As many of you probably know, I ran for Metro Council last summer. My candidacy was pretty minimal–I made no attempt to recruit volunteers or raise money, and spent none of my own. I created a blog and a Facebook page to lay out my platform, attended several candidate forums, posted ideas and answers on several internet voter education sites, and was interviewed by the Nashville Scene, which, as it did when Howard Switzer ran for Governor, trivialized my campaign and ignored my issues because they’re Democrats and we’re Greens, and they don’t care for competition on the left. (I was hoping to provide a link to the job the Scene did on my friend Howard, but they have apparently opted to chuck that article down the ol’ memory hole. Probably a good call on their part.)
There were three key pillars in my platform. One was re-localizing Nashville, economically, socially, and politically–creating neighborhoods in which people could attend school, shop, work, and go out and socialize without needing to use an automobile–thus simplifying the city’s traffic problems–and granting these neighborhoods a fair amount of control over their zoning, codes enforcement, new construction, schools, and policing. Another pillar was to identify and foster industries that would serve local needs that are currently being met by goods imported from across the continent or across the ocean. The third pillar was to foster co-operatives as a form of small-d democratic community organization–not just food co-ops and other retail establishments, but worker-owned service and manufacturing co-ops, and housing co-ops, as well. These worker-owned co-ops would include the local-needs industries, and the housing co-ops would be part of a larger context of urban land trusts. All these would serve to increase opportunities and living standards for lower-income Nashvillians, stabilize their neighborhoods, and empower them with an ownership stake in the places where they work, shop, and live. My proposals were largely modelled on the ones that made Bernie Sanders’ reputation as Mayor of Burlington–they were radical and populist but pragmatic and very “doable.” They are also infectious, in the sense that people hear them, like them, and make them their own. Their emphasis on citizen, not government, ownership appeals to people all over the political spectrum.
That was my basic message. About 2,300 Nashville voters heard it and signalled their approval by voting for me. That earned me second-to-last standing in the election, but, for me, the important part of my campaign was that, in the course of attending the candidate forums, I got to speak repeatedly to the candidates who did win the election. Hey, at several of these, there were more candidates on the stage than voters in the audience! Besides, candidates are also voters, and we each had four votes in the election besides the one each of us was likely to cast for ourselves.
And so, I planted my seeds, with no idea which ones would sprout or where, and, once the election was over, happily returned to my wooded hollow and my usual pursuits. Imagine my surprise early last week when I glanced through my email inbox and discovered that the Tennessee Alliance for Progress (TAP), in partnership with Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project, (which springs from the venerable Highlander Folk Center) was sponsoring an all-day workshop on….creating co-operatives in Nashville. How could I not go?
The schedule promised presentations from people involved with workers’ co-ops, retail co-ops, and housing co-ops, as well as reports from people involved in converting privately owned businesses into co-ops, forming co–ops from scratch, and city-private partnerships to create co-ops. I was overjoyed. I’m good at “the big picture” but I don’t always know how to go about bringing my visions into reality. Now, somebody was taking care of that part of the process.
So, bright and early last Saturday morning, I headed for Tennessee State University’s downtown campus. I felt ready to be disappointed–somehow I might have gotten the date wrong, or I would find myself spending the day in the company of the handful of grizzled “usual suspects”who are all too frequently the only people who show up for radical events in this town. Did you know that, when famous activist singer-songwriter David Rovics last played Nashville, no more than a dozen people showed up? That was about ten years ago. No wonder he hasn’t been back.
But this was not a “usual suspects” event. I found myself in an auditorium with about a hundred and fifty people, who were a wide variety of ages and many shades of skin color. Very few of them were familiar faces. Two of those few familiar faces were TAP founder Nell Levin and TAP’s current head, Dan Joranko, both looking mighty pleased. But the big turnout of fresh faces was just the first pleasant surprise.
The next pleasant surprise came as I listened to the first speaker of the morning, Tefere Gebre, who left Ethiopia as a child refugee and is now an executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO. He started by noting that maintenance workers at VW’s Chattanooga plant had just voted 71%-29% to join the UAW, and that this had not received nearly the media attention that the union’s earlier rebuff had gained. He then pointed out that a union is, in effect, a co-operative association of workers, formed to give them more bargaining power with the management of large corporations. Good, but nothing too radical so far. Next thing I knew, though, he was firing the place up.
“This country needs a complete change of the economic rules,” he said. “We are creating new billionaires at the rate of one a week, but for every billionaire, a thousand people are living in poverty, and this is happening by design…..More people are in prison in the United States than in Russia and China combined. Is this the kind of country we want to have?” The complete change of economic rules that he proposed was the creation of a much broader co-operative economy. The term he used was “paradigm change.”
At this point, I was in a state of happy shock. I sit up in my hollow in the woods and fret over the need for paradigm change, its slow progress, its need to pick up momentum to avoid utter catastrophe, and what often seems like a dismaying majority of people who, if you uttered the phrase “paradigm change” to them, would puzzle for a moment and then ask, “you want four nickels for a pair of dimes?” Now, here was a freaking Executive Vice President of the freaking AFL-CIO talking about it in the same terms as I was. I and my small group of friends and unindicted co-conspirators are not alone. There really is a mass movement out there. What a relief!
The next speaker was Nashvillian Benny Overton, a UAW member who is also involved with NOAH–that’s Nashvillians Organized for Action and Hope,” as I hope you recall!
NOAH, this is your local, bush-league, amateur prophet coming in from the nearest thing we’ve got to a wilderness, telling you that The Lady and The Lord told me we need to build an ark, and find a way to include in it all that’s basic to the best of human culture, because the waters are going to rise, and this sinful civilization is going to be swept away.
Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself, but not by much. Mr. Overton gave a rousing speech, reminding us that poverty and unemployment are on the rise, and we need to question the premises of the economic system that is doing this. One of the premises we most need to question, he told the audience, is the fact that, in our culture, labor and community welfare are subordinate to capital and profit, and that we were gathered together that Saturday to learn how to change that–to create a culture in which capital and profit are subordinate to community welfare, and in which the commuCCCnity, not individual entrepreneurs, is enriched by the economic activity that takes place in the community. Meanwhile, he said, private ownership is protected by the government even if it closes down functioning, profitable workplaces and leaves workers, and the municipalities in which they live, out of work and impoverished. “Class warfare is going on all the time, and the working class is losing,” he thundered. “People like to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and he can feed himself for a lifetime.’ But he needs access to a fishing pole and he needs access to a fishing hole. We all need access to the commons.” It’s worth noting that, while he described what it means, he did not use the s-word, but I will. “Capitalism,” which has morphed since the 19th century into “corporatism,” is the name of the paradigm that, as he said, subordinates human welfare to the needs of capital and profit. The reverse of this, a paradigm that elevates a healthy social and ecological system over the need for profit and the accumulation of capital is–Socialism. There, I’ve said it, even if Benny Overton didn’t, and neither did anybody else I heard at the conference.
He reminded us of the saga of Republic Windows, a union-shop Chicago manufacturing enterprise that was closed down by its owner so he could move the operation to a non-union shop in another state. The owner then filed for bankruptcy, seemingly so that he could get out of paying his employees’ severance packages. The workers staged a sit-in to protest this, won some concessions, and, after a number of changes, reorganized the company as a worker-owned, and worker-run, co-op, now known as New Era Windows.
He concluded by noting that we face two possible futures. In one, the economy is run for the benefit of multinational corporations that ignore the needs of local communities, pushing for “austerity”–an austerity in which the wealthy prosper and the rest of us just get poorer. He linked this directly to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the World Trade Organization. In the other possible future, the world is populated by a web of interlocking communities, each one of which has control over itself, all of them coordinating their efforts to create a sustainable culture.
The third introductory speaker was a woman from the Southern Grassroots Economies Project, whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch, but she talked about the importance of creating a “solidarity economy,” one that helps money stay in the community rather than be siphoned off to outside owners and chain store stockholders. “Economy,” she reminded us, means “household care,” and we need to shift to a co-operative model if we are going to care adequately for our Earth household. Changing the basis of our economy is an important step, and she outlined the five kinds of co-operatives that can re-orient our economy. The first, which most of us are most familiar with, is the consumer co-op, such as many healthy food stores–or “The Farmers’ Co-op.” Then there are “producer co-ops,” in which independent operators who produce the same product, often farmers, join together to share common expenses, such as a processing plant that none of them could afford individually, and to have more bargaining power with the large corporate buyers of their products. There are workers’ co-ops, such as New Era, which I mentioned above. With inspiration and some help from well-established European co-op federations like Mondragon and Emilia Romagna, this business model is proliferating across the US. The fourth kind of co-op is the “social co-op,” which exists to provide social services, such as education, help for the disabled, elder care, child care, or medical care. Sometimes this involves money and structure, and sometimes it’s part of the informal economy. Long ago in a galaxy far away, when my children were very young, my wife and several of her friends got together and figured out how to share childcare so they could all hold part-time jobs instead of all being stuck home taking care of one or two kids. That’s the nitty-gritty of paradigm change, folks. Some of you feminists in my audience may want to know why the women did this rather than the women and the men together. It’s simple. We under-equipped males couldn’t pass the physical, since we are unable to nurse babies. Sorry!
The final co-op model she explained was the “solidarity co-op,” which can be an integration of all, or most, of these types of co-ops into a larger structure that can, once it catches on and gets going, replace much of the for-profit economic model in an area. The example we were given was Fifth Season Co-op, based in south-west Wisconsin. The organization helps co-ordinate and develop production and distribution of a wide range of basic and lightly processed foods that can be grown in the area.
Next, the workshop speakers introduced themselves.
First up were Kristen Baker and Phil Amadon from the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative, a group inspired by the Mondragon model. Their projects include a food hub and large-scale community garden and a company that does energy efficiency retrofits, as well as a housing co-op, and they are in the process of launching a food co-op and a jewellery making co-op. They are also exploring opening a bakery and manufacturing railroad equipment. Manufacturing railroad equipment–that’s ambition!
Phil told the story of a colleague of his, one of those working-class conservative “hard hat” union guys, who was sceptical of the ideas that Phil was pitching, but nevertheless agreed to go visit Mondragon in Spain. Hey, vacation in Spain–swim the Mediterranean, catch a bullfight, see some castles, make fun of the silly lefties, right? He came back a convert. This is the same flipping process that kept Bernie Sanders in the Mayor’s office for three terms in Burlington. Many American “conservatives” don’t like the idea of government ownership and direction, but have no problem with co-operative ownership and direction. Small d-democracy has a strong appeal.
Phil and Kristen’s workshop was an opportunity to explore their operation in greater detail. I would have liked to attend their presentation, as well as both of the others that were happening simultaneously, but I don’t know how to be in three places at once, especially since I’m not really anywhere at all–but that’s a whole other topic!
Rebecca Kemble was another one of the presenters. She is both a cab driver for Union Cab, a driver-owned taxi co-operative in Madison, Wisconsin, and a member of Madison’s City Council. She presented two workshops, the first on her cab company, and the second on what the city of Madison is doing to help create a more co-operative economy in the town.
Jackie Arthur, from Three Rivers Co-op in Knoxville, led a workshop about their experience. “We offer the opportunity to build a career for people who don’t fit in a lot of other places,” she said. As a former co-op employee, at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vermont, that rang true with me. I wasn’t the only oddball on the staff. In fact, the most mainstream person employed at Hunger Mountain seemed like the oddest person there! But I digress….
Ed Whitfield offered a presentation on Renaissance Community Co-op, a movement that was sparked when a major chain closed the only grocery store in town, even though it was profitable–and the only grocery store in town. “They said we were too poor, too black, and too uneducated to create a co-op,” he laughed, “but we are on track to open in the Spring.” Hearing that made me feel all warm and glowy inside. Talk about, “Yes we can!” “Yes, we can change the socio-economic paradigm!”
Hillary Abell, from Project Equity, a San Francisco-based consulting group, presented two workshops. The first was on the subject of business conversions–how to turn a privately owned business into a co-op. The second dealt with co-op incubation and education.
Workers’ Dignity, a Nashville workers’ rights organization, presented on the subject of…well, workers’ rights. They are also raising money to launch a low-power FM station here in Nashville, and talked about that to the lunch crowd, but the acoustics in the hard, high-ceilinged atrium where we gathered for lunch were such that I really couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. As a long-time volunteer programmer here at WRFN, I wish them all the best. There is something very satisfying about sitting in a broadcast studio and putting the word out to you-know-not-whom.
PUSH Buffalo was supposed to give a presentation over Skype about creating community housing co-ops and land trusts, but that ended up not happening, which was too bad–as Benny Overton pointed out, access to a fishing hole is a pretty fundamental part of teaching somebody to fish, if you catch my metaphor. A workshop on co-operative solutions to housing issues would have “grounded” the gathering in an important way.
The first workshop I attended was Hilary Abell‘s presentation on “Business Conversions.” I was one of twenty or so people in the room. There are a lot of small proprietorship-type businesses in the country, many of them started by us baby boomers, and we are reaching retirement age. Many small businesspeople don’t have an involved younger family member who wants to take on the business, and don’t want to, or don’t have the option to, sell it to another private owner. For such individuals, selling the business to its employees can be an attractive option. The main stumbling block can be lack of employee experience with being management–Ms. Abell pointed out that “half of all co-op startups fail.” That’s a sobering statistic, since we mostly hear about the success stories. Advising business owners and workers on how to do this is Project Equity’s mission. Project Equity is not the only outfit doing this. RIchard Wolff’s organization, Democracy at Work, performs a similar service. Just for relativity, I asked Ms. Abell about one of Professor Wolff’s ideas–that cities can exercise eminent domain to take over the property of a business that wants to close or leave town, help form a co-op to take it over, and then sell it to the co-op. She did not think that was out of line.
That brought us up to lunchtime, after which we did a “community mapping activity.” We gathered with other people from our part of town around a map of that part of town, then drew on the map the location of various resources, threats, and responses to those threats. It turned out that I was the only person from the Northwest quadrant of town in attendance at this meeting–the Bell’s Bend crowd, who might have been there, were all at the Local Food Summit, which was, unfortunately, going on at the very same time, just down the road at TSU’s main campus. I saw one friend who was trying to bounce back and forth between the two, but it was too much driving for me. Too bad, because conference organizer Jeff Poppen and keynote speaker Hugh Lovel are two of my favorite people. Better luck next year, eh?
I had never sat down with a map of my extended neighborhood and attempted to fill it in with everything I know about it. I was surprised at how much I knew, but having somebody to work with would have made it even more educational. I would have found out things I didn’t know. Some other occasion, maybe.
The second activity was for these area-specific groups to formulate what we thought were the most important takeaways from the gathering. I joined with the folks from the section of town adjoining ours for that, and we came up with a list. The lists were then hung on the wall, and we were asked to vote for the ones we liked best. And the winners were….
- Provide more extensive neighborhood-level education and advocacy around community land trusts, real estate cooperatives and other related models as a way to address displacement
- Create a Nashville Coop Incubator with strong educational and technical focus
- Follow up on Mayor Barry’s commitment to form a Community Wealth Building task force that will help fund and support cooperative enterprise development
It’s noteworthy that, although there were no workshops on the subject, “land trusts and real estate cooperatives” led the last. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks that they could play an important role in at least slowing the rate of gentrification in this town.
It seemed a little odd to be doing this in the middle of the conference instead of at the end, but, in the middle of the conference, we were all gathered together, while at the end, we would be eager to leave. Maybe that was the reasoning.
After lunch, I went to Rebecca Kemble’s presentation on “City partnerships and Coop development,” and that’s where things got really interesting. There were four, count ’em, four members of Metro Council in the room–two at-large members, Jim Shulman and John Cooper, and two district members–Fabian Bedne and Freddie O’Connell, who first came to local prominence when he co-hosted Liberadio on WRVU with Mary Mancini, who is now head of the Tennessee Democratic Party. You never can tell where hosting a radio show will lead you! (I don’t have a link for Cooper because he doesn’t have a current web site.)
Ms. Kemble began by paying tribute to Mississippi co-op Jackson Rising, which she said inspired her efforts. Another inspiration for her was Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who campaigned on creating more co-ops in town, and who put his money where his mouth is by passing a $600,000 a year co-op creation budget for the next five years. That, in particular, inspired Ms. Kemble to run for City Council, because Hizzoner was referring to the decision-making process around spending this money as “a free-for-all.” Making sure the funds were well spent was a dirty job, but Ms. Kemble figured she’d better do it.
She wasn’t all politics, though. As she began her talk, she reminded us that the fundamental unit of the co-op is the person, that each of us has potential for personal growth, and that one of the essential points of the co-op movement is to honor and foster that growth. For me, this acknowledgement was another one of the high points of the day.
There was plenty of material nitty-gritty to her presentation, though. One of the challenges facing Madison is that, as a result of the Heinz-Kraft merger, a perfectly profitable sausage plant that employs six hundred people is being closed, and the city is looking into recasting it as an employee-owned and operated business. Another big challenge facing the city is its biggest employer, Epic, a creator of medical billing and records co-ordination software. The company pays its employees very well, but this is driving the price of real estate in Madison out of the range of most of the people who live and work there. A further complication is that Epic employees are not very civic-minded, as a whole, and tend to not stay with the company, or in Madison, for very long. The city is working to foster urban land trusts and housing co-ops as a form of self-defence. If inexpensive housing isn’t available, the University of Wisconsin’s student body will have a big problem, and so will the University.
Ms. Kemble also shared stories of the peoples’ revolt against Scott Walker, and how it was betrayed by national-level Democrats and union leaders. Walker has proven to be irrational and heavy-handed as a governor, even banning regional transit authorities. I was really enjoying Ms. Kemble’s talk by this point. She seemed like somebody I could relate to, which is not often something I think about “politicians.” But then, she’s not a “politician.” She’s a cab driver who holds elective office, and happens to know a lot about the nuts and bolts of running a co-operative–the importance of good leadership, clear goals, evaluation, communication, how to leverage financing, and how to educate business professionals, unions, bankers, and lawmakers about the advantages of the co-operative business model.
I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. At-large Council member Jim Shulman asked for the specific language that was used in the co-op-fostering legislation that passed in Madison. I felt a light go on in my head–it’s such a relief when you see something that needs doing, like creating more co-ops in Nashville, and then you discover that somebody else, who’s better situated than you are to do the job, wants to take it on. I spent a little time hanging out with him and Sebastian Bedne after the workshop, mostly listening to Bedne talk about how he’s from Argentina, and co-ops are a big part of the economy there, providing everything from ceramic tiles to banking. “And the banking co-ops,” he told us, “meet regularly to decide how to spend their ‘profits’ on social welfare projects.”
Both Council members saw clearly how the empowerment that the co-operative model offers addresses not just economic well-being, but also the issues of violence and addictive drug use, which arise from feelings of powerlessness. I felt happily validated, and was very happy to hear other people saying it.
Things are getting seriously crazy on this planet. A climate conference at which our leaders have pretended to do something significant is just concluding, with, to cite just one example, India insisting on its right to build the coal plants that will raise CO2 levels and temperatures to the point where most of India and the area around it will likely became uninhabitable by humans, or much of anything else, while the Saudis insist on their right to sell enough oil to make their country uninhabitable, even with the best air conditioning money can buy. America’s twin addictions to fossil fuels and control, coupled with the climate change that has already occurred, has heated up the Middle East, both climatically and politically, to the point where most of its peace-loving citizens just want to leave. Reactionary Americans are deathly afraid of the possibility that these people will come over here, get guns, and start shooting at us, when many more Americans have been killed by gun-owning reactionary Americans than by armed recent immigrants. In the face of a human population heading rapidly towards the point of fatal overrun, these same people, and others of a similar stripe from other cultures, are doing all they can to shut down women’s’ access to birth control and abortion. Sorry, Pope Francis! I love your economics but I gotta call it like I see it. The rhetoric and funding of these reactionaries, and the Democrats who pretend to oppose them but serve the same selfish corporate paradigm, have all but shut reality out of the national political scene, and most state political arenas as well. Similar reaction is afoot in Europe, which is on the front line of the exodus from the Middle East. “Exodus.” Middle East. Hmm, that sounds familiar. Let my people go…..
Meanwhile, here in Nashville, the seeds of a resilient, locally based, co-operative economy appear to be sprouting, and there appears to be a serious desire to tend them and help them grow. To change metaphors, if we shift our little grain of sand here, and enough grains of sand elsewhere shift, then the ground will move under the intransigent politicians, corporatists, and reactionaries, no matter what they do. Progress happens one step at a time, things are in motion, and we might just have started writing the history of a sane, sustainable future for humanity, right here in Nashville. All we can do is try our best.
music: Bob Marley, “Exodus”
Material, “Into the 7th House” (sorry, not available on line!)