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Richard D. Wolff: Can We Remake Our Workplaces To Be More Democratic?

Economist Richard D. Wolff is known as a critic of capitalism, but lately he's been arguing for an alternative: cooperatives.

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Then, what happens to the bargain between the union and the boss about that move when that's in the wings? That's a very different conversation. If I'm sitting across the board from the boss, begging and pleading, that's a very different conversation from "When you leave, we're going to be right here, we're going to make your life so unpleasant." That is much more powerful.

Suppose a movement like this begins to coordinate with sympathizers, students and we begin to become a social force, saying hey, there ought to be government support for this. Just like there's a government administration that favors small businesses, or a minority-owned business association from the government, there ought to be a worker-self-directed enterprise administration that provides seed money, subsidized loans, technical assistance, orders, to these, to help them.

Here's how it would be sold, today, by me: it's an unemployment solution. And there's a model for it: the Marcora law in Italy. It dates from the 1980s, and I advocate for that here. If you become unemployed in Italy, you are given a choice. Option A: you go on unemployment like in America, you get a weekly check for a couple years, that's your unemployment benefit. But you can choose an alternative if you wish. The government of Italy will give you the entire two to three years of unemployment right now in a lump sum. But here's the condition. You must get together with eight or 10 other unemployed people to make the same choice with you at the same time, and you must commit to using the lump sum as the startup capital for a collective enterprise, cooperatively owned and operated by all of you unemployed people.

In theory these people will now have a commitment to stay employed, because if you get unemployed again you can't dip back into the unemployment. The government's not out another nickel. We would've given these people that anyway. Instead what we're getting is something much better. Instead of these people sitting on their ass, we have people out there busting their butts to make a successful enterprise because it's their chance, it's their way out of their own situation.

The business community has gone after it three or four times, they've weakened it but they haven't been able to get rid of it. For me the shock value of telling people such a thing exists. You want to do something? We already have a menu of concrete options, you could come up with.

Could you imagine a union movement that stood behind these kinds of efforts, to get a Marcora law or its equivalent? If the unions had a two-pronged strategy like this, young people's eyes would pop open and they'd be coming in droves. We could make it very exciting, a movement not just to get a union person a better job and a better pension, which is a worthwhile goal. But this is changing America.

If we do this, Americans will have real freedom of choice. They'll be able to conceive of a job not just in a top-down hierarchical capitalist enterprise, but they'll have the choice to go work in a different enterprise, which these unions have helped to develop, with the help of the government and the Marcora law equivalent. We're bringing freedom of choice as to what kind of job you're going to have.

We're going to make sure that every product has a tag on it that doesn't just say "Made in China," it's going to tell you where it was made. It's going to have a new little symbol that is going to tell you whether it was made in a capitalist, top-down hierarchical enterprise or the kind of enterprise you and I would like to see. The same kind of energy that goes into buying fair-trade coffee would now go into supporting worker self-directed enterprise. Do you want to support workers having a decent life? A life where they aren't drudges that someone else tells what to do? Buy this plastic made from workers' factory rather than that one.

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