A more egalitarian economy
By Dave Anderson
IT’S EASY TO get depressed. Every social advance that progressives
have won is in danger. There is a growing despair over the inability
of traditional politics to address the immense
economic/environmental/political crises and the deep crevasse between
the rich and the rest of us.
But there is hope. Small-scale experiments in creating a better
society are quietly emerging all over the place. The Democracy
Collaborative at the University of Maryland has been gathering
information on a steadily growing hodgepodge of alternative economic
institutions in communities across America. They include nonprofit
community development corporations (CDCs), community land trusts that
develop and maintain low-income housing, and community development
financial institutions (CDFIs) that now invest more than $5.5 billion
a year in creating jobs and housing and providing services for poor
Worker-owned businesses are proliferating. Around 11,000 businesses
are now owned in whole or part by their employees, involving 10
million workers. More than one in three Americans — 130 million — are
members of urban, agricultural and credit union co-operatives. There
are also 2,000 publicly owned utilities that — together with
co-operatives — provide some 25 percent of America’s electricity. More
and more states are looking into the creation of public banking
systems along the lines of the public Bank of North Dakota
(established in the early 20th century by a socialist farmers party).
On Sept. 7, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center
(www.rmeoc.org) held its first conference at the Tivoli Student Center
on the Auraria campus in Denver. The theme was “Community
Wealth-Building,” which involves “economic strategies where profits
return to employees, consumers and local communities.”
There was a workshop about Boulder’s Namaste Solar and Fort Collins’
New Belgium Brewing, the state’s flagship employee-owned businesses
featured in the award-winning documentary “We the Owners.”
Amanda Bybee, vice president of Namaste Solar, said her 8-year-old
firm has 70 people, 55 of whom are co-owners or candidates (on the
ownership track). It is the largest locally owned photovoltaic company
in Colorado offering commercial-scale services nationally. Jenny
Briggs, human resources director at New Belgium Brewing, said her
22-year-old company is 100 percent employee-owned via an ESOP
(Employee Stock Ownership Plan). It has 502 people, approximately 40
percent of whom reside outside of Colorado. It is the third-largest
craft brewery in the U.S. and one of three employee-owned breweries.
Both businesses are democratically run. All meetings are open. All
notes are accessible. All information is shared by computer.
New Belgium Brewing was profiled in a July 5 op-ed in The New York
Times titled “The Legacy of the Boomer Boss” by Gar Alperovitz,
professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and a
founder of the Democracy Collaborative.
Last year, New Belgium’s retiring chief executive and co-founder, Kim
Jordan, sold the company to her employees. “There are few times in
life where you get to make choices that will have multigenerational
impact,” she said. “This is one of those times.”
Alperovitz would like other retiring small business owners to follow
her lead. He says:
“Over the next decade, millions of business owners born during the
baby boom will retire. Many, with no obvious succession strategy, will
simply sell their companies, the backbone of Main Street economies
across the country, to large corporations. All too often the result
will be consolidations, plant closures and lost jobs for the people
who helped build and sustain their companies for decades.
“The boomers should think again: Selling to their employees is often a
far better way to go — for both moral and economic reasons.”
Alperovitz notes that “over the next 15 years retiring boomers could
help create 2 to 4 million new worker-owned businesses nationwide.”
The Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center is promoting this idea.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has introduced bills that would give
states funding to establish and expand employee ownership centers and
to create a bank to provide loans to help workers purchase businesses
through an ESOP or a worker-owned co-operative.
This is a new approach to challenging corporate power that comes from
the bottom up. Could this help lessen the pervasive feelings of
cynicism and helplessness about social change?
Could this be a small step toward an economic democracy?