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

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Lynn Benander of Co-op Power and Northeast Biodiesel

Date and Time:
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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.

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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!.