Worker-Owners and Unions: Why Can't We Just Get Along?

It's time these two learned that two heads are better than one

| November 9, 2006

These days, when the corporation reigns and CEOs at the top bank millions a year, those toiling at the bottom of the pyramid need every tool possible to level the playing field. So why do two types of employee advocacy groups -- worker-owned businesses and unions -- often clash at the negotiating table?

On the surface, writes Dan Bell for Dollars and Sense, unions and worker-owned businesses have much in common. They both aim to narrow the gap between employees and owners, to increase workers' income, and to get their voices heard in the workplace. Both also want better working conditions. But in some ways, notes Bell, the common goals are what set the two apart, making them competitors for the numbers that give solidarity-based organizations legitimacy and power.

The chasm is made more complicated by different types of worker-owned businesses. At one end of the spectrum sit worker-cooperatives, highly democratic and decentralized organizations. At the other end are Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), in which employees own shares of the company stock, but are managed in a conventional business manner.

Despite an element of competition, unions and worker-owned outfits can deepen one another's success, especially with an ESOP. In an ideal situation, asserts Bell, a business with an ESOP and a union would work like the US government. The board of directors would create policy much like our Legislature does, the management would enforce that policy in a way akin to the executive branch, and the union would protect the workers from abuse of power much like our judicial branch does.

The reality is, though, that the system rarely works this perfectly; ESOPs have tricked union members into taking worthless stock, for instance. Or the outside influence of unions can sometimes interfere with a worker cooperative's ability to make sacrifices for future payoffs. And when trust between the two organizations has been breached, it's a short road to failure.

Yet when transparency and communication between the union, management, and workers are strong, Bell argues, the success of such business endeavors is astounding. Increased productivity, decreased waste, and monetary savings are some of the triumphs that teaming up have produced. And it's not just that worker-owners and unions can get along, declares Bell; in today's world 'they must!' -- Suzanne Lindgren