Cooperation Without Borders

Jeff Schuhrke October 22, 2013

Pioneer Valley Photo Voltaics was one of the New England co-ops visited by workers from the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo on their ten-day tour. (Photo courtesy of UE)

In 2011, Gabriela Man­jar­rez helped found a bicy­cle couri­er coop­er­a­tive called Bicien­Vía to deliv­er every­thing from let­ters to arti­sanal beer around Mex­i­co City. Though she acknowl­edges that bring­ing co-ops togeth­er on a local lev­el can be dif­fi­cult, she says that the city’s alter­na­tive media have played an impor­tant role in unit­ing them. One col­lec­tive of jour­nal­ists in par­tic­u­lar, La Cop­er­acha, has done a great job with get­ting the word out on the work of the dif­fer­ent co-ops [in the area],” she says. They have a radio pro­gram once a week and they inter­view dif­fer­ent co-ops, and that’s the way we meet each other.” 

But thanks to a lack of gov­ern­ment sup­port, co-ops in Mex­i­co City may now be hurt­ing for those resources. Until this sum­mer, the munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment pro­vid­ed La Cop­er­acha phys­i­cal space for their radio pro­gram, but offi­cials in the city’s Coyoacán bor­ough recent­ly cut off sup­port and forced them out, say­ing the jour­nal­ists’ work is not use­ful.” Man­jar­rez says that in response, Mex­i­co City’s co-op com­mu­ni­ty is now com­ing togeth­er to sup­port La Cop­er­acha and pres­sure bor­ough offi­cials to renew sup­port for the pro­gram. It’s very bad for us. To say coop­er­a­tive work is not use­ful — that affects the whole com­mu­ni­ty,” she says. 

In recent years, the impor­tance of advo­cat­ing for work­er coop­er­a­tives as an alter­na­tive to exploita­tive cap­i­tal­ism has risen to the fore­front of orga­nized labor ini­tia­tives both in Mex­i­co and the Unit­ed States. Since cap­i­tal­ism is now more glob­al than ever before, they feel, attempts at reshap­ing it must be glob­al as well. Build­ing inter­na­tion­al work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty is now not only about bring­ing tra­di­tion­al trade unions togeth­er, but also about unit­ing coop­er­a­tives from dif­fer­ent countries. 

To that end, a del­e­ga­tion of coop­er­a­tives affil­i­at­ed with the Mex­i­can labor fed­er­a­tion Frente Autén­ti­co del Tra­ba­jo, or Authen­tic Work­ers’ Front (FAT), trav­eled to New Eng­land last week to meet with mem­bers of co-ops asso­ci­at­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE).

The 10-day tour — which start­ed Sun­day, Oct. 13 and will end on Tues­day — includ­ed vis­its to co-ops in Mass­a­chu­setts and Ver­mont, as well as a stop on Fri­day in Fort Edward, N.Y. to par­tic­i­pate in a UE protest of Gen­er­al Electric’s plan to close a capac­i­tor plant and lay off near­ly 200 union work­ers. The vis­it comes as both UE and FAT are think­ing more seri­ous­ly about the poten­tial role of coop­er­a­tives in cre­at­ing an equi­table econ­o­my and staving off job loss.

Unions and co-ops both aim to trans­form the econ­o­my. While unions build col­lec­tive pow­er among work­ers and demand con­ces­sions from employ­ers, co-ops are enter­pris­es that aim to be more demo­c­ra­t­ic and ben­e­fi­cial to soci­ety than tra­di­tion­al cap­i­tal­ist busi­ness­es. Work­er coop­er­a­tives — where the work­ers are their own boss­es — can elim­i­nate the inher­ent­ly exploita­tive rela­tion­ship between employ­ers and employ­ees that unions typ­i­cal­ly medi­ate. But unlike co-ops, unions and fed­er­a­tions like UE and FAT are unique­ly suit­ed to unit­ing work­ers from a vari­ety of work­places, build­ing com­mu­ni­ty and polit­i­cal alliances, and shap­ing class-consciousness.

FAT and UE, which entered into a strate­gic alliance in 1992 to oppose the con­tro­ver­sial free-trade agree­ment NAF­TA, both pride them­selves on being inde­pen­dent, mem­ber-run, left-ori­ent­ed labor orga­ni­za­tions. FAT divides its activ­i­ties into three sec­tors: trade unions, com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, and social econ­o­my, which rep­re­sents co-ops. Enrique Laz­cano, an elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the social econ­o­my sec­tor, says it once includ­ed as many as 30 coop­er­a­tives, but for a vari­ety of rea­sons — includ­ing Mexico’s often hos­tile envi­ron­ment for inde­pen­dent work­er activ­i­ty — there are now only six.

Our objec­tive with­in FAT is to rein­vig­o­rate this sec­tor [by] orga­niz­ing and found­ing new co-ops,” Laz­cano says in an inter­view with In These Times. These coop­er­a­tives include work­er-owned busi­ness­es, con­sumer co-ops, and cred­it unions. Laz­cano hopes to tie pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and con­sumer co-ops togeth­er, part of an inte­gral vision” for a dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic cir­cuit that can give auton­o­my to people.” 

UE itself encom­pass­es six co-ops, includ­ing Chicago’s New Era Win­dows Coop­er­a­tive, a work­er-run enter­prise mak­ing ener­gy-effi­cient win­dows that launched in May after employ­ees famous­ly occu­pied their clos­ing fac­to­ry in the win­ter of 2008. In New Eng­land, the tour will vis­it UE’s Col­lec­tive Copies, a 30-year-old coop­er­a­tive copy shop in Amherst and Flo­rence, Mass.; UE Local 255 and Local 203, which rep­re­sent work­ers at the food coop­er­a­tives Hunger Moun­tain Co-op in Mont­pe­lier, Vt. and City Mar­ket in Burling­ton, Vt., respec­tive­ly; and Web­skil­let, an orga­ni­za­tion of web design­ers in Burling­ton, Vt. (also part of Local 203).

Dur­ing UE and FAT’s 21-year part­ner­ship, UE has con­tributed mon­ey and media to FAT’s efforts to orga­nize Gen­er­al Elec­tric maquila work­ers in Ciu­dad Juárez and employ­ees at the Ech­lin auto parts plant in Mex­i­co City. FAT has rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed by sup­port­ing UE in orga­niz­ing foundry work­ers in Mil­wau­kee and pub­lic sec­tor work­ers in North Car­oli­na.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the two labor orga­ni­za­tions have done numer­ous work­er-to-work­er exchanges to share infor­ma­tion and build rela­tion­ships at the rank-and-file lev­el. Last Novem­ber, FAT host­ed a del­e­ga­tion of UE co-op mem­bers in Mex­i­co for the first exchange specif­i­cal­ly around coop­er­a­tives. UE is return­ing the favor by host­ing this week’s delegation.

For us, it’s been fab­u­lous because that trip to Mex­i­co real­ly ener­gized peo­ple,” says Robin Alexan­der, UE’s Inter­na­tion­al Affairs Direc­tor. It start­ed a dis­cus­sion with­in the UE about how maybe we should have a co-op sec­tor in the way the FAT does.” With that in mind, she says, del­e­gates passed a res­o­lu­tion at UE’s nation­al con­ven­tion this August call­ing for the union to estab­lish its own coop­er­a­tives divi­sion and to encour­age the cre­ation, union­iza­tion and coor­di­na­tion of more co-ops, both domes­ti­cal­ly and internationally.

FAT’s lead­ers hope the increased com­mu­ni­ca­tion could be a way to strength­en work­ers’ bonds with oth­er co-ops. We would real­ly like to see the coop­er­a­tive move­ment bet­ter orga­nized on an inter­na­tion­al lev­el,” says Isaías Gar­cía Izquier­do, an accoun­tant with Unión de Coop­eración Inde­pen­di­ente 6 de Julio,” a 27-year-old cred­it union in Saltil­lo and FAT’s old­est co-op. We also believe there can be mutu­al sup­port between co-ops even if we’re in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. There should be sol­i­dar­i­ty across borders.”

The per­son-to-per­son inter­ac­tions made pos­si­ble by the FAT vis­it are help­ing pro­mote some of this inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion. Alma Con­tr­eras Tor­res, a trained archi­tect who works with a pub­lic sec­tor union affil­i­at­ed with FAT in the state of Nayarit, says she was inspired by a fruit­ful con­ver­sa­tion about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of using alter­na­tive ener­gy with mem­bers of PV Squared, a work­er-owned co-op in Green­field, Mass. that installs solar pan­els. Con­tr­eras Torres’s union is devel­op­ing a con­sumer coop­er­a­tive that will build eco­log­i­cal­ly friend­ly hous­ing, which may incor­po­rate solar ener­gy, for its members.

But unit­ing co-ops, both inter­na­tion­al­ly and with­in the labor orga­ni­za­tions’ own coun­tries, may not be as easy as a few trips over the border.

In addi­tion to the kind of gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence that Manjarrez’s co-op faced in Mex­i­co City, Gar­cía Izquier­do says anoth­er obsta­cle to bring­ing co-ops togeth­er in Mex­i­co is a 2000 law pro­hibit­ing cred­it unions from lend­ing to work­er coop­er­a­tives, some­thing FAT is fight­ing to change. If cred­it unions could actu­al­ly finance pro­duc­tion co-ops, we could encour­age their growth,” he says. This would be tremen­dous. We would be able to real­ly be a sin­gle move­ment; we wouldn’t be iso­lat­ed in dif­fer­ent types of co-ops.”

Despite these set­backs, mem­bers of the del­e­ga­tion say that meet­ing oth­er co-ops helps restore their faith in the poten­tial of the coop­er­a­tive move­ment. There are a lot of co-ops that are just out to make mon­ey, but the co-ops that are par­tic­i­pat­ing in this del­e­ga­tion and the co-ops that we’ve met with [on the trip] are all places where peo­ple have an broad­er idea of social trans­for­ma­tion,” says Lazcano.

Many work­ers in Amer­i­can co-ops agree. In the Unit­ed States, for the most part, the con­sumer co-ops have lost their soul and they’re very cap­i­tal­ist in the way they run their busi­ness­es,” says Eliz­a­beth Jes­dale, pres­i­dent of UE Local 255 at Hunger Moun­tain Co-op. She explains that she and her cowork­ers union­ized a decade ago after man­age­ment attempt­ed to make them all part-time employ­ees and take away their ben­e­fits. We find our­selves at odds between the work­ers and man­age­ment, and I think it’s real­ly unfor­tu­nate. A trip like this, and going to see what the FAT is doing down in Mex­i­co, helps remind me of why the co-op is there.”

We want to build some­thing, they want to build some­thing also,” Laz­cano says of FAT and UE’s efforts around co-ops. So let’s see what we can build, us with them, them with us, all of us together.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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