The Commonwealth Network In Practice

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.