Experiments in Economic Democracy

Experiments in Economic Democracy

What does a just and sustainable economy look like? And more importantly, how do we get there from here? We can’t seriously entertain fantasies of a magical overnight transformation to some kind of socialist utopia: any process transforming our alienating, exploitative, environmentally-destructive and inequality-producing economic system with something better is going to be a long process.

After all, the point here isn’t just fighting back against a specific cutback in public spending or winning some specific concession from employers: it’s to go beyond these individual struggles to visualize and construct real alternatives, with truly democratic processes of community control over the economic life of the community. We can’t just demand this better world; we also have to build it, and the first step is figuring out how.

Experimental Workplaces

Part of this process involves prefigurative experiments: attempts to build, right now, real working models of the kinds of workplaces that would embody the kind of direct democracy and responsibility to the larger community characteristic of the future we’re struggling for. When most people think of worker cooperatives or worker collectives, it’s these kind of small scale projects that often come to mind. Despite their (relatively) small size, worker-controlled enterprises offer some unique opportunities to experiment with forms of long-term direct democracy with a material basis. Readers of this paper are probably familiar with examples like Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse [disclaimer: I’m a proud member of the collective] or the Baltimore Bicycle Works, both collectives where every worker has an equal share in the decision-making process and a equal share in the ownership of the process. Not only do members of such projects get the benefits of working for themselves and not a boss or owner, but they can choose, collectively, to work towards values not defined by the narrow imperative of profit characteristic of the capitalist business world. Red Emma’s for instance, has used its profits to finance new projects like the 2640 Space and the Baltimore Free School; the Baltimore Bicycle Works has worked to help promote sustainable transportation alternatives.

A new (to Baltimore) worker collective makes some of these possibilities really clear.  “Just Walk” is a worker-owned and collectively organized pet-care company which started in Washington, D.C. and has now expanded to New York City and Baltimore.  Blake Underwood, one of the workers, explains how worker ownership not only offers a better deal for the employee, but for the client as well:

“Most companies operate with one or a few boss/admin types who handle scheduling and client interaction and take some percentage of the walker’s rate. These people are sometimes co-laborers, but that is the exception and not the rule. The walkers themselves are almost always contractors (usually sans contract) rather than company employees, limiting the owners’ obligations and almost guaranteeing the maximization of worker exploitation. In our experience the boss’s cut can ranges from 25% to 60%, but tending towards the 40%+ end. With this set-up 10 there is typically almost no direct contact between the dog’s human counterpart and the walker. And the individual walking a particular dog can change from day-to-day, calling into question the dog’s welfare and the safety of the client’s home.”

The idea here is ultimately that the workercontrolled business opens up a space to question not just the way the business is run, but the impact of the business activity: Just Walk is painfully aware of the connection between an industry like dog-walking and the process of gentrification; besides trying to build internal awareness of the economic position their industry occupies, the company feels that “the best way for [the dog walking business] to combat gentrification specifically is to support the communities and organizations who are at the front lines of that fight.”  It’s here that the limits of the isolated worker-owned project appear: how do you move beyond gestures of solidarity to large scale economic transformation? And how do you bring the economic and social benefits of democratically controlled workplaces to the communities, ravaged by years of dispossession, that need these benefits most?

Scaling it up

These are precisely the kinds of questions being asked by the Democracy Collaborative, a grassroots think-tank based in Maryland and D.C. that’s dedicated to the exploration of new models for economic democracy. I spoke with Steve Dubb, a researcher and organizer with the project, to find out not just how they envision a more economically just future, but how they’ve been putting this vision into practice in Cleveland, Ohio, where they’ve been instrumental in the formation of the Evergreen Cooperatives. Here the idea is not just to build a single worker-controlled enterprise, but to create a network of mutually-supporting projects capable of acting as the kernel for a wider economic transformation, generating what they call “community wealth.”

Cleveland looks a lot like Baltimore: in the wake of deindustrialization, the largest employers are those connected to the city’s academic and medical institutions. Using money from the Cleveland Foundation as start-up capital, the Collaborative worked to establish a network of businesses that would provide services to these large institutional clients. (In the long term, this is a really smart move—unlike a steel mill or automobile plant, a hospital or university is place-based, seriously unlikely to move elsewhere in the pursuit of higher margins.) These businesses—including a sustainable industrial laundry facility, a solar installation and weatherization firm, and a year-round intensive urban organic hydroponic farm—are organized as worker-cooperatives: new hires buy into the company in their first years on the job, meaning that ownership of the company stays within the community and that worker-owners not only receive a wage, but are also investing in and invested in their company’s economic success. Hiring at these cooperatives focuses on underserved and economically marginalized African-American communities in Cleveland, providing not just “green jobs” but green careers: after three years of operation, the goal is to have the management of each firm provided entirely by workers drawn from the rank and file and trained with the skills to manage a medium-sized business under the direction of their fellow worker-owners: building what the Collaborative calls “everyday democracy.”

The point of these projects is not just to provide a small number of jobs for their members, but also to help build new democratic workplaces. Taking a page from the Mondragon network of cooperatives in the Basque country, each of these coops then reserves 10% of their profits to establish a loan fund to help new cooperatives get off the ground. In this way, the size of each enterprise, projected to ultimately grow to around 50-75 worker-owners apiece, remains small enough to allow for face-to-face economic direct democracy, while at the same time supporting the expansion of the cooperative sector as a whole. The focus here is on “closing the loop”: making sure that the benefits of economic development remain within the communities that need it most. This requires not just innovative individual cooperative workplaces, but long-term vision and strategy; for instance, the Collaborative, at the start of this whole process, set up a community land trust to preserve affordable housing in the neighborhoods where the projects were being implemented: nothing would be more tragic than to see an explosion of sustainable economic development triggering an explosion of gentrification and displacement!

Building a Better Baltimore

Oldtown isn’t a place you would think to look for a model of viable and just bottom-up economic development. Just east of downtown across from I-83, it is not only one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, but one of its most economically disenfranchised. The shuttered, vacant, decaying storefronts of the Oldtown Mall mutely testify to the history here—a longtime thriving commercial district adjacent to Downtown becomes increasingly African-American, that is to say, given the racialization of urban poverty, increasingly poor. Public housing, much of it officially segregated, is built in the neighborhood. Income remains low, and as deindustrialization runs its course, jobs for the projects are not forthcoming. As the neighborhood hangs on, precariously, the city attempts in 1968 to jumpstart the engines of development in the neighborhood, closing the 500 block of Gay Street, the commercial center of the neighborhood, to traffic, creating the pedestrian mall that remains in place today. The strategy failed; without meaningful economic prospects for the inhabitants of the surrounding area to buttress the commercial activity in the district, Oldtown never became the shopping and tourist destination the city envisioned (that prize would go instead to the Inner Harbor, where development would commence a decade later). In the 1990s, the archipelago of public housing sites in the neighborhood would begin to be demolished because, as the argument went, concentrated low-income housing breeds poverty; deconcentration turned out to breed poverty even faster-as people moved out and more buildings came down, the already precarious economic base of the neighborhood collapsed. Redevelopment plans seeking to capitalize on the geographic proximity of the neighborhood have been in the air for nearly three decades; none have been put into place. Meanwhile, a few blocks east, the Johns Hopkins/EBDI development in what was once the Middle East neighborhood— before hundreds of residents lost their homes to what was supposed to be a biotech park, a new center of job creation in the knowledge industry—looks more and more like just a land grab (at least according to Melody Simmon’s reports in the Daily Record). The way to bring prosperity to an impoverished urban neighborhood is, it seems, to first make sure you remove the poor.

But on Oldtown’s eastern edge, an institution is challenging the tragic consensus that development has to equal displacement, and proposing an alternative vision of Oldtown’s future. This alternative vision was born at Sojourner-Douglass College, where I met with Jamal Mubdi-Bey, Director of Community Outreach, to discuss the Change4Real coalition—a unique effort to rethink and reorient the priorities of economic development in the area from the bottom up. Founded in 1972, Sojourner-Douglass, Mubdi-Bey reminds us, came out of the Civil Rights movement, or, as he says to make his point clearer, “from the Black Power movement.”  In other words, this is an institution which is controlled by the African-American community, and dedicated to helping that community achieve self-determination. The goal of the coalition and the College is to provide a framework for the redevelopment of Oldtown that is oriented first and foremost towards the current residents and their long-term economic well-being. This means building a framework oriented towards real jobs and real upward mobility, not the trickle-down of minimum wage jobs servicing the new urban gentry.

The current official master plan for Oldtown testifies to this effort to challenge the prevailing norms of development. By mobilizing the community, the Coalition played a substantial role in shaping the planning process, securing commitments to a development process that would mitigate displacement and prioritize economic redevelopment for the existing neighborhood’s inhabitants. Sojourner-Douglass, with its Community Outreach program and its soon to be launched Center for Community Prosperity, has been at the center of these efforts to rethink Baltimore urban development along more sustainable and equitable lines. The specific geographic footprint at the neighborhood level offers a unique combination of an appropriately large-scale canvas for transformative economics, but a scale which is manageable and in which progress towards these goals can be measured and monitored. The College has also been at the heart of developing a set of unique economic institutions, which, like those in Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, will allow employees to become partowners in enterprises aimed at securing the long term health and sustainability of the community. The School of Allied Health and an associated community-owned clinic will not only get residents educated to work in the medical industry, but will help address the persistent public health disparities that have plagued East Baltimore. One of just six energy efficiency training facilities in the state is located in Oldtown and associated with Sojourner-Douglass; here workers are acquiring skills to retrofit and weatherize existing buildings, and thinking about expanding into wind and solar power. A projected hotel in the neighborhood will not just provide entry-level service jobs, but will incorporate an educational component such that workers gain access to a pathway to higher level jobs in the management of the industry. Forty acres of farm land in Anne Arundel county, owned by Sojourner-Douglass, to be managed and farmed by neighborhood residents, is providing the basis for a cooperative neighborhood food infrastructure.

As Mubdi-Bey emphasizes, the biggest challenge here is one of education and organizing: it’s not just a matter of mobilizing the community to get a demand met or to stop a specific initiative, but a much longer process of helping the residents to understand what’s at stake in the development process, how processes of economic marginalization operate, and how these processes can be challenged and reversed. For the new vision of Oldtown to become a reality, the current inhabitants of the neighborhood have to become educated about and invested in this struggle—and that’s why Sojourner-Douglass, as an educational institution with a long connection to the community, is perhaps ideally suited to the challenge. If all goes well, in a decade or so, not only will community-based planning have eliminated poverty in Oldtown, but the knowledge of how to replicate and generalize this process will be taught to a new generation of grassroots development advocates at Sojourner-Douglass’ new School of Urban Planning.

In the shell of the old

What all of these experiments, small and large, have in common is a desire to stop dreaming of a better world and start taking the first steps towards it. As tentative efforts to build worker democracy are complemented by more comprehensive efforts to rethink the development process, the broad outlines of a possible geological shift in the dominant notions of “property” start to become apparent. It’s not so much a question of just making more people owners of property or co-owners of businesses, getting more people invested in the existing system, but of challenging that system on all levels in a systematic and long-term way. It’s not just that the community acquires ownership of property, but that the community fights for and wins the right to control the notion of “property” itself—the way it comes into being and is administered. One last example makes this difference much clearer. Consider the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, which Jamal Mubdi-Bey highlighted as an inspiration to the work in Oldtown. Here a multi-ethnic urban community, brought together by endemic poverty, and organizing for economic justice since the mid-1980s, has made the unprecedented advance of securing the right of eminent domain for the neighborhood community itself, resulting in the redevelopment of over 600 vacant and abandoned properties for the benefit of the community’s residents. This is a far cry from the sadly more typical pattern of urban disinvestment and neoliberal land grabs, but if we’re willing to rethink the economic assumptions that underlie these patterns, and work towards educating ourselves and our communities about the possible alternatives, a very different future might be on the horizon.

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July 8-10, 2011

University of Maryland
Baltimore County

John is a member of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse Collective and is finishing a PhD at the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins on the history of the idea of self-organization.