Worker-owners of local cooperative workplaces met with county and state elected officials in July to discuss fostering worker-owned enterprises within Montgomery County’s diverse economic ecosystem. It’s time for Montgomery County to embrace recent scholarship and organizing for democratic workplaces, economic equality, and community growth.
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The Montgomery County “4Business – Benchmarking to Be the Best for Business” tour is part of the County government’s attempt to appear more business-friendly. Despite this new initiative, the County is failing what may be the most radical and potent source of local economic growth. It is a majority immigrant-led movement to address income and asset inequality, the disproportionate services available to immigrants, and to foster community solidarity. It is the worker-owned cooperative sector.
Maria* is a Montgomery County resident and worker-owner of a local cleaning cooperative, “Green Clean.” In order for her enterprise to survive, she and her fellow worker-owners need space to store their equipment, a roster of consistent clients, and ways to advertise to new clients. Maria attempted to bring up these issues to the County Executive at a recent 4Business community meeting at the East County Service Center in White Oak. However, the County offered no translation services. As a non-native English speaker, Maria was literally rendered speechless by the very County who claimed to be listening.
Another Montgomery County cooperative, an investment cooperative entirely started and maintained by a Latinx community, needs more capital than the County’s Small Business Loan program can provide. A cooperative of taxi drivers, Anytime Union Taxi, is receiving some financial assistance from the County, but handling the extra accounting work diverts drivers’ time away from taking fares.
To address the issues affecting local worker cooperatives in a space specifically for worker-owners, Impact Silver Spring, a local non profit aimed at economic and racial equity, organized a meeting with worker owners, County Executive Marc Elrich, County Council Vice President Sydney Katz, and District 20 Delegate Lorig Charkoudian.
The July meeting at Impact was attended by representatives of all the cooperatives described above and had a notably optimistic tone. Because translation services are always provided at Impact events, worker-owners like Maria were excited to finally be heard by their elected representatives.
The Benefits of Cooperation, not Competition
Worker cooperatives exhibit many features and functions that are not found, at least not prominently, in traditional capitalist enterprises. Worker cooperatives in fact turn on its head the social relationships of the capitalist workplace. In worker-cooperatives, laborers own the capital and thus own the decision-making of the enterprise. While a cooperative is often a for-profit venture, worker ownership tends to motivate strategies and decisions that foster community, sustainability, and economic equality over profit maximization.
Despite all their advantages, cooperative workplaces are continuously omitted, even dismissed, from public discourse and policy making. This isn’t just an oversight by elected officials. Large local and global capitalist businesses pressure governments to prioritize policies encouraging the growth and reproduction of their hyper-competitive business model (in spite of their rhetoric about wanting a “level” economic playing field). This has the reverberating effect of constantly reproducing capitalist social relations across all instances of daily life, suppressing movements for cooperation and egalitarianism.
Part of the struggle of worker-cooperatives is overcoming the hyper-competitive environment of capitalism while protecting their values of community, solidarity, and equality. Luckily, recent scholarship sheds insight into the promising tactics and strategies used by cities across America to address economic and racial equity through the growth of worker-cooperatives.
Which Way To A Cooperative Economy
Impact Silver Spring and the Montgomery County Democratic Socialists of America prepared for the July meeting with elected representatives by reviewing the recent work of Stacey Sutton, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Policy in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs (CUPPA) at the University of Illinois Chicago.
In a new study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, Sutton studied municipal support for cooperatives in the form of resolutions, feasibility studies, media events, policy changes, and more. She found municipalities had mandated new legal frameworks, or modified existing rules, to encourage the development of worker-owned cooperatives. Some cities had fostered worker cooperative start-ups and expansion by creating multi-year budgeting initiatives, offering technical expertise and even providing physical space to cooperatives. Cities raised public awareness of the structure, function, and benefits of worker cooperatives. City staff and advocates educated policymakers, started pilot programs, promoted worker cooperative research plans, and supported their local cooperative economy.
In cities without an existing worker-cooperative environment, Sutton found top-down initiatives led by city leaders partnering with outside experts to jump-start worker cooperative development. Cities with existing worker cooperatives saw grassroots advocates and worker-owners pressure elected officials from below to start enabling more worker cooperatives. A final group of cities cultivated a relationship between supportive municipal leaders and emerging worker cooperatives. These cities, which Sutton calls “Cultivator Cities,” create “enabling environments” for worker cooperatives to grow and develop. Enabling environments are the conditions (legal, bureaucratic, fiscal, informational, political, cultural etc.) that impact the capacity of people to engage with the economic development process in a sustained and efficient manner.
Cooperative workplaces and advocacy groups cultivate enabling environments by observing, identifying, and researching the present make-up of the current, pro-capitalist, enabling environment. Public representatives are then pressured to leverage existing or new institutions to give municipal support for worker cooperatives in much the same way that the government does for small businesses, women-owned and minority-owned businesses.
This strategy isn’t without roadblocks. Sutton points out that an over-reliance on government support calls into question the sustainability of cooperative sectors of the economy. Attitudes on public assistance for worker-owners, rather than capitalist ventures, can also change with a single election.
At the July meeting, all three public representatives in attendance explicitly cited the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce wanting to keep the County’s economy policy a “level playing field.” Such words ring hollow to worker-ownersm, who observe how they are left out of public policy discussions and programs. Cooperation Jackson worker-owners Ajamu Nangwaya and Kali Akuno point out a myriad of public and private institutions such as financial institutions, media, non-profit organizations, and bureaucracy reinforce capitalism over nascent attempts to start and keep a cooperative running. These are the “enabling environments” described by Sutton, but leveraged to produce and reproduce competitive capitalism, not cooperation.
Surrounded by hostile capitalist enterprises, cooperatives will need allies outside their worker-owners and consumer base. Writing for Jacobin, Sam Gindin insists on a collaboration between radical worker cooperatives and social justice movements, mediated by a socialist political party, as the coalition strong enough to rewrite the rules of economic competition.
Moving Forward in Montgomery County
Worker owners present at the Impact meeting are already taking steps to confront the enabling environments of capital that hold them back from community wealth, economic, and racial equity. Establishing a forum between worker-owners and politicians is a start but Montgomery County has a long way to go before becoming a “cultivator county” with a worker-cooperative enabling environment.
There are precedents from prior successful legislation worth following to grow Montgomery County Cooperative economy.
In 2015, Montgomery County passed landmark tenants’ rights and protections legislation. One of the first steps by the County after the passage of Bill 19-15 was to embark on a public awareness campaign of the new tenants’ rights and the responsibilities of landlords.
Similarly, more public recognition of the cooperatives working with Impact could open more opportunities to study the existing enabling environment and inhibitors to cooperative growth. Local social justice organizations can also get more involved, supplying cooperatives with their support, volunteer time, a consumer-base, and public advocacy
All this support, study, and organizing leads up to a rupture point when worker cooperatives can move from crying out for attention, beyond competing with capitalist firms, towards finally conquering capitalism all together.