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Worker-Owned, Industrial-Size, Environmentally Sound Business Rises Up

The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry (ECL) in Cleveland is thoroughly green and worker-owned, and a blueprint for the future.

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Significant resources are being committed to this effort by the Cleveland Foundation and other local foundations, banks and the municipal government. The Evergreen Cooperative Development Fund, currently capitalized by $5 million in grants, expects to raise another $10-$12 million--which in turn will leverage up to an additional $40 million in investment funds. Indeed, this may well be a conservative estimate. The fund invested $750,000 in the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which was then used to access an additional $5 million in financing, a ratio of almost seven to one. An important aspect of the plan is that each of the Evergreen co-operatives is obligated to pay 10 percent of its pre-tax profits back into the fund to help seed the development of new jobs through additional co-ops. Thus, each business has a commitment to its workers (through living-wage jobs, affordable health benefits and asset accumulation) and to the general community (by creating businesses that can provide stability to neighborhoods).

The overall strategy is not only to go green but to design and position all the worker-owned co-ops as the greenest firms within their sectors. This is important in itself, but even more crucial is that the new green companies are aiming for a competitive advantage in getting the business of hospitals and other anchor institutions trying to shrink their carbon footprint. Far fewer green-collar jobs have been identified nationwide than had been hoped; and there is a danger that people are being trained and certified for work that doesn't exist. The Evergreen strategy represents another approach--first build the green business and jobs and then recruit and train the workforce for these new positions (and give them an ownership stake to boot).

Strikingly, the project has substantial backing, not only from progressives but from a number of important members of the local business community as well. Co-ops in general, and those in which people work hard for what they get in particular, cut across ideological lines--especially at the local level, where practicality, not rhetoric, is what counts in distressed communities. There is also a great deal of national buzz among activists and community-development specialists about "the Cleveland model." Potential applications of the model are being considered in Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit and a number of other cities around Ohio.

What's especially promising about the Cleveland model is that it could be applied in hard-hit industries and working-class communities around the nation. The model takes us beyond both traditional capitalism and traditional socialism. The key link is between national sectors of expanding public activity and procurement, on the one hand, and a new local economic entity, on the other, that "democratizes" ownership and is deeply anchored in the community. In the case of healthcare the link is also to a sector in which some implicit or explicit form of "national planning"--the movement toward universal healthcare--will all but certainly increase public influence and concern with how funds are used.

Whereas the Cleveland effort is targeted at very low-income, largely minority communities, the same principles could easily be applied in cities like Detroit and aimed at black and white workers displaced by the economic crisis and the massive planning failures of the nation's main auto companies. Late in October, in fact, the Mondragon Corporation and the million-plus-member United Steelworkers union announced an alliance to develop Mondragon-type manufacturing cooperatives in the United States and Canada. Says USW's Rob Witherell: "We are seeking the right opportunities to make it work, probably in manufacturing markets that we both understand."

Consider what might happen if the government and the UAW used the stock they own in General Motors because of the bailout to reorganize the company along full or joint worker-ownership lines--and if the new General Motors product line were linked to a plan to develop the nation's mass transit and rail system. Since mass transit is a sector that is certain to expand, there is every reason to plan its taxpayer-financed growth and integrate it with new community-stabilizing ownership strategies. The same is true of high-speed rail. Moreover, there are currently no US-owned companies producing subway cars (although some foreign-owned firms assemble subway cars in the United States). Nor do any American-owned companies build the kind of equipment needed for high-speed rail.

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