions are rising. Reports show a big increase in domestic violence, theft and murder (1).

Salaries are falling (by 35-40% in some sectors) while new taxes are invented, some backdated to the beginning of the calendar year. Net incomes have fallen drastically, in many cases by 50% or more. Since the summer, a solidarity tax (1-2% of annual income) and an energy tax (calculated on the consumption of petrol and natural gas) have been levied. Further novelties include the lowering of the tax threshold from € 5,000 to € 2,000, and a property tax of € 0.5 to € 20 per square metre levied as part of electricity bills, payable in two or three instalments (failure to pay results in power cuts and penalties).

Since the start of November, pensioners and public and private employees cannot anticipate their monthly earnings. Many workers go without pay altogether. The state is reducing its workforce drastically as part of its restructuring programme. Between now and 2015, 120,000 public employees over the age of 53 have been earmarked for “semi-retirement”, the precursor to full mandatory retirement after 33 years of service, during which employees are obliged to stay at home, and only receive 60% of their basic salaries. Once fully retired, many public employees will be reduced to living on very little. A group of ex-railwaymen, aged 50 and above, said they used to earn between € 1,800 and € 2,000 a month, a relatively comfortable salary in Greece. They have now been posted to jobs as museum guards as part of a “voluntary transition” package (2) and their basic monthly income fluctuates between € 1,100 and € 1,300; semi-retirees are restricted to € 600. All are barred from taking on extra paid work to supplement their income — the penalty, immediate loss of revenue, is enforced.

’Insurance payments have stopped’

The loss of income is tearing society apart. Bills are not paid, consumption is down, stores are closing and unemployment rising. In May the official unemployment rate was 16.6% (10 points higher than in 2008) and 40% among the young. The actual rate is likely to be much higher. The social, economic and political crisis has shaken the national health service. Hospital and public health care centre budgets have been cut by 40% on average. More patients are admitted to the emergency room, others go to Doctors of the World health centres, and many choose to do without medical care altogether. People report being denied access to crucial medicine. One journalist said her father suffers from Parkinson’s disease: “His medication costs € 500 a month. The pharmacy told us it will stop supplying him, because insurance payments have stopped.”

Physical ailments (notably heart conditions) and mental illnesses are increasing at a worrying rate. Recent epidemiological studies have shown that heightened stress, exacerbated by high debt and prolonged unemployment, is generating “major depressive disorders, disruptions and generalised anxiety” (3), which account for a dramatic rise in suicides. According to unofficial figures discussed in parliament, the suicide rate increased by 25% from 2009 to 2010, with a further rise of 40% in the first half of 2011, compared to last year, according to health ministry sources. Figures published in The Lancet (4) reveal an alarming increase in prostitution, as well as infection rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (5). There are unprecedented numbers of homeless people, and they are no longer limited to alcoholics, drug addicts or the mentally ill. A recent study demonstrates that the middle class, the young and the moderately poor are now more likely to end up on the street (6).

The Greeks struggle to see a way out of what a social worker described as a return to a “barbaric” way of life. They feel abandoned and unable to cope. Strong family ties are buckling under the pressure of diminished incomes and a collapsing welfare state. Those who can leave, do so. The options for those remaining are limited. Some turn to the Church, which arranges soup kitchens and other social services. In Salonika, Father Stefanos Tolios of the Orthodox church, is swamped by desperate people looking for work. Residents of several cities (Volos, Patras, Heraklion, Athens, Corfu, Salonika) have set up community-based informal economies, based on local exchange systems. Families are bringing their elderly back from retirement homes, to recover the monthly charge of € 300-400.

No country could withstand this. Greece is worse equipped to deal with the social consequences of the austerity measures imposed with a “scientific cruelty” (7) by the national and transnational elites. Post-1945 Greece, with a weak state and clientelism, had neither the time nor means to build a resilient system of social protection. The existing safety nets are now tearing. “Everything is falling apart,” said Sotiris Lainas, a psychologist and coordinator of the Self Help Promotion Programme at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Salonika).

Who’s to blame?

The previous government, under George Papandreou, scrambled to conform to the demands of the “troika” — the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank — for instance by cutting 210 budget lines in the health ministry. No thought was given as to how the budget cuts would undermine the ability of essential (and viable) services to function, such as the day care provided by the Panhellenic Federation of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders. Thus the transnational forces, which for nearly 30 years have worked to erode the welfare state, have passed on the task to national enforcers, themselves longtime beneficiaries of a nepotic, inefficient, corrupt system.

Responsibility for the crisis has been shamelessly dumped upon the Greeks. Accused, but not tried, they have been pronounced guilty because of their association with their inept leaders. Certain sections of the population are exposed to popular fury: seen as a privileged caste, public employees are stigmatised; doctors and shopkeepers are all suspected of untruthful tax filings. But the people know that the system and their leaders are at the root of the rot. Knowledge is not power, though, and the nation is left wondering what to do next.

Patronage and corruption have historical roots. Greece has never enjoyed a modern state with a relatively autonomous bureaucracy, free from private interests, with the capacity to shape economic and social development. Nor has it had a strong civic identity. Foreign powers have imposed their preferences since independence in 1830 (8), when Greece was forcefully integrated into the world capitalist economy in a peripheral position, kept servile and buffeted by various great powers. History has superimposed an artificial political model on a fragmented society traditionally centred on local loyalties, the extended family and community values. As a result, the Greek political system has always been authoritarian and centralised, denying the separation of powers, local autonomy or real democracy (9) — fertile soil for corruption and patronage, which serve the interests and entrench the domination of the elites. The Greeks have resigned themselves to all this.

They are not naive or ignorant of their and their country’s shortcomings. But they are destitute and disempowered. What hope is there for a nation that has proved “fundamentally incapable of forming a political community” (10)? Even if it wanted to return to the pre-crisis days, “when we were living a lie”, as Lainas put it, Greece would be unable to do so. It has been hit too hard, as the repeated calls for order and control make clear. Polls initially favourable to the new government formed by Lucas Papademos, the former governor of the Greek Central Bank replacing Papandreou as prime minister, point to the belief among some Greeks that a technocratic administration might be preferable to the disgraced political class. This does not imply an adherence to the austerity measures, but rather a willingness to set matters right. For some, a strong foreign authority, mentioned by Mario Monti before he became Italy’s prime minister (11), might guarantee an honest and competent government acting in the interests of the country.

But everything points against it. Having seen off their worthless leaders, Greeks may not know who the enemy is any more. “There is no enemy to fight,” said Lainas: “You can’t fight what you can’t see. Their strength lies in abstract governments. Such as the EFSF [European Financial Stability Fund]. The enemy may be abstract, but the tragedy is real. They are stealing our lives, depriving us of a future.”

Noëlle Burgi is a researcher at the Centre Européen de Sociologie et de Sciences Politique (CESSP), Sorbonne University, Paris

(1) I Simerini, Nicosia, 16 March 2011.

(2) Part of the railway company’s preparations for privatisation, which include reducing the number of staff.

(3) Study yet to be published by the University Mental Health Research Institute, conducted February-April 2011. See Eleftherotypia, Athens, 5 October 2011.

(4) Alexander Kentikelenis et al, “Health effects of financial crisis: omens of a Greek tragedy”, The Lancet, London, vol 378, no 9801, 22 October 2011.

(5) See “Risk of HIV outbreaks among drug injectors in the EU”, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Lisbon, 14 November 2011.

(6) Study conducted by Klimaka, an NGO based in Athens. Also see “Greek crisis creates thousands of middle-class homeless”,www.monstersandcritics.com, 9 October 2011.

(7) Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.Originally published as The Origins of Our Time(Rinehart, New York 1944); latest edition published by Beacon Press, 2001.

(8) Following the War of Independence (1821-1830), the London Treaty (1832) imposed a monarchy on Greece. Otto de Wittelsbach, prince of Bavaria, was installed on the throne by the European Great Powers (France, Russia, Britain), which dabbled constantly in Greek affairs.

(9) See Nicos P Mouzelis, Modern Greece: Facets of Underdevelopment, Macmillan, London, 1978.

(10) Cornelius Castoriadis, “We are responsible for our own history” (in Greek), cited in Le mouvement grec pour la démocratie directe, Lieux Communs, 2011.

(11) Mario Monti, “Il podestà forestiero”, Corriere della Serra, Milan, 7 August 2011.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Worker-Owners of America, Unite!

From the New York Times
December 14, 2011

THE Occupy Wall Street protests have come and mostly gone, and whether they continue to have an impact or not, they have brought an astounding fact to the public’s attention: a mere 1 percent of Americans own just under half of the country’s financial assets and other investments. America, it would seem, is less equitable than ever, thanks to our no-holds-barred capitalist system.

But at another level, something different has been quietly brewing in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing.

Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions.

And worker-owned companies make a difference. In Cleveland, for instance, an integrated group of worker-owned companies, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, has taken the lead in local solar-panel installation, “green” institutional laundry services and a commercial hydroponic greenhouse capable of producing more than three million heads of lettuce a year.

Local and state governments are likewise changing the nature of American capitalism. Almost half the states manage venture capital efforts, taking partial ownership in new businesses. Calpers, California’s public pension authority, helps finance local development projects; in Alaska, state oil revenues provide each resident with dividends from public investment strategies as a matter of right; in Alabama, public pension investing has long focused on state economic development.

Moreover, this year some 14 states began to consider legislation to create public banks similar to the longstanding Bank of North Dakota; 15 more began to consider some form of single-payer or public-option health care plan.

Some of these developments, like rural co-ops and credit unions, have their origins in the New Deal era; some go back even further, to the Grange movement of the 1880s. The most widespread form of worker ownership stems from 1970s legislation that provided tax benefits to owners of small businesses who sold to their employees when they retired. Reagan-era domestic-spending cuts spurred nonprofits to form social enterprises that used profits to help finance their missions.

Recently, growing economic pain has provided a further catalyst. The Cleveland cooperatives are an answer to urban decay that traditional job training, small-business and other development strategies simply do not touch. They also build on a 30-year history of Ohio employee-ownership experiments traceable to the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s.

Further policy changes are likely. In Indiana, the Republican state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, is using state deposits to lower interest costs to employee-owned companies, a precedent others states could easily follow. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, is developing legislation to support worker-owned strategies like that of Cleveland in other cities. And several policy analysts have proposed expanding existing government “set aside” procurement programs for small businesses to include co-ops and other democratized enterprises.

If such cooperative efforts continue to increase in number, scale and sophistication, they may suggest the outlines, however tentative, of something very different from both traditional, corporate-dominated capitalism and traditional socialism.

It’s easy to overestimate the possibilities of a new system. These efforts are minor compared with the power of Wall Street banks and the other giants of the American economy. On the other hand, it is precisely these institutions that have created enormous economic problems and fueled public anger.

During the populist and progressive eras, a decades-long buildup of public anger led to major policy shifts, many of which simply took existing ideas from local and state efforts to the national stage. Furthermore, we have already seen how, in moments of crisis, the nationalization of auto giants like General Motors and Chrysler can suddenly become a reality. When the next financial breakdown occurs, huge injections of public money may well lead to de facto takeovers of major banks.

And while the American public has long supported the capitalist model, that, too, may be changing. In 2009 a Rasmussen poll reported that Americans under 30 years old were “essentially evenly divided” as to whether they preferred “capitalism” or “socialism.”

A long era of economic stagnation could well lead to a profound national debate about an America that is dominated neither by giant corporations nor by socialist bureaucrats. It would be a fitting next direction for a troubled nation that has long styled itself as of, by and for the people.

Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and a founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is the author of “America Beyond Capitalism.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 15, 2011, on page A39 of the New York edition with the headline: Worker-Owners of America, Unite!.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From Foreclosure to Occupation: Tenants Organize To Beat Evictions

From Shareable.net/Huffington Post
by Mira Luna

A group of low-income San Franciscans has come up with a positive, long term solution to the housing crisis that is causing millions of Americans to be evicted and some to embrace the "Occupy Homes" movement: buy the buildings.

In October 2011, residents of the Columbus United Cooperative (CUC) in San Francisco celebrated final approval of the ownership of their building as a permanently affordable, resident-owned limited-equity housing cooperative. The residents can now purchase shares in the co-op for only $10,000 in the heart of San Francisco (where most housing starts at $500,000) to become cooperative homeowners, though most earn less than 50 percent of area median income. Previous to the conversion they had been living in their building under the threat of eviction.

According to a Lender Processing Services report on November 18, "just under 6.3 million properties nationwide are either 30 or more days delinquent or in foreclosure." Another study published in June by Templeton LPA states that the number of court orders to evict tenants have risen by 9% over the last year, and the number of tenants in serious arrears with their rental payments is up by 13%, with 2.1% of all tenancies in arrears nationwide.

Long waiting lists for public housing mean that people remain homeless or in shelters longer. The
National Coalition for the Homeless reported that in 2007, before the economy went into full recession, the average stay in homeless shelters for households with children was 5.7 months . Rising foreclosures and tenant evictions have been helping to fuel the fire of the Occupy movement. "Occupy
Homes" is a new offshoot of Occupy Wall Street that links homeowners with activists in direct action to halt foreclosures in some of the local strongholds across the country of the Occupy movement. Occupy Oakland has announced it will start occupying vacant homes starting in December and Occupy Portland is already starting to move into foreclosed homes. Homeless advocacy group "Homes Not Jails" is teaming up with Occupy San Francisco to turn abandoned hotels into homeless shelters.

After Occupy L.A. organized a vigil and camp at her home and occupied the local Fannie Mae office, Rose Gudiel was able to keep her and her disabled mother's home from which they were being evicted, as the bank opened up to renegotiating their mortgage.

Chicago, New York and Minneapolis have branches of Occupy Homes, too.

Ohio Congresswoman Max Rameau, an organizer for Take Back the Land who began this work five years ago, says, "The banks are actually occupying our homes."

But in the US, squatters have few rights and face an steep uphill battle to stay in the homes they've claimed. Owners of foreclosed homes might have some ability to bargain with banks if they can afford to, but many can't, and others are being kicked out of rentals, especially as former homeowners are now moving down the housing chain and renting. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that "40 percent of families facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters and 7 million households living on very low incomes are at risk of foreclosure. Squatting isn't for everyone, in particular the sick, disabled, elderly and children, and living in substandard housing under threat of the police isn't exactly ideal. Unless the mainstream joins Occupy Homes and the government starts recognizing squats of vacant and foreclosed properties, the movement will likely remain on the fringe.

Tenant-owned, cooperative housing can provide a more stable solution to the housing crisis. When the residents of the 21-unit Columbus United Cooperative (CUC) in San Francisco converted the building to a limited-equity housing cooperative, the low income, Chinese-speaking resident families were able to stay in their homes.

Read more here.

For more more info on how to start a tenant-owned housing cooperative see http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-to-start-a-housing-coop.

Mira Luna is a community activist working to develop an alternative economy in the San Francisco Bay Area, who contributes to the fabulous online magazine Shareable.net - your guide to the new sharing economy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Making the most of cooperation

Taking a cue from a Spanish hill town, the mayor of Richmond, Calif., is recognizing worker-owned co-ops as a possible path out of the poverty and unemployment that plague her city.

Liberty Ship Cafe co-op

Concetta Abraham, a member of the Liberty Ship Cafe co-op in Richmond, Calif., dances while testing recipes at St. Luke Methodist Church. The 76-year-old native of Italy provides much of the cooking magic for the co-op, whose seven owners were drawn together while taking a class on developing cooperatives at the Richmond library. (Dean Coppola, Bay Area Newspaper Group / February 19, 2008)

By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
November 27, 2011

Reporting from Richmond, Calif.—
Where a hot dog stand now is the main lunchtime option for city workers in this distressed Bay Area town, soon they'll be able to choose from steel-cut oatmeal, goat cheese empanadas and white bean and kale stew, prepared in a mobile cafe. Its owners will share in the decision-making — and any profits.

Richmond Solar has trained needy residents to work as green-energy installers and now aims to transform some into bosses by forming a worker-owned cooperative.

The city's first bicycle shop has opened with similar dreams: Young men who have volunteered to learn the repair trade soon may be elevated to co-owners.

"I'm just gonna ride it out with everyone to get where we need to go," Mercedes Burnell, 19, said as he prepared to replace a crankshaft and pedals at Richmond SPOKES.

The flurry of democratic enterprise has been guided by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a former schoolteacher who visited Mondragon, Spain, and recognized a possible path out of the poverty and unemployment that plague her city.

The Basque hill town is dominated by Mondragon Corp., a web of cooperatives that employ 83,000 workers and together represent Spain's seventh-largest business. Co-op clusters based on Mondragon's model have emerged in Cleveland and the Bronx, N.Y., among other cities.

Richmond, with a 16% unemployment rate, hopes to follow suit.

The city's industrial roots date back more than a century, when it was home to the Santa Fe Railroad terminus and a Standard Oil refinery. World War II shipyards swelled the population to nearly its current 103,000. But Richmond has struggled since and is regularly listed among the nation's 25 most dangerous cities.

Since August, Bay Area co-op veteran Terry Baird — a burly man with a gray beard and a penchant for South African freedom songs — has been on the city payroll, helping to piece together cooperative ventures in Richmond's economically barren pockets.

Mondragon Corp. was created in 1956 and fine-tuned over half a century, McLaughlin said, "but you have to start somewhere. One of the prerequisites of starting a co-op is need, and that is something that we have in Richmond."

Demand matters too. Baird aims to start small, with food and service co-ops such as a plumber's collective that won't require hefty upfront investment. Then the city hopes to bring government and other big employers on board, setting up ventures to meet their buying needs.


McLaughlin, a Green Party member who's been mayor since 2006, visited Mondragon last year and was dazzled by the scale of the worker-driven enterprises.

"My understanding of co-ops from the 1960s and 1970s was that they were small and interesting," said McLaughlin, who was immediately sold on the idea of replicating the formula in Richmond.

The Mondragon story began with a Catholic priest.

In 1943, Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta — who had narrowly escaped death by firing squad during the Spanish Civil War — started a technical school for working-class boys. By 1956, graduates had helped form the first cooperative to make kerosene stoves. A cooperative bank followed in 1959.

The corporation, which reported a $242-million profit last year, now includes 255 industrial, retail and financial cooperatives, with others focusing on education and research. Manufacturing co-ops churn out metal-cutting tools, washing machines and bicycles. A retail co-op runs Spain's third-largest grocery chain. A Mondragon construction venture built Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. About 85% of the corporation's employees are co-op members.

But the original edict of one-worker/one vote remains, through an elected general assembly with representatives from each cooperative. Recently, the assembly voted to cut everyone's pay rather than risk layoffs at any one co-op. The compensation of the highest-paid worker is capped at seven times that of the lowest. Some of the corporation's overall profits go toward offsetting losses at any individual enterprise. Workers also receive a share in the corporation, based on their contributions, every year, with more money flowing into interest-bearing accounts disbursed at retirement.

The U.S. has a history of cooperative movements, beginning with enterprises organized in the late 19th century by the Knights of Labor and highlighted by the burst of food co-ops and consumer buying clubs of the 1960s. Recent years have seen a resurgence.

"It's less counterculture utopian," said Melissa Hoover, executive director of the San Francisco-based U.S. Federation of Worker Owned Cooperatives, "and more engaged with people in the economy."

Some of the growth is sector-based: Green-cleaning ventures launched by immigrant women, for example, are common. But philanthropists and community developers increasingly have focused their attention on the co-op model as a way to revitalize urban areas.

No city experiment has made more of a splash than Cleveland's. With support from universities and medical centers that border the downtown area targeted for development, the Cleveland Foundation — a donor-based organization dedicated to bettering the city — has channeled millions of dollars into the Mondragon-inspired Evergreen Cooperatives.

A solar panel installation-and-weatherization company and a green commercial laundry are up and running with a combined 50 worker-owners, said Lillian Kuri, program director of the Cleveland Foundation. An urban farming co-op is scheduled to open in the spring.

In addition to providing financing for co-op ventures, Evergreen Cooperatives makes services such as child care available to the workers and provides no-cost healthcare.

Ted Howard, an architect of Cleveland's experiment and founder of the University of Maryland's Democracy Collaborative, said worker-ownership is supplanting other forms of inner-city revival.

"When you're hiring people even in a decent job that pays a living wage — if they … have no retirement account, no rainy day savings — a job alone is not enough," Howard said.

In addition to offering the chance to share in profits, worker-owned companies are rooted in the community and won't "pack up and move," he said.

The co-op model has found interest among government officials in Washington D.C., Amarillo, Texas, and Atlanta, Howard said, but Richmond stands alone in hiring a coordinator. "I don't know any city in America that's done that," he said.


Enter Baird, a Richmond resident who in 1997 helped found the worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery cooperative in Oakland. The Arizmendi Assn. of Cooperatives now includes six Bay Area bakeries. All workers earn the same pay rate. Profits are distributed at year's end in proportion to hours worked.

Though he may be a co-op evangelist, Baird knows the model won't work without a product or service consumers will pay for, a decent location and a group of people who are able to work together.

During a recent tour of Richmond, Baird pointed out candidates for cooperative ventures: A vacant 5,000-square-foot building is under consideration for a handyman's cooperative. A faded onetime coin laundry near a city park could become a bakery or restaurant. Then there's the weedy lot that one woman hopes to transform into a cooperative garden and farm stand.

In the heart of the old downtown sits Richmond SPOKES.

Brian Drayton, once a junior zookeeper in Baltimore, spent years developing youth programs for a range of nonprofits, stressing art and environmental sustainability.

When he opened the community space and "bike lounge" as a nonprofit last month, young men from the neighborhood poured in to find out what he was doing. Then they rolled up their sleeves and helped lay gleaming wood flooring.

As a local artist covered the walls in vivid murals, they stuck around to learn the bike trade. Baird has been meeting with a group of five or so men to discuss a worker-owned collective.

Richmond Solar Executive Director Michelle McGeoy has secured funds for her co-op from, among others, Chevron (formerly Standard Oil and now the city's largest employer) and the California Endowment — a private foundation that seeks to promote healthy communities. The company has set an initial target of having 10 worker-owners by next spring.

Then there's the Liberty Ship Cafe, whose seven owners were drawn together while taking a class on developing cooperatives at the Richmond library. The California Endowment has helped fund this project as well.

On Dec. 1, the collective will start selling its breakfast and lunch fare at a farmers market near the civic center. The plan is to begin deliveries to government office workers soon after.

Julio Chavez, 40, studied communications in his native Guatemala before coming to the U.S. and working as an electrician. In recent months, he has joined the other Liberty Ship Cafe partners in testing recipes for sancocho — a traditional Latin American soup — and other delicacies in a rented church kitchen.

"It's a difficult time, so one has to do different things, to search for options," Chavez said.

Challenges remain.

While Mondragon is united by its Basque culture, Baird noted, Richmond is fragmented by race and class and shadowed by chronic violence.

On top of the usual cost of business, cooperatives require training — not just in job-specific skills but on how to manage a business and make sure everyone's voice is heard. "The real thing that can take a [cooperative] business down," Hoover said, "is a group that's not prepared to make decisions together."

On a recent rainy day, the Liberty Ship Cafe workers met to discuss just that.

Concetta Abraham, a 76-year-old native of Italy, provides much of the group's cooking magic. While tasting her savory pozole, the collective determined how long each member should be allowed to speak on agenda items and discussed the importance of not interrupting one another.

"We're from different countries, different cultures and are different ages," said 68-year-old Carlos Ruiller, who was born in Peru. "There's a period where we'll have to suffer and adapt. But I'm hopeful. We're all equals starting out — like soldiers."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Beyond Encampments

Occupy Wall Street, Beyond Encampments
As winter arrives and police crack down, how can occupiers keep their movement alive—and help it grow? Veteran activists share lessons from Spain’s Indignados.
by Luis Moreno-Caballud, Marina Sitrin
posted Nov 21, 2011
from Yes! Magazine

Marina Sitrin and Luis Moreno-Caballud—participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement and Spain's May 15 movement—share their advice for Occupy Wall Street's next step.

We write this letter as participants in the movements, and as an invitation to a conversation. We hope to raise questions about how we continue to deepen and transform the new social relationships and processes we have begun … to open the discussion towards a common horizon.

The evictions and threats to the physical occupations in the United States have again raised the question of the future of the movement. The question isn’t whether the movement has a future, but what sort of future it will be. For example, should our energy be focused on finding new spaces to occupy and create encampments? Should we be focused more in our local neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces? Is there a way to occupy public space with horizontal assemblies, yet also focus locally and concretely?

A look at the recent history of a movement similar to Occupy—the Spanish indignados or May 15 movement—can shed some light on the opportunities and urgency of this new phase. It is a moment that we see as a potential turning point, and one with incredible possibilities.

There are three key elements that have made the global movements of
2011 so powerful:

1. The extraordinary capacity to include all types of people;
2. The impulse to move beyond traditional forms of the protest and contention, so as to create solutions for the problems identified;
3. The horizontal and directly participatory form they take.

Let’s look at the first element. Unlike other movements that have strongly identified with particular social groups (workers, students, etc.), both the indignados and Occupy are movements that anyone can join, just by choosing to do so. Again and again, in Madrid as in New York, we have heard the demonstrators chanting solidarity slogans to the police: “they’ve also lowered your salary” and “you too are the 99%”. In both places the movements have been able to bring out many people who had never been to a demonstration before, and make them feel welcome and useful. It is a culture and politics of openness and acceptance of the other.

The second element, the capacity to create solutions, is consistent with this non-confrontational aspect of the Spanish and American movements. Like their predecessors in Egypt and Greece, both movements began with the occupation of a public space. Rather than reproducing the logic of the traditional “sit-in,” these occupations quickly turned to the construction of miniature models of the society that the movement wanted to create—prefiguring the world while simultaneously creating it. The territory occupied was geographic, but only so as to open other ways of doing and being together. It is not the specific place that is the issue, but what happens in it. This is what we could call the first phase of the movement. Solutions began to be implemented for the urgent problems, like the absence of truly representative politics and the lack of access to basic necessities, such as housing, education, food, and health care. In Spain and in the United States, this first phase saw the creation of two problem-solving institutions: the general assemblies and the working groups.
The participants in these movements create spaces of sociability, places where we can be treated as free human beings beyond the constant demands of the profit motive.

The ways in which we organize in these spaces of assemblies and working groups is inextricably linked to the vision of what we are creating. We seek open, horizontal, participatory spaces where each person can truly speak and be heard. We organize structures, such as facilitation teams, agendas, and variations on the forms of the assembly, from general assemblies to spokes councils, always being open to changing them so as to create the most democratic and participatory space possible.

The very existence of the encampments, together with the general assemblies, was already a victory over the increasingly desperate battle of all against all that the neoliberal crisis has imposed on us. The participants in these movements create spaces of sociability, places where we can be treated as free human beings beyond the constant demands of the profit motive. In a city like New York where debates about our society tend to occur only in government institutions, and expensive spaces of limited access (universities, offices, restaurants and bars), the assemblies at Zuccotti provided a public forum that was open to anyone who wanted to speak. In addition, from the very beginning the movement created working groups designed to directly address problems related to basic human necessities. On the first day of the occupation of Zuccotti, the loading and unloading of shopping-carts full of jars of peanut butter and loaves of bread, an initiative launched by the already-functioning food committee, was the first sign of this effort to provide solutions. By the 5th week of the Occupation in New York the food working group was feeding upwards of 3,000 people a day.

spanish 15m by Ale Arillo

Protesters of the Spanish 15M movement in Seville.

Photo by Ale Arillo

In these working groups the dynamic of the second phase of these movements was already implicit. In Spain this phase began over the summer; in the United States it is beginning now. This phase is characterized by the gradual shift from a focus on acts of protest (which nonetheless continue to have a crucial role, as we must confront this system that creates crisis) to instituting the type of change that the movements actually want to see happen in society as a whole. The capacity to create solutions grows as the movements expand in all directions, first through the appearance of multiple occupations connected among themselves, and then through the creation of—or collaboration with—groups or networks that are able to solve problems on a local level through cooperation and the sharing of skills and resources. For example, Occupy Harlem is using direct action to prevent heat from being shut off in a building in the neighborhood (this action has been coordinated with OWS and Occupy Brooklyn).

In the case of Spain, this expansion began in June, when the movement decided to focus its energy more on the assemblies and the working groups than on maintaining the encampments themselves. To maintain the miniature models of a society that the movement wished to create did not necessarily contribute to the actual changes that were needed in the populations that needed them the most. Which is why the decision to move away from the encampments was nothing more than another impulse in the constructive aims of the movement: the real encampment that has to be reconstructed is the world.

This Changes Everything Book Cover
This Changes Everything: How the 99% Woke Up
Introducing the movement that’s shifting our vision of what kind of world is possible—from the new book, “This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.”

Of course, it is true that the encampments continue to have a crucial function as places in which the symbolic power of the Occupy movement is concentrated. It is also true that the efforts to defend them have produced moving displays of solidarity. But the viability of a movement is not only defined by its capacity to withstand pressure from the outside, but also in its ability to reach and work together with people outside the space of the plaza or square. It is this—the going beyond the parameters of the plaza—which the assemblies and the working groups have already started to put into effect.

In the U.S., this might take the form of assemblies in neighborhoods, workplaces, universities, and on street corners working concretely together with neighbors and workmates, as well as then relating together in assemblies of assemblies or spokes councils in parks, plazas, and squares, sharing experiences from the more local spaces. All the while, the occupation of space and territory would continue—but with the vision of territory as what happens together, with one another, in multiple places, and then coming together to share in another geographic place. This could take places from neighborhood to neighborhood or city to city, all networked in horizontal assemblies.
While the indignado movement no longer has encampments, its presence is felt everywhere.

In any case, to return to the example of Spain, what is certain is that while the indignado movement no longer has encampments, its presence is felt everywhere. It’s a culture now, composed of thousands of micro-institutions that provide solutions through the common efforts of people affected by the same problems. There are cooperatives addressing work, housing, energy, education, finance, and nutrition, and many other things, as well as a web of collaboration that connects these cooperatives. Catalunya and Madrid already have “Integral Cooperatives” whose function is to coordinate the different services offered by various cooperatives within a particular locale, to the point that in some places in Spain it is almost possible to live without having to depend on the resources hoarded by the one percent. The movement has made it possible for these institutions, which used to be dispersed and limited, to grow and grow connected, and it has provided them with a visibility that has led to much more interest, respect, and support for their functions.

Also, the movement keeps coming back to the streets every so often in big demonstrations and assemblies that display its force and allow all of those working in the many projects associated with the spirit of May 15th to see each other, network together, and welcome more people.
The creation of alternative institutions and solutions has already begun in the United States. With or without encampments, the constructive phase of the Occupy movement is here.

The creation of alternative institutions and solutions has already begun in the United States. With or without encampments, the constructive phase of the Occupy movement is here, and all indications are that it will not slow down, as it has not slowed down in Spain. Every day on the news and on YouTube, we see the police removing the occupiers from parks and plazas, but the movement continues to grow—and to grow outside of these places. While the tumult of raids and returns jolts occupiers and the public alike, thousands of working groups around the world meet weekly in libraries, community centers, churches, cafes, and offices to share their extraordinary abilities and resources. They are already creating the schools, hospitals, houses, neighborhoods, cities, and dreams of the 99 percent.

This is the beginning of the occupation of an encampment that will never be dislodged: the world.

Luis Moreno-Caballud is a participant in the Spanish May 15th movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He collaborated in the formation of the NYC General Assembly before the beginning of OWS, and works with both the Outreach and Empowerment and Education working groups. He is an assistant professor of Spanish literature and cultural studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Marina Sitrin is a participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and was a part of the NYC General Assembly that helped organize OWS. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center Committee on Globalization and Social Change, and the author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Its Mission

Some statements from Occupy Wall Street activists as it begins to clarify its goals and mission (these do not represent the entire movement):

We Envision: [1] a truly free, democratic, and just society; [2] where we, the people, come together and solve our problems by consensus; [3] where people are encouraged to take personal and collective responsibility and participate in decision making; [4] where we learn to live in harmony and embrace principles of toleration and respect for diversity and the differing views of others; [5] where we secure the civil and human rights of all from violation by tyrannical forces and unjust governments; [6] where political and economic institutions work to benefit all, not just the privileged few; [7] where we provide full and free education to everyone, not merely to get jobs but to grow and flourish as human beings; [8] where we value human needs over monetary gain, to ensure decent standards of living without which effective democracy is impossible; [9] where we work together to protect the global environment to ensure that future generations will have safe and clean air, water and food supplies, and will be able to enjoy the beauty and bounty of nature that past generations have enjoyed.

Ten Things We Want
A Proposal for Occupy Wall Street

1. Eradicate the Bush tax cuts for the rich and institute new taxes on the wealthiest Americans and on corporations, including a tax on all trading on Wall Street (where they currently pay 0%).

2. Assess a penalty tax on any corporation that moves American jobs to other countries when that company is already making profits in America. Our jobs are the most important national treasure and they cannot be removed from the country simply because someone wants to make more money.

3. Require that all Americans pay the same Social Security tax on all of their earnings (normally, the middle class pays about 6% of their income to Social Security; someone making $1 million a year pays about 0.6% (or 90% less than the average person). This law would simply make the rich pay what everyone else pays.

4. Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, placing serious regulations on how business is conducted by Wall Street and the banks.

5. Investigate the Crash of 2008, and bring to justice those who committed any crimes.

6. Reorder our nation's spending priorities (including the ending of all foreign wars and their cost of over $2 billion a week). This will re-open libraries, reinstate band and art and civics classes in our schools, fix our roads and bridges and infrastructure, wire the entire country for 21st century internet, and support scientific research that improves our lives.

7. Join the rest of the free world and create a single-payer, free and universal health care system that covers all Americans all of the time.

8. Immediately reduce carbon emissions that are destroying the planet and discover ways to live without the oil that will be depleted and gone by the end of this century.

9. Require corporations with more than 10,000 employees to restructure their board of directors so that 50% of its members are elected by the company’s workers. We can never have a real democracy as long as most people have no say in what happens at the place they spend most of their time: their job. (For any U.S. businesspeople freaking out at this idea because you think workers can't run a successful company: Germany has a law like this and it has helped to make Germany the world’s leading manufacturing exporter.)

10. We, the people, must pass three constitutional amendments that will go a long way toward fixing the core problems we now have. These include:

a) A constitutional amendment that fixes our broken electoral system by 1) completely removing campaign contributions from the political process; 2) requiring all elections to be publicly financed; 3) moving election day to the weekend to increase voter turnout; 4) making all Americans registered voters at the moment of their birth; 5) banning computerized voting and requiring that all elections take place on paper ballots.

b) A constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not people and do not have the constitutional rights of citizens. This amendment should also state that the interests of the general public and society must always come before the interests of corporations.

c) A constitutional amendment that will act as a "second bill of rights" as proposed by President Frankin D. Roosevelt: that every American has a human right to employment, to health care, to a free and full education, to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat safe food, and to be cared for with dignity and respect in their old age

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mondragon Comes to America

by Jeffrey Hollender (former CEO of Seventh Generation)

Last week, my recently launched consulting firms –Jeffrey Hollender Partners and CommonWise – hosted the senior leadership team of the Mondragon Cooperative Cooperation for a discussion about the role cooperatives can play in addressing the social and economic challenges that increasingly dominate the globe.

In attendance were:

Arantza Laskurain Arteche, General Secretary of MONDRAGON Corporación;
Josu Ugarte, President Mondragon International;
Fernando Fernandez de Landa Ocharan Director of the Americas for Mondragon International; and
Michael Alden Peck, the Mondragon North American Delegate.

They joined a group of New York-based community development activists, entrepreneurs, foundations, academics and policy advisors.

We explored topics that included:

What are Mondragan’s most important accomplishments?
What can business in the US learn from the Mondragon experience?
Why is the cooperative movement so critical to a world facing an economic and social crisis?
What are the biggest challenges facing the cooperative movement?

This summer, I experienced Mondragon first-hand when I visited with members of the MIT CoLab. During that time, our dialogue centered on a commitment to human dignity that is all but absent in most of corporate America today. While we have become immune to headlines that announce 5, 10, 20 or even 30,000 employees who are scheduled to be terminated, Mondragon, a $20 billion enterprise, agonizes over the loss of a single job.

Recently, Mondragon’s General Assembly, it’s largest body, voted to reduce wages across the board for all workers rather than put the jobs of workers at one of over a hundred businesses at risk. Of equal note is the fact that the senior management of the enterprise makes no more than seven times the lowest paid worker.

As we explored the unique attributes of Mondragon, its culture and education were central and recurring themes. The integrity of the whole cannot be guarded by a small group of individuals, but only through the commitment and ongoing education of the whole community.

While cooperatives play a significant role in our global economy, most of the companies that dominate the US cooperative landscape are not worker cooperatives. Our largest cooperative businesses are producer, consumer or purchasing cooperatives. These organizations are very different than worker cooperatives, in that true cooperatives are businesses that are owned by and managed by their workers.

It is worker cooperatives that are the most effective in the broad distribution of wealth and the democratic management that runs counter to our top down, hierarchical approach to designing organizations.

Everyone in the room was deeply touched by the passion and deep commitment to business that puts people first, before profits.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Argentina: Ten years of workers' control

From the Green Left
Sunday, November 6, 2011
By Raul Bassi
Workers' cooperative at the Zanon factory.

On September 30, 2001, in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in Argentine history, the owners of the Zanon ceramic factory announced plans to switch off the furnaces.

In response, union delegates occupied the plant in the southern province of Neuquen. The next day, workers arrived to join the occupation ― frustrating plans to sell off the machinery.

As Argentina's economic crisis deepened, leading to the overthrow of five presidents in one week in December 2001, this new experiment in working-class resistance (a factory without bosses) was replicated in hundreds of Argentine factories.

But 10 years on, it is fair to say that Zanon has been a unique experience.

Ceramica Zanon was opened in 1979 under a military dictatorship that lasted until 1983.

By 1983, workers had created the Neuquen Ceramic Workers and Employees Union (SOECN). They won their first important victory in 1996 when factory delegates organised a strike to stop a worker being sacked.

However, by 2000, the first signs of financial troubles began to appear in Zanon. The next year, many workers had their jobs suspended due to the "lack of basic goods”.

Workers responded by staging a 34-day strike, forcing management to pay workers for lost working hours.

On August 4, 2001, the union called for a national meeting of workers to discuss a unified response to the growing economic crisis.

In Zanon, this took the form of a workers' occupation.

Factory occupied

The company sacked all 380 employees, but workers burned management's letters and marched on state parliament to demand justice.

When the company locked out all workers, they responded by occupying the plant.

In 2002, a committee was established with Zanon workers, representatives from the unemployed workers' movement, and delegates from unions representing education, public sector, health and building workers.

By March, workers had restarted four furnaces. The first 20,000 m2 of tiles were produced under workers' control.

With production expanding, the workers' cooperative employed ten more workers in April. They were selected from the unemployed workers' organisations.

Zanon workers were also present at the first congress of occupied factories organised in Buenos Aires that month.

In 2003, 30 more jobs were created and production reached 120,000 m2 of tiles a month.

On April 5, an attempt to remove workers from the factory was repelled by a mass community mobilisation.

A proposed bill, ”Expropriation under workers management and control", was handed to state parliament during 2003. The bill was supported by 50,000 signatures.

Nationwide alliance

In 2004, a nationwide alliance of occupied factories was formed, Factory Without Bosses(FASINPAT). Another proposed bill was presented to the national parliament, and a permanent tent was establish in front of the parliament.

In 2005, a spate of death threats against Zanon workers and their families, including an attack against one workers' wife, threatened a bleak year.

However, a swift response in the form of strikes and demonstrations organised by unions, the convening of a National Workers Summit in Zanon in April, and statutory changes to SOECN turned the situation around.

By the end of the year, Zanon was declared bankrupt. Temporary administration of the factory was officially handed over to the workers' cooperative.

In 2006, parliament failed to live up to its promise to deal with the proposed bill to expropriate the occupied factories. Workers responded by handing over a new, more radical proposal.

In October, the government extended the temporary administration rights granted to Zanon workers.

Two big events marked 2007: a teacher was killed at a protest against the state government and a witness involved in the trial of a key figures in the military dictatorship was kidnapped.

The factory workers took part in demonstrations and strikes around these issues.

Production at Zanon continued to grow steadily, reaching 400,000 m2 of tiles a month. This allowed the workers' cooperative to expand the number of workers to 470.

In 2007, Zanon began exporting tiles.

The period of temporary administration by the workers' cooperative officially ended in 2008, but the government and courts did not intervene. The workers increased their struggle for Zanon's expropriation.

In 2009, another ceramic factory, Ceramica del Sur, was closed by its managers. Workers reopened it on the basis of Zanon‘s experience.

Today, those workers are part of SOECN and have established a cooperative to run the factory.

In August, the state parliament passed a bill expropriating the company and handing it to the workers' cooperative to manage.

Laboratory of workers' control

This “laboratory of workers control” is a beacon of hope for workers in Argentina and internationally.

Zanon workers have shown it is possible to take over factories and replace bosses with collective decision-making in the form of workers' assemblies.

It has also shown the importance of building solidarity networks. Zanon's survival was due not only to the workers' determination, but also active community support.

Solidarity has been a two-way street: of the roughly 400,000 m2 of tiles produced each month, 10% is given to those in the local community who need them most. The factory has provided jobs to 230 unemployed people.

The workers' cooperative also helped build a medical centre in a poor suburb in 2005, which the government had been promising for 20 years.

As a result of these community links, two leaders of the Zanon workers' were elected to state parliament this year as candidates from the Left Front ― an alliance of far left groups.

SOECN assistant secretary Raul Godoy, one of those elected, said: "Our experience has been a very good one for the workers but a very bad one for the bosses and the political powers.

“In Zanon, we have demonstrated that there is an alternative: we don’t have to put up with sackings, suspensions and unemployment. The only condition is understanding that a factory should not be run for profit but for social good.

"We didn’t invent the idea of workers' control, instead we learned from previous experiences [around the world] ... Self-management is taking over the production and planning and ensuring everything that occurs is the result of a democratic decision.

“That was exactly what was lost in the Soviet Union, were workers' control was replaced by a bureaucrats.”

Godoy said: "All of this took time, and the main problem was to break the mental chains that exist in our head. When you can see that things can be done, workers' creativity begins to appear.

“You always have to be patient, not everyone breaks the mental chain at the same time. Some still are waiting for the boss to tell them what to do. It is a permanent struggle to ensure that the control belongs to the assembly.

"We had to discover many secrets, production, commerce even finance. But the main message is 'yes we can'. We have demonstrated that we don’t need bosses, owners, supervisor or bureaucrats.

"We didn’t want this factory for ourselves, but as a social good. We don’t want to become bosses, we want to be workers that produce to serve the community.

"We know that we can’t liberate ourselves alone. Our destiny is united with others like us. We, the workers, are not responsible for the crisis. We can’t get in a race to survive by destroying other workers’ life.

"Our struggle is political. In the assembly, there are different thoughts, but we have a common enemy that is political ... We want to change this society based on exploitation.

“It is unjust because it is geared towards a few making profits, not the needs of everyone. Everyone is sinking in the crisis, but there too few boats. This crisis is also affecting Zanon, but we have principles that we respect."

Alejandro Lopez, the other MP elected from Zanon, added: “These 10 years of Zanon have meant a change in consciousness for everyone ... In the beginning, we fought for the positions, but we were learning the principle of class solidarity.

"We are writing part of the history of the working-class movement, about the power of organised workers."

From GLW issue 902

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Beat the Bank: Five Community-Driven Alternatives

Beat the Bank: Five Community-Driven Alternatives
From Shareable.net
By Jessica Reeder

Bank Transfer Day is this Saturday, and even if you're not preparing to close your bank account right away, you may well be rethinking your financial relationships.

What if your money, instead of sitting shackled in a fee-laden bank account, could be out making the world a better place? If your meager savings could make a difference, would you share them?

Alternative economy activist Mira Luna recommends investing in tangible things to benefit yourself and the people you love.

"Money...is a representation for energy and where it flows or is stored. A sustainable and healthy community is the best investment...You will have a more joyful, healthy and abundant place to live. Rather than bottling up energy and hoarding it in bank accounts, community currencies facilitate the flow of energy and wealth."

There are many alternative ways to put your money to work improving your sphere. Here are a few options worth looking into.

1. Credit Unions

If you want to hang onto (and maybe increase) your funds without handing them over to a banker, you can't do much better than a member-owned, not-for-profit credit union. Credit unions represent local communities, geographic regions and even cultural groups. They often have lower fees and higher interest rates than banks. Every member can vote on how the union's money is invested. And it's all guaranteed by the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, which is backed by the U.S. Government and has a higher insurance fund capital ratio than the FDIC.

Find a credit union near you! And here's a field guide to making the switch.

2. Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs)

CDFIs can be banks, credit unions, loan funds, venture capital funds, or other financial institutions. Their uniting trait is that they offer credit and financial services to underserved communities. One leading CDFI is the Center for Community Self-Help in North Carolina, which provides home and business loans to rural, low-wealth and minority borrowers. Another, Chicago's ShoreBank, is African-American owned and focuses on developing and serving urban communities.

By placing your money with a CDFI, you increase their ability to complete their mission. Within the United States, your savings are guaranteed by the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, a function of the U.S. Treasury.

Find a CDFI near you!

3. Peer-to-Peer Lending

The most direct way to invest in people is to simply loan them your money. Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is more formalized than simply handing $5,000 to a stranger, but still manages to cut out bank involvement.

P2P brokers like LendingClub and Prosper screen loan applicants' credit backgrounds, giving you more assurance that you'll be paid back. At the same time, these for-profit companies still offer better-than-bank rates -- often around 10% for lenders and as low as 6% for borrowers.

4. Microfinance

A cross between P2P and CDFIs, microfinance lets lenders pool their money to fund small and community-driven projects, often sending money to entrepreneurs in improverished areas. Want to help a Guatemalan woman build up her apron business to give her children better opportunities? Even if you don't have much money to share, you can contribute to her business fund -- and hundreds of other funds like hers.

Microfinance sites like Kiva and Microplace do not take a profit, and don't pay interest to lenders. They both have multiple safeguards in place to help make sure your money comes back to you.

5. Alternative currencies

In this uncertain financial climate, it's not uncommon to hear of people investing in gold or foreign currencies. In the past few years, another alternative has surfaced: international digital currencies, including Ven and Bitcoin. Don't be too quick to write off digital coin as something only useful to SecondLifers: Earlier this year, TechCrunch called it "the end of currency as we know it."

Bitcoin is traded via a decentralized peer-to-peer network, and is often used to pay for services. It can be transferred into traditional currency, and like any currency, its value fluctuates with the market. Ven, a newcomer to the scene, is the first digital currency to be tracked by global financial markets. Thanks to a partnership with Thomson Reuters, you can trade and purchase Ven as you would any other currency. The only difference: You can't stuff it in your money belt.

It may only be a matter of time before money belts, big banks and spiraling consumer debt are things of the past. How fast they fade away is up to us. Whatever you choose to do with your money, let it be an informed choice that takes into account the potential effects on your life and your community at large.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Great Money Migration: Just how effective was Bank Transfer Day?

From Yes! Magazine
by Mark Engler
posted Nov 07, 2011

This past Saturday was “Bank Transfer Day,” a day of action in which thousands of people moved their money from “too big to fail” banking titans into credit unions and smaller regional banks. While it’s hard to tell precisely how many people followed through on their threats to close accounts on Saturday itself, over the past month credit unions have added 650,000 new members (as opposed to 80,000 in a regular month), resulting in more than $4.5 billion in new deposits.

As Sarah Jaffe at Alternet noted, ABC News aired a remarkable report calling the exodus of customers a “bank revolt” and stating, “as of today, 1 million consumers are hurling a lightning-bolt warning at the big banks, moving their money out in protest.”
“$4.5 billion here, $4.5 billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money, even for JPMorgan-Chase.”

Now, a lot of the impact of closing accounts might have been symbolic, and $4.5 billion might not be all that much money relative to the size of the banking system as a whole. But, as Salon’s Andrew Leonard writes, riffing on an old joke, “$4.5 billion here, $4.5 billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money, even for JPMorgan-Chase.”

All in all, Bank Transfer Day was a pretty powerful expression of collective disgust by Americans fed up with the goliath banks. Right?

Well, not everyone agrees. Leave it to the New Republic to publish a piece of smug nay-saying in which the writer shows himself to be far smarter than all those who had the nerve to take collective action.

In this case, Simon van Zuylen-Wood, a reporter-researcher for the magazine, penned an article entitled, “How Bank Transfer Day Will Help the Banks It’s Trying to Hurt.” He argued:

"[I]f the executives at the country’s biggest banks have circled Bank Transfer Day on their calendars, it’s probably not out of anxiety. Whatever the intentions of its organizers, Bank Transfer Day may end helping the very one percenters they mean to punish.

"At the root of the problem is that many Bank Transfer Day enthusiasts have overestimated their value to the banks they patronize: Ultimately, not all bank customers are made equal.... According to Jennifer Tescher, President and CEO of the consultancy Center for Financial Services Information, banks typically earn at about 80 percent of their deposit revenue from the top 20 percent of their customers."

In his post, van Zuylen-Wood goes on to explain that maintaining small checking accounts can actually cost big banks more money than the accounts generate in profits. And, owing to the passage of the Dodd-Frank bill last year, banks are limited in the amount they can charge in overdraft or “swipe fees” that they previously used to make small customers worthwhile for them. He continues:

"Bank of America’s early October proposal to supplement its lost “swipe fee” revenue using a five dollar per month charge to holders of debit cards should probably be understood in that context. It was designed to be a win-win proposition for the bank: either it earned $60 per year from each debit card customer with a checking count under $20,000...or it would drive unprofitable customers away from the bank entirely (or at least toward Bank of America credit cards, which have become more profitable than debit cards), to the benefit of the bank’s bottom line."

If the article were meant merely as an analysis of the business of handling small checking accounts, I would say that it makes some perfectly fair points. But it’s framed as something more than that—as a piece that analyzes the efficacy of a political action and that argues that those taking the action are naive. In that capacity, it is model of crap contrarianism. If I had a dollar for every self-satisfied commentary written (even by ostensibly sympathetic liberals) about protests being misguided and ineffective, I’d no doubt be able to join the wealthy elite that the #Occupy movement has been targeting. And I expect that I would earn about 80 percent of my deposit revenue from the New Republic.

The fact of the matter is that, if the big banks wanted to expel customers, they could easily do so. (Why not a $20 monthly fee for debit card use?) But far from receiving an eager farewell at bank branches eager to shed small-time depositors, many of those who have descended upon institutions such as Citibank demanding to close their accounts report encountering bank managers who tried to convince them to change their minds.

Of course, the “move your money” effort is not only a matter of individuals’ decisions about their personal finances. In the context of larger Occupy Wall Street mobilizations, many people were coupling the closing of accounts with demands for political change. That’s why others who have swarmed in as part of group actions have encountered police threatening (or even conducting) arrests.

Overall, Bank Transfer Day was part of a wave of public outrage, defiance, and protest that is doing significant damage to the banks’ reputations—which they evidently value. As van Zuylen-Wood himself notes:

"Ultimately, the Bank of America and its competitors chose not to go ahead with the five dollar charge, deciding that the hit to their PR wasn’t worth the potential gains to their bottom line. As Diane Casey-Landry, a former CEO of the American Bankers Association told me, the public outcry against BoA was enough of a 'reputational kick in the chin' that its top competitors—Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Chase—abandoned their proposed debit fees as well."

What is a day of action in which thousands close their accounts and denounce the banks as greedy if not another PR “kick in the chin”?

In his article, van Zuylen-Wood uses selective citation of a source to suggest that credit unions might not want the influx of new members:

"Worse yet, by transferring their money to credit unions, Bank Transfer Day participants may also be harming the very financial institutions they mean to help. These not-for-profit banking co-ops are governed by their depositors and are generally more customer-friendly than banks—although too big a customer base could threaten that. Indeed, a little more than a week ago, in anticipation of Bank Transfer Day, the National Credit Union Administration sent out a memo advising its federal regulators that a large influx of new customers could lead to long-term problems down the road, reminding them that credit unions are penalized if their retained earnings fall short of seven percent of their total assets. In other words, by inundating credit unions with a flood of capital they likely cannot profitably invest, the Bank Transfer Day participants may be pushing those institutions to abandon the perks that make them attractive, like free checking accounts.

"Bank Transfer Day gets one basic thing right: Checking account holders have a right to take their business wherever they wish. What they forget, however, is that not everyone will want the business they have to offer."

Except that, the credit unions do want the new business—and they’ve been very vocal about that fact. The same source that van Zuylen-Wood cites, the National Credit Union Association, sent out a press release last week lauding Bank Transfer Day and celebrating the influx of new members. It includes exuberant quotes from the organization’s president, Bill Cheney:

"'Many credit unions across the nation...are making special efforts to tap the surging interest in credit unions,' said Cheney.

“'They are conducting advertising campaigns both individually and cooperatively with others, sending ‘switch kits’ to existing members to share with family members or other prospective members, beefing up websites, extending hours and staffing for Bank Transfer Day, performing e-mail blasts to members, maximizing social media campaigns, putting up banners in lobbies or on their buildings, offering bonuses to members who bring in new members, and giving bonuses to members as well,' Cheney said."

The New York Daily News quoted another credit union executive basically saying the exact opposite of what van Zuylen-Wood wants to convey:

"'These are very good times for credit unions," said Kirk Kordeleski, CEO of Bethpage Federal Credit Union, one of Long Island’s largest with 24 branches and $4.4 billion in assets. 'All this conversation about fees has led to a lot of opportunity for us,' said Kordeleski, who saw a 60% hike in new members in October, to 1550 from 925."

In general, “vote with your dollars” consumer actions are not my preferred model of organizing. Moreover, I have no illusions that the amount of money transferred by small account-holders, in itself, is going to cripple the banking giants. But my answer to people who raise that point is the same as my response to people who think that moving your money to a credit union is merely a lifestyle decision with no real political impact. The energy of something like Bank Transfer Day only feeds into other activist efforts and broadens the constituency supporting regulation of the financial sector. This weekend, activists got thousands of people to move their money. Next week they can find a new way to stick it to the big banks.

After all, protesters featured in the ABC News story weren’t just saying, “Close Your Account.” They had signs that said, “Make Banks Pay.” I think their detractors are going to have a hard time explaining how that demand ends up helping the one percent.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via DemocracyUprising.com. He is a contributor to Dissent Magazine, where this article originally appeared.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Legalize Local Investing

I personally support the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, especially the spotlight it has cast on the shocking level of inequality in our country. But the movement oddly conveys a very mainstream message that Wall Street can and should be fixed. Just clean up our existing financial institutions – make them more accountable, honest, transparent – and all will be well. Really?

I think it would be smarter to end our relationship with Wall Street. Just say “no.” There’s another 99% that begs our attention – the 99% of Americans who are not permitted to invest in local small business. A growing body of evidence suggests that these are the businesses that are essential for growing jobs, incomes, equality, entrepreneurship, smart-growth, and green communities.

If we were to legalize investment in local businesses, including co-ops, farms, and community investment funds, Wall Street would be history. And the good news is that it’s on the verge of happening.

Sign the Legalize Local Investment! petition
ask your Senators to support The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act
Attend or support the Occupy SEC rally on November 17th in Washington, D.C.

For decades, we’ve lived under an oppressive system of investment apartheid. The 1% who are millionaires (known under federal securities law as “accredited investors”) are free to invest in anything they choose. With the referees in their back pockets and all kinds of home-court advantages, it’s easy for them to win the wealth-accumulating game. The other 99% of us are stuck with the slim pickings of the Fortune 500 public companies listed on Wall Street – the companies least connected to the well being of our communities.

Before small businesses can accept investment from the 99%, they have to spend many tens of thousands of dollars on legal, accounting, and government filing fees. While most of us would like to invest in small businesses in our community, practically speaking, securities laws make it impossible.

This is a far more extreme big-business bias than exists in banking, where we can easily move our money to local banks and credit unions. Worse, we have four times more money in Wall Street investments – stocks, bonds, mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance funds – than we do in banks . We are the ones fueling the multinational companies we distrust.

If we could overhaul securities laws that we enacted during the early Jurassic Period, local businesses could be fabulous investments. They are the most important job producers in the economy. They account for more than half of private sector jobs. They are increasingly competitive – so much so that their their share of the national workforce actually growing. Stunningly, sole proprietorships are three times as profitable as C-corporations.

For the first time in decades, reform is finally possible. A remarkable coalition has emerged bringing together leaders of the Tea Party and the Obama Administration. They agree that investment apartheid should be abolished. Republican Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina is leading the charge in the House to legalize small businesses raising money through large numbers of small investments (aka “crowdfunding”), with minimal paperwork, for companies raising less than $1 million. Recent changes in his bill (HR 2930, The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act) actually make it very similar to reforms President Obama proposed in his jobs package in September.

On November 3, HR 2930 passed the House with overwhelming support (407-17). But passage of crowdfunding legislation is still uncertain. Senate Republicans may be afraid to support anything that Obama has proposed as part of his jobs package. And many Democrats are defending the status quo, because they are understandably afraid of deregulating the financial industry. What Dems don’t appreciate, however, is that the key to Wall Street reform is to ratchet up regulation at the top and loosen things a bit for the 99% at the bottom.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors could make a critical difference here. They – and we – should occupy Congress until they legalize local investment. Once that occurs, we’ll see thousands of small companies owned by their customers. We’ll see the emergence of local stock exchanges that will provide investors with liquidity. We’ll see mutual funds with local securities (none exist today), and local pension funds.

Consider what happens when the first trillion dollars of our long-term savings move from Wall Street to Main Street. Stock prices of giant multinational public companies will go down, and the price of local business shares will go up. A stampede of investors moving their money could follow. We might quickly see the largest transfer of capital in human history, from increasingly untrustworthy Fortune 500 companies to the local businesses we care about.

Millions of Americans have already changed their buying habits to buy local. Now’s our chance to invest locally too! My dream is to transform the place into a quaint Big Apple tourist site, where we can pay our respects to the mistakes of the 20th century that we thankfully stopped making in the 21st.

Sign the Legalize Local Investment! petition
ask your Senators to support The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act
Attend or support the Occupy SEC rally on November 17th in Washington, D.C.


Michael Shuman

Michael Shuman is director of research for Cutting Edge Capital, director of research and economic development at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute. He is the author of Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity, forthcoming in 2012 from Chelsea Green and Post Carbon Institute.