Occupy Sandy builds worker power in Far Rockaway

April 2nd, 2013

Published on Waging NonViolence, by Peter Rugh, March 27, 2013.

Three and a half months ago, the walls upstairs at the Church of the Prophecy in Far Rockaway, a low-income coastal neighborhood of New York City, were covered with maps of where help was most needed. The church was a hub for the Occupy Sandy relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. Now, nearly five months after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling the virtues of collective struggle and art made by neighborhood children enrolled in Occupy Sandy’s twice-weekly after-school program.  

“The kids missed a month and a half of school,” explained Luis Casco, a member of the church’s congregation who pulled strings to help move Occupy into Far Rockaway. The after-school program was, in part, his brainchild. “We figured we’d start helping the kids and we could win over their parents. Then we could actually start bigger projects,” he said.

One of those bigger projects is a worker-run cooperative initiative, organized by Occupy Sandy and supported by the Working World, an organization that specializes in incubating collectively owned businesse … //

… Workers controlling capital:

Occupy Sandy has allocated $60,000 of the $900,000 it raised in the initial flood of generosity following the storm toward forming cooperatives, an initiative they hope to spread across storm-affected areas if it proves successful in Far Rockaway. The Working World, an organization that provides zero-debt micro-finance loans to new cooperatives, has offered to provide monetary support, but for now the organization is mostly lending advice and training. At one of the early meetings, Brandon Martin, The Working World’s founder, showed the crowd a slideshow of other projects the organization has helped launch. Images of a beekeepers’ cooperative in the countryside of Nicaragua and a shoe factory in Buenos Aires glowed on the wall behind Martin as he outlined the benefits of workers sharing resources and making decisions democratically.

“A cooperative is workers controlling capital, instead of capital controlling workers,” said Martin. “It’s about reorganizing the economy around who’s really in control.”

The Working World finances itself by collecting a small percentage of the profits that member collectives generate, money that the organization reinvests in establishing new enterprises. Martin explained that the idea originated in ancient Sumeria where the word for interest was the same as the word for calf.

“If the cow I lent you has babies,” explained Martin, “I loaned you my cow, so I can have some the babies. That would be the interest.”

But if the cow was sterile, the Sumerians didn’t collect interest. The same works for Working World’s loans today. The organization only collects once a cooperative generates a steady profit, a model that avoids forcing people into debt if their business fails.

Interest grows: … //

… Building an alternative:

Richard Wolff, professor of economics at the New School and author of Democracy at Work, a study of cooperative businesses, argues that forming cooperatives can be the first step in enacting a sweeping social and economic shift. Wolff envisions a transformation, similar to the social shift from feudalism to capitalism, in which cooperatives replace corporations and goods are distributed through a democratically planned economy.

The cooperatives that Wolff talks about, and the ones that Occupy Sandy is aiming to establish, are more accurately known as worker self-directed enterprises: businesses that organize democratically collective ownership at the point of production.

“When the workers get together and decide how to distribute the income in such an enterprise, would they give the CEO $25 million in stock bonuses while everybody else can barely get by?” Wolff asks rhetorically.

He stresses the difference between the productive and distributive side of economies, explaining that worker-run cooperatives are the often-overlooked prerequisite for achieving an egalitarian distribution of wealth and resources. “There is the question of what exactly an alternative to capitalism is,” he explains. “I’ve stressed worker-self-directed enterprises as a different way of organizing production.” On the other hand are markets, which distribute the fruits of production. Wolff believes that the mistake of many 20th-century socialists was to imagine that the elimination of markets would create social egalitarianism, even though production had not yet been reorganized into a democratic model.

Given the pull between the productive and distributive side of economies, cooperatives must form networks to survive. Collaboration between networked enterprises allows these businesses to curb market pressures and, if the network manages to spread, to gain political power.

As Brandon Martin emphasizes, also, workers in new cooperatives must labor long hours to meet production quotas, just like with any other business, since their enterprise still has to compete for a market share. “Can one cooperative change that?” asks Martin. “No. But a cooperative economy might.”

Olga Lazema, however, isn’t thinking about the theoretical potential for cooperatives to challenge capitalism. She’s imagining the positive possibilities for her own neighborhood.

“A lot of people, their houses went like nothing,” she said, referring to Sandy’s destruction. “They have nothing. We could go there, build a small kitchen or whatever they need. Why not?”
(full text and links to related articles).


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