Amid “Constitutional Crisis,” Bernie Sanders Urges Workers To Seize Means of Production

Kate Aronoff May 12, 2017

“Simply put, when employees have an ownership stake in their company, they will not ship their own jobs to China to increase their profits, they will be more productive, and they will earn a better living," Sanders said. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The last few days have been a bit of a whirl­wind, polit­i­cal­ly speak­ing. Most of it has to do with the onslaught of chaos that fol­lowed Don­ald Trump’s abrupt fir­ing of FBI Direc­tor James Comey — a move polit­i­cal sci­en­tists agree is off the spec­trum of nor­mal­cy in the his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­cy. Before his ter­mi­na­tion, Comey was lead­ing an inves­ti­ga­tion into the Trump team’s alleged ties to the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment. Kei­th Elli­son, deputy chair­man of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee, has said we are wit­ness­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al cri­sis.” Calls for impeach­ment are in the air, along with a good deal of con­spir­a­cy theorizing.

In sum, the repub­lic as we know it may be its clos­est yet to tat­ters. Enter: Bernie Sanders, the sen­a­tor from Ver­mont and the country’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian. He — along­side Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sens. Patrick Leahy, from Ver­mont, Kirsten Gilli­brand, from New York, and Mag­gie Has­san, from New Hamp­shire — is encour­ag­ing work­ers to take con­trol of the means of production.

This isn’t some right-wing con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry, but the intend­ed result of two bills intro­duced to rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle fan­fare Thurs­day. The first, the WORK (“Work­er Own­er­ship, Readi­ness and Knowl­edge”) Act, would direct more than $45 mil­lion in fund­ing to state-lev­el employ­ee own­er­ship cen­ters, aimed at pro­vid­ing train­ing and tech­ni­cal assis­tance to cur­rent and prospec­tive work­er-own­ers. A sec­ond piece of leg­is­la­tion would estab­lish some­thing called the U.S. Employ­ee Own­er­ship Bank, via $500 mil­lion in funds for low-inter­est rate loans and finan­cial assis­tance for work­ers who want to buy out the busi­ness­es where they work and either incor­po­rate them as work­er-owned coop­er­a­tives or estab­lish employ­ee stock own­er­ship plans (ESOPs), which give work­ers an own­er­ship stake in their company.

By expand­ing employ­ee own­er­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion, we can cre­ate stronger com­pa­nies in Ver­mont and through­out this coun­try, pre­vent job loss­es and improve work­ing con­di­tions for strug­gling employ­ees,” Sanders said in a state­ment. Sim­ply put, when employ­ees have an own­er­ship stake in their com­pa­ny, they will not ship their own jobs to Chi­na to increase their prof­its, they will be more pro­duc­tive, and they will earn a bet­ter living.”

Notably, a pro­vi­sion out­lined in the sec­ond bill would give employ­ees the first crack at tak­ing over their work­place if own­ers move to off­shore their jobs, accord­ing to John Duda.

Duda works for the Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive, a research insti­tute that sup­ports coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment. He also helped found the work­er-owned café and book­store Red Emma’s in Bal­ti­more, Maryland.

I think it would be a game chang­er both in terms of accel­er­at­ing work­er-own­er­ship, and dis­cour­ag­ing com­pa­nies from pur­su­ing a race to the bot­tom in terms of look­ing for cheap­er wages over­seas,” Duda said about the legislation.

Coop­er­a­tive own­er­ship has a long his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States, Duda explains. The ear­li­est cham­pi­ons of orga­nized labor in Amer­i­ca pushed for coop­er­a­tives as a means to shore up employ­ee con­trol over the work­place. As a doc­u­ment offi­cial­ly adopt­ed by the Knights of Labor in 1878 put it, The recent alarm­ing devel­op­ment and aggres­sion of aggre­gat­ed wealth … ren­der it imper­a­tive … that a check should be placed upon its pow­er and upon unjust accu­mu­la­tion, and a sys­tem adopt­ed which will secure to the labor­er the fruits of his toil.” Lat­er, New Deal ini­tia­tives like the Rur­al Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion Admin­is­tra­tion pro­vid­ed start-up funds for peo­ple in rur­al areas to cre­ate coop­er­a­tives, with rur­al elec­tric coop­er­a­tives now meet­ing 11 per­cent of the country’s demand for elec­tric­i­ty. Civ­il rights lead­ers from Ella Bak­er to Fan­nie Lou Hamer would also cut their teeth in coop­er­a­tive self-help programs.

Today, com­pa­nies from Cabot Cream­ery to REI are coop­er­a­tives of one form or anoth­er. And Pub­lix Super Mar­kets and Wawa con­ve­nience stores are just two of many major firms in the Unit­ed States that offer their employ­ees ESOPs. Work­er-owned coop­er­a­tives, by con­trast — gov­erned by the prin­ci­ple of one work­er, one vote” — tend to be small­er in the Unit­ed States than either ESOPs or pro­duc­er and con­sumer coop­er­a­tives, but more wide­spread through­out South Amer­i­ca and Europe. In con­trast to the esti­mat­ed 10.3 mil­lion Amer­i­cans cov­ered by ESOPs, just over 5,000 peo­ple are a part of work­er-owned cooperatives.

Sanders him­self is no stranger to coop­er­a­tives. He’s intro­duced sim­i­lar bills before, and the leg­is­la­tion is par­tial­ly inspired by the Ver­mont Employ­ee Own­er­ship Cen­ter, or VEOC, of which Sanders has been a long­time boost­er. Speak­ing to a forum on work­ers’ own­er­ship at Burling­ton City Hall in 1985, then-May­or Sanders said, Democ­ra­cy can­not just mean the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote for a Wal­ter Mon­dale or a Ronald Rea­gan once every four years … If we have a vision as to what democ­ra­cy is about, it’s got to mean the right of a work­ing per­son to con­trol his or her job, to have some say about what’s being pro­duced, to sit down with the oth­er work­ers and say, This is what I think we should do.’” (You can watch the full clip here.)

One of the oth­er mod­els for the kind of sup­port pro­grams out­lined in the WORK Act emerged out of the clo­sure of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube fac­to­ry in 1977 — a siren song for the kind of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion that would plague the Rust Belt for years to come. Work­ers, Duda said, attempt­ed to seize the plant and run it coop­er­a­tive­ly in the run-up to the clo­sure. The effort ulti­mate­ly failed, but cap­tured the atten­tion of Ohioans inter­est­ed in devel­op­ing coop­er­a­tive busi­ness­es. Start­ed in 1987, the Ohio Employ­ee Own­er­ship Cen­ter (OEOC) has since helped some 90 com­pa­nies to become employ­ee-owned, cre­at­ing an esti­mat­ed 15,000 employ­ee-own­ers in the Buck­eye State. A like-mind­ed push in New York City has seen some ini­tial suc­cess after an invest­ment of $1.2 mil­lion in work­er coop­er­a­tive busi­ness devel­op­ment efforts in 2014.

It’s hard stuff get­ting all the legal ducks in a row, get­ting all the financ­ing lined up, fig­ur­ing out how to take advan­tage of the tax incen­tives that exist. Hav­ing tech­ni­cal assis­tance and hav­ing grant sup­port for tech­ni­cal assis­tance is incred­i­bly key,” Duda said.

He wasn’t over­ly opti­mistic about the bills’ chances in Con­gress, but thought their intro­duc­tion rep­re­sent­ed a step for­ward in terms of bring­ing coop­er­a­tives fur­ther into America’s eco­nom­ic mainstream.

We have a lot of dra­ma going on, and it’s vital­ly impor­tant to pay atten­tion to,” Duda told In These Times, but we need to not for­get that we are see­ing his­toric lev­els of inequal­i­ty. We need to be think­ing about solu­tions and a tran­si­tion to a broad­er-based own­er­ship of the econ­o­my that allows us to tack­le that ques­tion. We may not be able to pass this leg­is­la­tion today, but there’s going to be a time at which pol­i­cy­mak­ing is pos­si­ble again and we need to be ready.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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