Perhaps it is because of my family’s Republican roots (what was mom putting in our Kool Aid, anyway?!), or maybe I was put off by Jimmy Hoffa and his ilk of union bosses and bullies, but I never felt much affinity for organized labor as I was growing up. As the decline of the union movement has been mirrored by an elimination of industrial jobs and has become the almost-exclusive province of public employees, my dislike of unions has commingled with disdain of a class of workers who live off the largesse of taxpayer support. Consequently, my attitude about unions has become no more sympathetic.
Yet I understand how, in a world like our own where the conditions of the rich and everybody else have become so vastly inequitable, the need for workers to organize in order to be fairly treated is totally necessary, as it was in an earlier age. But at some time the unions seem to have made a wrong turn since their early days and become driven by self-interest and selfishness to the exclusion of the common good.
It wasn’t until recently in a conversation with a pro-union friend of mine, that I learned at the genesis of the labor union movement, unions were developed in tandem with the co-op movement. Now co-ops are something I have always believed in with enthusiasm.
A co-op, of course, is defined as “a jointly owned enterprise engaging in the production or distribution of goods or the supplying of services, operated by its members for their mutual benefit, typically organized by consumers or farmers.” My son Henry does most of his banking through co-ops, which pay a higher return on savings and charge less interest on auto loans than commercial banks. A co-op is an institution you can trust because it its owned by its workers and customers and is probably managed for the benefit of all its members, and not just for the welfare of an owner class.
I have searched the Internet in vain to discover when the histories of the co-ops and union movements diverged, but I have learned that re-linking the movements is a recent strategic “discovery” of some unions (like the United Steelworkers), desperate to survive. American labor unions point to Spain’s Mondragon cooperatives as a model that offers a potential new raison d’être and life line.
It will be interesting to see if the unions truly get it, and are not looking to the cooperative movement for a quick, superficial fix. If you look beneath the surface of Mondragon, you will see that the DNA of co-ops and unions are very different. American unions are steeped in many decades of selfishness, whereas co-ops like Mondragon have a long and proud history of working for the common good.
Even if the unions don’t get it, capitalism functions best when it is challenged—and stronger cooperatives will challenge capitalism in a way that will not only make them more efficient, but also recognize where they work best.
Making change in unions is easier said than done. But sometimes authentic change is possible only when all other alternatives are exhausted.
Groove of the Day
80° and Clear