Originally published November 2, 2009 at "Cooperate and No One Gets Hurt"
On Friday [October 30, 2009], my friend/colleague Lisa Stolarski and I sat down with Rob Witherell, who is coordinating the United Steelworkers' freshly-announced plan to create worker cooperatives in North America. This will be modeled after, and in partnership with, the Mondragon cooperatives of the Basque Country (in Spain).
Here are some excerpts from our chat:
Q: How did this agreement unfold? Who initiated it? How did it develop?
Witherell: Well, we had a lot of interest in worker ownership in the past. We've done a lot of work with ESOPs. We thought of doing some type of coops, both here and in Canada. Our ESOP experience soured us a little bit because essentially it was short-lived. By the time we were offered the opportunity to buy the shares the company was so financially strapped that it had a very small chance of success. Those that did succeed were usually bought out by some other investor, and even earning those shares didn't actually translate to any accountability to the workers or worker input. It really didn't change the nature of work in a lot of cases...
We saved Algoma Steel up in Ontario through an ESOP which was good initially but didn't work out as we'd hoped although we did save the plant by doing so. So yeah there has been a lot of interest going over the last couple of decades and Lynn Williams, one of our International Presidents, has been very interested and active working on this in Canada. I think they had a little more interested with the coop-stuff in Canada, and being a truly international union, we have lots of members in Canada so it opens us up to another experience.