|NY Times Op-Ed
Worker-Owners of America, Unite!
By GAR ALPEROVITZ
College Park, Md.
THE Occupy Wall Street protests have come and mostly gone, and
whether they continue to have an impact or not, they have brought
an astounding fact to the public’s attention: a mere 1 percent of
Americans own just under half of the country’s financial assets
and other investments. America, it would seem, is less equitable
than ever, thanks to our no-holds-barred capitalist system.
But at another level, something different has been quietly brewing
in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops,
worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional
capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid
system, something different from both traditional capitalism and
socialism, without anyone even noticing.
Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the
ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13
million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000
employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to
And worker-owned companies make a difference. In Cleveland, for
instance, an integrated group of worker-owned companies, supported
in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and
universities, has taken the lead in local solar-panel
installation, “green” institutional laundry services and a
commercial hydroponic greenhouse capable of producing more than
three million heads of lettuce a year.
Local and state governments are likewise changing the nature of
American capitalism. Almost half the states manage venture capital
efforts, taking partial ownership in new businesses. Calpers,
California’s public pension authority, helps finance local
development projects; in Alaska, state oil revenues provide each
resident with dividends from public investment strategies as a
matter of right; in Alabama, public pension investing has long
focused on state economic development.
Moreover, this year some 14 states began to consider legislation
to create public banks similar to the longstanding Bank of North
Dakota; 15 more began to consider some form of single-payer or
public-option health care plan.
Some of these developments, like rural co-ops and credit unions,
have their origins in the New Deal era; some go back even further,
to the Grange movement of the 1880s. The most widespread form of
worker ownership stems from 1970s legislation that provided tax
benefits to owners of small businesses who sold to their employees
when they retired. Reagan-era domestic-spending cuts spurred
nonprofits to form social enterprises that used profits to help
finance their missions.
Recently, growing economic pain has provided a further catalyst.
The Cleveland cooperatives are an answer to urban decay that
traditional job training, small-business and other development
strategies simply do not touch. They also build on a 30-year
history of Ohio employee-ownership experiments traceable to the
collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s.
Further policy changes are likely. In Indiana, the Republican
state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, is using state deposits to
lower interest costs to employee-owned companies, a precedent
others states could easily follow. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat
of Ohio, is developing legislation to support worker-owned
strategies like that of Cleveland in other cities. And several
policy analysts have proposed expanding existing government “set
aside” procurement programs for small businesses to include co-ops
and other democratized enterprises.
If such cooperative efforts continue to increase in number, scale
and sophistication, they may suggest the outlines, however
tentative, of something very different from both traditional,
corporate-dominated capitalism and traditional socialism.
It’s easy to overestimate the possibilities of a new system. These
efforts are minor compared with the power of Wall Street banks and
the other giants of the American economy. On the other hand, it is
precisely these institutions that have created enormous economic
problems and fueled public anger.
During the populist and progressive eras, a decades-long buildup
of public anger led to major policy shifts, many of which simply
took existing ideas from local and state efforts to the national
stage. Furthermore, we have already seen how, in moments of
crisis, the nationalization of auto giants like General Motors and
Chrysler can suddenly become a reality. When the next financial
breakdown occurs, huge injections of public money may well lead to
de facto takeovers of major banks.
And while the American public has long supported the capitalist
model, that, too, may be changing. In 2009 a Rasmussen poll
reported that Americans under 30 years old were “essentially
evenly divided” as to whether they preferred “capitalism” or
A long era of economic stagnation could well lead to a profound
national debate about an America that is dominated neither by
giant corporations nor by socialist bureaucrats. It would be a
fitting next direction for a troubled nation that has long styled
itself as of, by and for the people.
Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University
of Maryland and a founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is the
author of “America Beyond Capitalism.”