Cooperative Chicago

Forty years ago the Black Panthers drafted the Ten Point Program; a survival platform designed to build a foundation towards a revolutionary future. The Program demanded that basic needs be fulfilled, and importantly, that decent employment be provided to the people. Forty years later employment remains a pressing demand. Today we need a revolutionary vision on how to generate employment.

To date, the left has largely ignored the issue of creating employment. Generating employment in many communities has been left in the hands of predatory capitalists; the Wal-Marts, the polluting industries that have been rejected everywhere else, the day labor agencies etc. As a movement we have failed to recognize how employment can affect communities and their potential to organize and overcome oppression.

Communities suffering from unemployment, underemployment and poor employment degenerate into concrete jungles. Employment provides economic stability for families; in the absence of such stability it is nearly impossible to successfully organize for change. Without communal stability movements decay from opportunistic survival behavior; selling drugs, silence at the workplace, joining a gang or the military etc.

The failure of Chicago’s campaign to oppose Wal-Mart’s entry was instructive. If our movement is to be successful it must provide a program to meet the basic needs of communities. We must continue to oppose Wal-Mart but we must expand beyond opposition campaigns.

Green Cooperative Incubator

Incubators are institutions that promote entrepreneurship and help existing businesses overcome a variety of challenges. Incubators have traditionally been used as collaborations between universities, their graduates, and local government to promote hi-tech business development. Such collaborations position us as students to use our universities to promote employment in underemployed communities and to bring the benefits of green technology to fruition. Whereas most incubators favor upper and middle class managers to start small businesses, a socially oriented incubator would promote entrepreneurship from all backgrounds and would promote a cooperative model of organization, anchoring the profits and ownership of the enterprise in Chicago.

Cooperative development models have been applied in Mondragon in Spain, Emilia Romanga in Italy, Venezuela, and a variety of other areas around the world. They have shown the viability of economic cooperatives as a tool to generate employment and empower communities. We can learn from these models and adapt a plan using resources available to us in Chicago.

Mondragon Cooperative Corporation

Mondragon is an inspiring example of how worker cooperatives can create an economy from the ground up. The Basque region of Spain was devastated after Franco’s vicious assault during the Spanish civil war, and was punished by the central government for being one of the last provinces to submit to fascist rule. After the creation of a technical school in Mondragon during the early 1950s, five students and the founder of the school, a priest named Don Jose Maria, began a stove making company named ULGOR premised on the cooperative principles espoused by Don Jose Maria. ULGOR proved successful and by 1959 it required more capital, prompting Maria to visit door to door to raise capital for a cooperative bank, also know as the Caja bank.

As a student of cooperatives, Maria knew that cooperatives tended to become isolated and disintegrate after some generations of workers. The Mondragon project was intended to rebuild the Basque region and to generate employment, therefore as Mondragon expanded, each enterprise remained networked with each of the others. A Congress of Cooperatives established ground rules for the cooperatives to operate under, and also served to help restructure and bail out struggling enterprises. This approach has created significant results with only one failed enterprise out of over 150 enterprises within the Mondragon network (the usual failure rate for start up businesses is around 50%).

The lessons of Mondragon are that a network of enterprises is stronger than single lone standing enterprises. The Caja bank has also served to anchor the economic cooperatives by providing financing capital improvements, and has served to concentrate the assets of the workers who are required to deposit their money in a Caja account.

Emilia Romanga

Emilia Romanga is a region in Northern Italy that was also devastated by WWII and was liberated by the Italian communist partisans. It has been rebuilt through the dynamic policies of the Italian Communist Party. The ICP emphasized small businesses and cooperatives. The region now has 325,000 firms with a population of 4 million people, one of the highest firm ownership per capita rates in the world.

Small businesses and cooperatives have been promoted by the Communist Party through the sale of capital and land taken through the equivalent of eminent domain. The local government has also established incubators or service centers, where firms can loan time shares on expensive equipment that couldn’t be purchased on an individual level. Similar to the Caja bank the cooperative movement has an associated financial institution named Legacoop, one of the largest financial institutions in Italy. Many of the businesses emerged after spinning off of other businesses, with employees from one company creating a spinoff company to supply their former employer with inputs. This had led to one of the most dynamic economies in Europe, rated in the top ten most prosperous areas in the entire European Union.

Creating a Cooperative Economy in Chicago

Every campaign has a strategy that applies focused pressure on selected actors. As students we can pressure out universities to participate in an incubator by dedicating funding and faculty to identify market opportunities for cooperatives, and also to dedicate research towards technology for use by the cooperative enterprises. Many schools already have programs toward environmental and sustainable business, which can be used to generate institutional support for a cooperative incubator. More important than the actual monetary contributions of the universities would be the ability to access social networks available through the university. For example, presentations could be made to finance incubator projects through alumni, financial institutions with close relationships to the university, political contacts for grant money etc.

We can also pressure aldermen to obtain local government support. Significant support can be gained from the city with directed political pressure, from TIFF programs, small business loans to outright grants. The political capital behind entrepreneurship and greening efforts in Chicago can definitely be leveraged to gain the ears and even the cooperation of Chicago’s City Council without ruffling the feathers of the mayor.

Our incubator would generate business plans for cooperatives and work with entrepreneurs to help with start up challenges. In addition, these first generation cooperatives could be a useful tool for helping to establish a revolutionary political organization. Employment from these new enterprises could allow organizers to have the personal financial stability necessary for successful organizing efforts.

Green economy market opportunities will continue to expand for cooperatives; from installing green home improvements to manufacturing and installing wind turbines to building emissions free or low emissions vehicles. A green cooperative incubator can distill these opportunities into actionable business plans and provide the sound guidance to help ensure the success of the new enterprises. Universities can be changed from research institutions for war criminals like Boeing into partners providing important technical expertise for cooperative economic development. The green worker cooperatives created can anchor communities and create the stability necessary to build a revolutionary movement.

If the idea of a green incubator interests you, contact Nick Kreitman at mrsituationist@gmail.com and become involved in Solidarity, a proposed green entrepreneurship program dedicated to making a green cooperative economy a reality.

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