Discussion focuses on cooperatives

By Eric Banford
Professor Richard Wolff drew a large crowd on April 9 for his talk on “Democracy at Work, Sustainable Business Structures, and the Real Meaning of Social Democracy for Business.” Wolff is the host of the national radio program “Economic Update,” which is broadcast local on WRFI every Friday at 1 p.m.
Wolff’s discussion centered on sustainable alternatives to business structures, and his thoughts on the movement toward more social democracy in the workplace. The discussion was followed by a moderated Q & A session and a book signing.
The event was organized by the Sustainable Enterprise and Entrepreneur Network (SEEN), a network of local businesses, organizations, and individuals who “recognize that a strong economy depends on the health of our community and natural environment.”
“What really impressed me was his reflections on the fact that his message is being welcomed in so many places these days,” says Maribeth Rubenstein, president of the Green Resource Hub. “People are asking him to talk about social democracy in relation to economics. They seem really responsive to it these days, and are looking for an alternative economic model.”
Wolff related how U.S. corporations are working closely with business cooperatives from other countries, which made Rubenstein wonder why the worker-owned cooperative model hasn’t been more discussed in this country.
“Especially considering all of the outsourcing that is going on right now, [cooperatives] could be a really successful model, particularly with some state intervention. The state and federal government give a lot of breaks to corporations, they could be applying those resources to investing in worker-owned cooperatives,” she says.
There are already successful co-ops in Tompkins County, Rubenstein notes, but she wonders how to support more. “I think we need to give more air to these thoughts and these ideas and see how these types of models can be applied locally. Our goal in hosting this talk was to get this more in the conversation,” she says.
“I was happy to see such a great turnout and so many organizations excited to see him come, like Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development, Local First Ithaca and Building Bridges,” Rubenstein says. “This event helped SEEN get back in touch with organizations working on similar issues. We’d like to follow this up with a local panel discussion and create an ongoing collaboration, and we’re looking for ideas for a thought-leader for a presentation in the fall.”
“One of my goals for this was to have it before the primary election,” says David Gower, treasurer for the Green Resource Hub and an organizer for the event. “One of the things he talks about is social democracy and ways to move toward a more democratic work system. That’s a message that I think is important for SEEN because it’s about making your business sustainable. And as we do events in the future, we want to not just serve our community, but to reach out to the community around us.”
“I think there’s lots of opportunities for cooperative development in Tompkins County,” says Krys Cail, who works with the Cooperative Development Institute (cdi.coop).
Cail is working with one local business on possible conversion to a worker cooperative form. She is also heavily involved in promoting the consumer cooperative model for community-distributed generation of green electricity. She believes that membership-based consumer cooperatives such as GreenStar and Alternatives Federal Credit Union have the potential to ramp up solar power through their unique capacity to raise community capital from their members.
Cail’s vision is for cooperative members to raise capital to put in solar installations. “If we could all be owners of those solar installations, then we could do things similar to what GreenStar does in allowing people who don’t have a lot of money to pay their equity investment over a number of years and continue to be members, and get lower priced electricity through that membership. Cooperatives can have a capital drive and do member loans or equity investments, they don’t need to be qualified investors,” she says.
Raising capital through consumer cooperatives is a great way for everyone, including renters (which Ithaca has a lot of), to have an equity stake in a clean energy generation plant, according to Cail. “There’s a lot of interest in cooperative models in the energy sector right now in New York State—from NSERDA and the New York State Green Bank, and from foundations like the Kresge Foundation, which has a current funding effort aimed at community development finance Institutions, many of which, like Alternatives, are consumer cooperatives themselves. Energy generation development is really capital intensive, so, if the whole community is going to participate, we need some assistance from these kinds of organizations,” she says.
“New York State is doing a lot of things to make community-scale energy projects possible,” continues Cail. “It is up to the communities and their local sustainable businesses to work together to make green energy affordable to all. I agree with professor Wolff on the need for more worker cooperative development in Ithaca, but we might want to consider a wider range of cooperative forms, to fit a range of opportunities for business development.
Learn more about Professor Wolff at www.democracyatwork.info.