The Commonwealth Network: A Theory And Model For Political Production
One of the fundamental problems preventing the American left from growing is a lack of political-economic infrastructure.
This has been one of the premises that Douglas and I have organized our writing about labor around. Be it a call for a second assault against the bosses in the South or an idea to defragment the labor movement and finish off the last vestiges of craft unionism in the US, we have sought to suggest actions that build working class power sustainably. While it is easy to propose strategies of disruptive protests, it is far harder to actually implement those ideas. Disruptive protests faces down brutal violence from the police, which frequently causes job loss and eviction through the arrest of those brave enough to participate.
And this is before we say anything about the basic miseries of life under the current system. Affording medical care, shelter, food, and other necessities is increasingly difficult as the prices of these basic fundamentals of life go up and wages do not. The life of the working class has grown increasingly tenuous, dependent on low-wage work for predatory employers like McDonald’s and Walmart that provide their workers little opportunity to live lives of dignity and security.
At the same time, the model of collective bargaining through exclusive representation has broken down beyond repair. The strike has been defanged through bad legal precedent. Attempts to revive its use have seen some success at shifting public policy but not in building power over the long term. There are some good proposals out there to address the glaring problems with labor law, but any push to fix this iniquity in law will require a system of political logistics to back it up.
Any political approach that is going to be successful in this environment will have to meet the material needs of the working class and encourage the expansion of working class power. The good news is that the seeds of such an approach already exist.
Ever since I first read about it, the notion of the union co-op model has fascinated me.
Introduced in 2012 and created through a partnership between United Steelworkers and Mondragon International, this model sought to create a new avenue of growth of the American labor movement in the wake of the increasingly emerging breakdown of the model of exclusive representation. Built on the Ten Basic Principles advanced by Mondragon but adapted for the unique structures of American labor law, the union co-op model has seen some uptake across the United States, but certainly not as much as USW or Mondragon might have hoped.
In addition to this, there’s another major political effort focused around cooperative enterprise whose model serves as inspiration for this: Cooperation Jackson.
Built on decades of organizing by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) in Jackson, MS, Cooperation Jackson saw a major breakthrough in 2013, when Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer and organizer most famous for representing Geronimo Pratt of the Black Panther Party and Tupac Shakur, was elected as Mayor of Jackson on a platform of economic redevelopment focused around developing cooperative enterprises in the majority-Black city of Jackson. Fruit of the MXGM’s Jackson-Kush Plan originated by Kali Akuno, Cooperation Jackson had barely gotten off the boards when Mayor Lumumba died suddenly in 2014. Subsequently, a political foe of Mayor Lumumba’s, Tony Yarber, defeated Mayor Lumumba’s son Chokwe Antar Lumumba in a special election to fill the vacant mayorship. Yarber subsequently stopped most of the more radical programs that Mayor Lumumba had just started to implement.
Yet, the roots of political infrastructure that Cooperation Jackson had already set down in its short time in power combined with the long years of patient organizing paid off, and this year Chokwe Antar Lumumba successfully won the mayorship that his father held all too briefly.
Both of these models have strengths. The union co-op model serves to bind workers in a cooperatively-owned enterprise to the larger labor movement. The Jackson-Kush plan provides popular engagement for those not participating in cooperative enterprises through its People’s Assemblies. These models also have their idiosyncrasies: there is nothing specifically outward-facing about the union part of the union co-op model. Structurally, they are very similar to a Mondragon cooperative’s social council. And the Jackson-Kush model, while its political potency and potential is apparent given the results, is comparatively diffuse. The People’s Assemblies themselves, while from an entirely different political tradition, are reminiscent of Occupy’s general assemblies and seemingly have only the power and money granted to them by the solidarity economy Cooperation Jackson seeks to build.
Any model that’s an improvement on these two will need to be tighter as a political entity with an integral funding base and designed to be outward-facing and act in solidarity with other workers as a reflex. What might that look like?
It begins with a commonwealth enterprise.
Commonwealth enterprises are worker-owned businesses operated in a cooperative fashion. Structured and oriented along the USW-Mondragon union co-op model, each commonwealth enterprise’s entire membership of worker-owners would elect a board of directors from its membership every year which would then hire a management team for four years. There would be one major difference from the USW-Mondragon model: instead of the union part of a union co-op being a committee that is an internal part of the cooperative’s structure, the commonwealth enterprise would take a different tack.
A union local would be the exclusive representative per the National Labor Relations Act for a commonwealth enterprise. It would collectively bargain for pay, benefits, and working conditions. To avoid conflicts of interest, no one on the management team could be a member of the local, nor could someone sitting on a commonwealth enterprise’s board serve as an elected officer of the local, a steward, or be on the bargaining team of the local. Each member would pay dues like any other union member.
As further commonwealth enterprises are formed, they would be organized along these same lines. The exclusive representative would be this local, and it would be established to organize the commonwealth enterprises in a given geographic area. This would serve to bind each commonwealth enterprise together in an organic fashion and provide a natural place for practical and political education of new workers of a commonwealth enterprise, as most people in the working world are used to autocracy at work.
All of this is fine and good, but how does this fundamentally depart from a co-op federation or network as they are presently constructed? Once the number of commonwealth enterprises reaches a critical mass, all of the enterprises and the union local can come together to implement something that would serve to move this network of cooperative economics from a loose and voluntary association into a politically coherent force capable of advancing the interests of the workers involved in it.
It can form a multi-employer benefit plan.
Multi-employer plans are also called Taft-Hartley plans. This is a twist of bitter irony as Taft-Hartley is one of the laws that has served to weaken the labor movement’s radicalism since 1947 by enjoining secondary striking and barring Communist Party USA members from being officers. It also legalized the open shop. Aside from this, Taft-Hartley also served to create a structure that allowed small and mid-sized employers whose workers were organized by a union to come together and create a benefit plan that allowed them to pool their buying power when it came to things like health insurance, life insurance, and pensions.
After this law was put into place, Jimmy Hoffa used it to great effect, creating a massive fund of union-controlled capital that gave phenomenally good benefits to the Teamsters who participated in the plan (as well as creating great pools of money from which Teamsters’ leadership at the time could use for their own personal gain). All of this culminated in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which gave control over multi-employer benefit trusts to a board of trustees who were selected in equal number by the union and management of the companies participating in it.
Such a split of power was undertaken ostensibly reduce the risk of corruption. This meant that the kind of capital that a multiemployer plan represented, such as the gargantuan Teamsters Central States Pension, was no longer put into the hands of a single person like Allen Dorfman. It also meant that labor was no longer fully in control over the capital that it had accumulated in such a pension plan, and so it brought the kind of consistent struggle that exists on the shop floor to retirement plans, where companies frequently fail to meet their funding contributions to such plans, leading to benefit cuts for retirees and forcing new employees to take glorified savings accounts instead of secure pensions.
By building such a multiemployer plan, focused around collectively-owned enterprises and a union, the workers so organized would have full control over their capital again. Union and management in this case would be both democratically elected by the workers, and the benefit plan’s entire board of trustees would be accountable to the workers and not just half of it the way it is in conventional enterprises. This would create space for the plan to invest the accumulated capital in a commonwealth development fund that would start up new commonwealth enterprises. These new commonwealth enterprises would both participate in the multiemployer fund and have its workers be members of the union.
This is the core of what I’m calling the commonwealth network model, and that it leverages the strictures of one of the worst anti-union laws to bypass another bit of union-busting is just gravy on top of it.
Such a network of collaborative economic activity presents some very interesting opportunities for building enduring political infrastructure.
First, it leaves plenty of space for other types of cooperative enterprises to be integrated into the commonwealth network. Co-op markets and purchasing co-ops would be organized the way UFCW is doing so in places like Minneapolis, integrating them into the multiemployer trust for benefits and connecting them to cooperative production taking place around them. This would also apply for credit unions as well. Integrating credit unions into the commonwealth network presents a special opportunity on top of it: creating an electronic payments system that would allow for rapid and low-fee transactions for those who do business within the commonwealth network instead of relying on (and paying fees to) large companies like Visa or Mastercard.
The commonwealth network also allows for commonwealth enterprises whose main purpose is to provide services for other members of the network. Need help creating a website for your restaurant? Having trouble with your information security? Need a storefront to be remodeled? There’s a commonwealth enterprise just waiting to be formed to address all of those needs, and in so doing keeps the capital created by labor inside the commonwealth network.
The commonwealth development fund could work to stand up commonwealth enterprises that serve as a supply chain for other commonwealth enterprises. A commonwealth enterprise farm could grow produce that gets processed at a commonwealth enterprise factory. That food then could be sold on the shelves of a food co-op or used in meals made at a commonwealth enterprise restaurant. Each step of the way, the workers would retain the value they create with their labor, to be distributed equitably inside the commonwealth network.
Going one step further, the multiemployer benefit plan could also create a network of fully-integrated health clinics free at the point of use for those drawing benefits from it, as the Hotel Trades Council in New York and the Culinary Union in Las Vegas have done. These would simplify access to healthcare for the workers of the commonwealth network while making the work of providing medical care easier on the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other providers employed by the clinics. If the plan gets big enough, it would be able to create a fully-integrated healthcare system including hospitals, mental health care providers, and dental care.
The commonwealth network also allows for cooperative forms of housing development. Community land trusts and permanent real estate cooperatives could be used to secure working class communities from the twinned ravages of capital flight and subsequent gentrification. There is precedent for this in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union working to develop housing in San Francisco and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and its cooperative housing in New York City. The commonwealth network could even buy up foreclosed housing and renew it into good quality, collectively-owned housing alongside of providing work for people to do that renewal.
Built up sufficiently, a commonwealth network would allow for a worker to go to their job at a commonwealth enterprise, eat lunch at a commonwealth enterprise restaurant using ingredients grown on a commonwealth enterprise farm, pick up their children from a commonwealth enterprise childcare on their way home to housing built and maintained by commonwealth enterprises and owned collectively. It would allow for a worker to live the bulk of their economic lives inside the commonwealth network.
And it would allow for the worker to taste what it’s like for democracy to touch all aspects of their life and not just have it be a semi-hollow ritual every two years.
Of course, proposing something like the commonwealth network is easy. What would implementing it look like? How would you start to bring it into being? Who might benefit from this political approach? What are some of the problems or complications that a commonwealth network run into? How does a commonwealth network protect itself from attack?
All of these are good questions, and I will have some answers to them next time.
(My thanks to Emma Caterine, Stephen Mahood, Ramsin Canon, Shaun Richman, and Jamaal Green for their feedback)
The Commonwealth Network In Practice
The South Lawn, October 28, 2017 Bryan Conlon
Last time, I wrote out a model around which the Left could organize cooperative enterprises into a more coherent base upon which to build more powerful, more confrontational politics.
One thing I didn’t do is address how the commonwealth network could remedy historic iniquities, or how it would be able to defend the gains it makes. I didn’t discuss how a commonwealth network could be formed and expanded.
All of these are topics that need to be addressed if this model can ever be put into place.
The working class in the United States has always been different from its stereotypical depictions in the media. The hard-bitten, socially conservative white male factory worker was a temporary illusion created after the Second World War, a lingering image that continues to shape who and what gets coded as working class. These days, the working class is Black or brown, frequently working in service sector jobs with poor wages and weak benefits. In workplaces without a union they face discrimination and harassment on the basis of race and sex at appalling rates while getting paid less than their white peers. And this is to say nothing of the kind of abuse and discrimination trans people cope with in their working lives.
However, the mere existence of accountability for the bosses in unionized jobs corrects a whole hell of a lot of these problems. Employment non-discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and gender identity can and does get codified into union contracts. Unions help workers navigate the convolutions of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The pay gap between white workers and Black workers is at its absolute narrowest in union jobs, as is the gendered pay gap. Even when a union is weak, ineffectual, and poorly run, the mere existence of it as a body forces the bosses to tread lighter than they would without one lest they rouse their workers into action.
In a commonwealth network, all of these basic facts would apply and go further. Management being elected and accountable to its workers forces a certain level of equality in its approach to how a given worker is treated, and a grievance procedure negotiated into the union contract adds further scrutiny. It serves to make space for a manager engaging in sexual harassment to be held to account in a real way and not just relying on the goodwill and largesse of the boss in a conventional enterprise or the weak tea of labor law. The commonwealth network creates, in a way that’s almost unheard of in people’s working lives, meaningful accountability from below.
The commonwealth network model also allows for the kind of targeted economic development in Black communities that underpins the Jackson-Kush model of Cooperation Jackson, communities that have historically been starved of working capital and preyed upon by big banks for decades. It ain’t reparations, but it is a way to stabilize communities absolutely ravaged by finance capital from 2007 onward, and can serve to sever the dependency on predatory employers that pay nothing and treat the people of those communities like dirt..
This kind of economic activity also allows for LBGTQ people to build a life of dignity and respect, especially trans people. One of the ugly realities for trans people in our current world is that it is difficult for them to find stable work and secure safe housing. They face discrimination on both counts, and they are frequently alienated from their families when they begin to transition. The commonwealth network, built to its fullest extent, could create space for trans people to build up a support network and economic security so they can live a decent life. And if there’s enough trans people who are part of a commonwealth network, the multiemployer benefit fund could stand up a practice of healthcare providers who specialize in meeting more advanced health needs.
This is not to say that this model is a pocketful of magic beans capable to wiping away ancient ills like white supremacy and patriarchy in a moment. Regrettably, these things will be with us for quite some time and have to be resisted constantly. What it does do, though, is create sites of struggle where people beset by these systems of oppression can successfully fight back against them collectively, and it creates space for people who have been advantaged by those systems of power to unlearn the lessons taught in their shadow.
Of course, none of these kinds of gains would not be gladly tolerated by the bosses, and inevitably there would be an effort to crush this kind of organizing. There are powerful, well-monied forces who are hell-bent on not just smashing the political power of the working class, but who seek to drive trans people, people of color, and women out of public life and back to the margins. After all, these kinds of detestable bigotries are almost always comorbid with right wing economic policy. So how might the commonwealth network defend itself and sustain the gains of dignity that it would win?
The obvious place to start is the union local.
The union local in a commonwealth network would be the primary body protecting the commonwealth network from political attacks. It would organize demonstrations, lobby against bad legislation, and vet candidates for elected office. It would educate and inform the workers that are its members about the threats facing their livelihoods, same as any other union. It would agitate for broad-based change and seek to be a voice for all workers and not just its members.
Conventional recognition allows an avenue for the union to grow the commonwealth network. The union local could contest conventional representation elections at employers. These would be representational elections held under the usual auspices of the National Labor Relations Board the same as any other union local. Once the union wins the certification election, it would negotiate a conversion of the enterprise from conventional economic autocracy into a commonwealth enterprise into its contracts. It might not happen in one clean shot, and it might even take a partial buyout floated from the commonwealth development fund, but it would be another way to expand the commonwealth network. In addition, the local could work with the fund to buy out capitalist businesses whose owners are retiring or that are failing due to mismanagement. In so doing, it would continue organizing new workers into the broader movement.
Likewise, Cooperation Jackson’s electoral resilience proves that taking power on a local level allows for avenues to develop cooperative enterprise. A commonwealth network’s union local could push candidates into local office who implement public policy that invests further into the commonwealth network’s development. This would create new commonwealth enterprises that would persist after the electoral tide receded for this group of workers. After all, the bigger a commonwealth network is, the stronger it is, so by having a bodies within it that exists to proactively grow the network in every way possible is a way to secure a bright future for the endeavor.
In the face of potential police repression and harassment of a commonwealth network, the union local also provides avenues to respond to it. Aside from the ability to lever elected officeholders against the police who engage in such, imagine what might happen if dozens of businesses refused service to any police officer who walked through their doors after the union local passed such a resolution during its meeting. This kind of economic democracy also significantly reduces the risk of job loss and homelessness due to arrests at protests. Hell, the union local could even establish a bond fund and have lawyers on retainer for members arrested in union-endorsed protest actions.
All of this begs the question: how do you start one of these things anyway?
There are two approaches that I see being the most likely in establishing this model.
In the first approach, a small group of worker co-ops in a given city decides to reorganize into commonwealth enterprises. They charter a new union local, start up paying dues, and build to the point where they can form the requisite multiemployer benefit plan, which subsequently forms the commonwealth development fund that starts the cycle of growth. I suspect this would be an uncommon approach, as most worker co-ops would be loath to fundamentally restructure their organizational model on a whim. Maybe a very large existing cooperative would do so, but it seems unlikely the workers of such an enterprise would undertake such a big move without a lot of patient organizing and an example that clearly shows the benefits of doing so.
The second approach is the one that seems the most likely to be followed if there’s any uptake on this model. An existing union decides to start working to establish commonwealth enterprises. A strong, well-funded union local might decide to create childcare commonwealth enterprises initially to serve its membership and it grows from there. Or maybe a international union decides to foster the creation of such a local as a project, and the nascent local has hired staff working to create commonwealth enterprises to start the cycle. A local government could sponsor such an effort, but that possibility strikes me as being quite remote at this juncture. Control over a local government would be a way to strengthen an existing commonwealth network, not start one up. But who knows, maybe some local government partners with a union to start up a commonwealth network.
This model is going to be at its most effective in places where there is economic decline and stagnation. In places that are booming, operating costs might increase too rapidly to make getting this model off the ground feasible. It doesn’t much matter, though, whether or not there is strong union density where you attempt to organize a commonwealth network. The idea is to build a new kind of union, one that has a base of logistics that is nigh-on impossible for the bosses to lock out or bust. In a place with a strong labor movement, the commonwealth network would have institutional support but might get lost in the shuffle versus more conventional struggles. In a place with a weak labor movement, it might be the only bright light in the area for a long while but lack for solidarity and help from existing unions.
In the end, what is required is the willingness to organize and the people willing to make the leap into making it a reality.
Whenever discussing politics, I always hesitate when using military metaphors. They invariably end up being clumsy and macho ways of expressing a concept that could be explained in a way that doesn’t involve violence, but there is one that fits in this situation. In naval warfare, there is a concept called the fleet in being. Basically, it states that the mere existence of a fleet, even if it never leaves port, ties up resources that the forces opposing you would be able to use elsewhere.
The union is the working class’ fleet in being, and it has been slowly ground away into almost nothing. You can see it in the way the right is attacking organized labor with increasing boldness. Wisconsin Act 10, passed in 2011 and the focus of the occupation of the state capitol in Madison, was only the opening volley in this siege. The open shop is coming to the public sector, and there’s more and worse coming against the working class with the government in the hands of the far right at all levels. But to fight back against it, we have to have the logistical base necessary to sustain struggle over a long period of time.
When you get right down to it, all of the pain and misery of modern times stems from the gruesome reality that working people have very little control over the forces that shape their lives. They are alienated from the full value their labor produces, they are alienated from each other, and they are alienated from their communities. They are alienated from the venues of power that, hypothetically, are supposed to be where they can exert some influence, at least on paper. Yet, elected officials do not and have never given a crap about the opinions of someone making minimum wage.
Likewise, unless you are one of the 6% of working people in the private sector who are employed at a job with a union, the only leverage you have against your boss is what you yourself can create, usually through being a ‘good worker’ or having a rare or hard-to-replace skillset. Given those brutal realities (and to say nothing of repression and harassment by the government and the bosses), the question for the Left isn’t, “why haven’t we built these kind of structures yet,” but, “holy fuck how have we held onto the slender reeds that we have?”
I want the commonwealth network to be a way to break that alienation, to build up the power of an organized working class that acts in solidarity with those engaged in emancipatory struggle. I want it to be a political structure where working people can come together to meet the needs of their communities without having to grovel at the feet of the bosses.
And I want the commonwealth network to be logistical bases that feed the movements that finally consigns the current capitalist system, one predicated on theft and murder, to the history books.
Bryan Conlon is a union organizer in North Carolina and a member of NC Piedmont DSA. He believes very strongly in the importance of building the labor movement in the South as a way to end the horrors from its history that still haunt this region. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica and at the nearest Biscuitville.