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.

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A simplification of the commonwealth network model. Start at the top and go clockwise.

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)