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

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

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Worker-Owners and Unions: Why Can’t We Just Get
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