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Gar Alperovitz, Ted Howard, and Thad Williamson, who study and work towards alternative economic models, have an article in The Nation today  a rise of worker-owned cooperatives in Cleveland.

Something important is happening in Cleveland: a new model of large-scale worker- and community-benefiting enterprises is beginning to build serious momentum in one of the cities most dramatically impacted by the nation’s decaying economy. The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry (ECL)–a worker-owned, industrial-size, thoroughly “green” operation–opened its doors late last fall in Glenville, a neighborhood with a median income hovering around $18,000. It’s the first of ten major enterprises in the works in Cleveland, where the poverty rate is more than 30 percent and the population has declined from 900,000 to less than 450,000 since 1950…

These are not your traditional small-scale co-ops. The Evergreen model draws heavily on the experience of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque Country of Spain…

The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, the flagship of the Cleveland effort, aims to take advantage of the expanding demand for laundry services from the healthcare industry…After a six-month initial “probationary” period, employees begin to buy into the company through payroll deductions of 50 cents an hour over three years…

Thoroughly green in all its operations, ECL will have the smallest carbon footprint of any industrial-scale laundry in northeast Ohio…A second green employee-owned enterprise also opened this fall as part of the Evergreen effort. Ohio Cooperative Solar (OCS) is undertaking large-scale installations of solar panels on the roofs of the city’s largest nonprofit health, education and municipal buildings…Another cooperative in development ($10 million in federal loans and grants already in hand) is Green City Growers, which will build and operate a year-round hydroponic food production greenhouse in the midst of urban Cleveland…

A fourth co-op, the community-based newspaper Neighborhood Voice, is also slated to begin operations this year. Organizers project that an initial complex of ten companies will generate roughly 500 jobs over the next five years. The co-op businesses are focusing on the local market in general and the specific procurement needs of “anchor institutions,” the large hospitals and universities that are well established in the area and provide a partially guaranteed market. Discussions are under way with the “anchors” to identify additional opportunities for the next generation of community-based businesses…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

President Obama has endorsed a strategy for making high-speed rail a priority in the United States…

Providing infrastructure and transportation for this expanding population will generate a long list of required equipment and materials that a restructured group of vehicle production companies could help produce–and, at the same time, help create new forms of ownership that anchor the economies of the local communities involved…

the principles implicit in the nascent Cleveland effort point to the possibility of an important new strategic approach. It is one in which economic policy related to activities heavily financed by the public is used to create, and give stability to, enterprises that are more democratically owned, and to target jobs to communities in distress…

The Cleveland experiment is in its infancy, with many miles to go and undoubtedly many mistakes to make, learn from and correct. On the other hand, as New Deal scholars regularly point out, historically the development of models and experiments at the local and state levels provided many of the principles upon which national policy drew when the moment of decision arrived. It is not too early to get serious about the Clevelands of the world and the possible implications they may have for one day moving an economically decaying nation toward a new economic vision.

I’ve been drawn to cooperatives as an economic alternative since I first learned about Mondragon in a Catholic Social Teaching course. Worker-owned enterprises are a fruitful third way in the traditional public-private dichotomy. Promisingly, the Cleveland model shows that they do not require national political support to arise. However, to increase their scale and scope, it’s imperative to get the word out and show how these efforts cut across the spectrum. In the current political morass, it is certainly possible that even these cooperatives could become a political football, especially if they are integrated into mass transit plans. However, I’m hoping that their local success and the current populist outcry for jobs allows cooperatives to become a key part of future job proposals.

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