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David Van Deusen
A New Organization
Gay & Lesbian Community Notes
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Changing Employment In The Green Mountains
O n March 3 the 98-year-old Capital City Press in Berlin, Vermont shut its doors for the last time and 200 skilled workers, members of the Teamster-affiliated Lithographers Local 1, found themselves without jobs. The decision to close down the facility was made as a cost cutting measure by the print shop’s parent company—the Maryland-based Sheridan Group. Production formerly done in the Green Mountains has been transferred to a nonunion plant in Hanover, Pennsylvania.
Immediately after the announced closing, many Capital City Press employees came together to see if they could establish a new print shop that would be better rooted in the community and ultimately owned by the employees.
Dan Brush, a former Capital City Press worker and current business manager of Local 1, explained that his union was “60 percent” down the road to getting the new company off the ground. He and other members of the committee have been meeting with third parties trying to raise capital and pursue block grants. They had also been reaching out to former Capital City Press customers and had already secured over $1,500,000 in projected sales. If all goes according to plan, they expect to open, providing employment for 35 people, in June or July 2006.
If successful, these print workers will join other Vermont companies such as Carris Reels, Croma Technologies, the Trust Company of Vermont, and King Arthur Flour as the latest addition to the growing list of employee-owned Vermont businesses. In total there are 45 worker-owned companies in Vermont employing an estimated 2,200 people.
According to Don Jamison, director of the Burlington-based Vermont Employee Ownership Center, worker-owned businesses are on the rise. He explained that the reasons why people pursue worker ownership are diverse. Some do it to cash in on tax benefits offered by the state. In other cases businesses choose to transition towards worker ownership as an exit strategy for a private owner. Still others do so because of a sense of moral obligation. Whatever the reason, supporters contend that employee-owned companies have achieved higher levels of productivity, are less apt to relocate out of state, and tend to offer better pay and benefits than comparable jobs in traditional corporations.
T he vast majority of employeeowned busineses are organized according to one of two dominant models: worker cooperatives or Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs). Worker co-ops represent just over 20 percent of employeeowned companies in Vermont. However, these tend to employ far fewer workers then ESOPs. While practiced on an industrial scale in a number of nations, including Spain, Italy, and Argentina, in Vermont it is rare that co-ops involve more than 20 people. For example, the Red House construction co-op in Burlington and the Langdon Street Café co-op in Montpelier both employ 15 people. The Brattleboro Tech Collective employs three.
Some worker co-ops, like Red House, were started for practical reasons,
such as the desire to attract and retain highly qualified workers.
Others, such as the Langdon Street Café, were started for more
philosophical reasons, such as the desire to extend town meeting-type
democracy into the workplace.
All worker co-ops have democracy built into their structural model. This was done by either allowing every worker a voting seat on the board of directors or through workers electing representatives to the board from within their own ranks. In a co-op the worker-owners always constitute the majority of any decision making body.
While the ten or so worker cooperatives in Vermont differ depending on industry and the people involved, what co-op members hold in common is the belief that this model helps alleviate workplace alienation, increases output, and more equitably extends financial rewards throughout its membership.
David Evans, a member of the Brattleboro Tech Collective, contends, “We spend the bulk of our days and lives…laboring in a workplace. So I think the bulk of peoples’ experience is not having any control or real feelings of independence…. On the other hand, you don’t get apathetic when you’re a worker-owner. Once you take the reins of your workplace, it empowers you in other areas of your life.”
Wes Hamilton, a worker-owner at the Langdon Street Café (established in 2003), emphatically agrees. “You’d have a hard time finding anyone who would argue against freedom, equality, and democracy, but the funny thing is we are completely willing to accept what amounts to a dictatorship when it comes to work and your job. We decided on collective ownership because we want to live in a world where there is no dictatorship…and where there really is democracy and where everybody affected by a decision has a voice in creating that decision.”
For Hamilton, who describes himself as an anarchist, worker cooperatives represent an alternative model of how Vermont’s economy could be restructured along more equitable and democratic lines. In a certain sense he understands his co-op as a kind of propaganda of the deed. “We are a small band of idealistic, politically-minded 20 somethings, but to the extent that we can make this work and get our philosophy and ideas out…I think it opens up the notion that workerowned cooperatives can be successful. It opens up the concept to people who may otherwise never consider it,” Hamilton explained.
Stock Ownership Plans
T he majority of workerowners belong to Employee Stock Owenership Plans (ESOPs) and claim workforces well into the hundreds. While some are committed to workplace democracy, the only guaranteed commonality is that employees own some portion of the business. That portion can vary from 1 percent (Green Mountain Coffee Roasters) to a slight majority (Carris Reels) to 100 percent (King Arthur Flour). The way this ownership works is that after a set amount of time, qualified workers accrue stock that pays dividends as the value of the company increases. Collective ownership requires that departing employees sell back the stock. In this way ESOPs have built in financial rewards for the workers whose labor helps generate profits.
In general Vermont ESOPs put a heavy emphasis on “the culture of employee ownership” where employees are made to feel that their voice matters. They are typically encouraged to maintain an open dialogue with management, to take a more active role in the overall running of the company, and are often allotted representation on the board of directors. The extent of this representation varies. Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington, for example, allows non-management one seat on a seven-member board. The former Capital City Press workers, on the other hand, plan to give the rank and file ultimate control over the board, presumably by giving non-management employees a majority of the seats.
However, not all are convinced of the workplace altruism that many ESOP boosters speak of. While Vermont’s labor leaders speak highly of the worker cooperative model, when it comes to ESOPs they express varying degrees of apprehension. Vermont Workers’ Center Director James Haslam points out that the formation of an ESOP, despite the near universal talk of a culture of ownership, does not necessarily mean employees will be any more legally empowered than in traditional companies. Haslam contends, “Unless [companies] are worker run, and in a democratic way, then it makes sense for workers to have a voice in their own working conditions. The only way to have that truly is if you have a union.”
Traven Leyshon, president of the Washington County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, shares Haslam’s misgivings. “Who has the majority [and therefore control] on the board of directors and who is the management? Of course management is a technical skill. It usually does require hiring-in someone who has business expertise that the workers are not likely to have themselves, but who controls that person?”
Leyshon explains that his misgivings date back to his experiences in the 1980s while organizing in the labor movement outside Vermont. He says that during this period ESOPs were used as a tool to win concessions from union truckers across the U.S. He states that following the deregulation of the industry under Ronald Reagan many faltering freight companies went to their employees and convinced them to agree to ESOPs in exchange for large cuts in benefits and wages. He points out that all of these firms went belly up within the first few years of their existence.
ESOP enthusiast Cindy Turcat, chief operating officer of Gardener’s Supply Company and president of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, admits that it is not accurate to paint all ESOPs with the same enlightened brush. “Not all people do ESOPS for the right reasons,” she warns.
Jamison recognizes the past exploitive nature of some ESOPs. “As with any complex financial arrangement…there is room for abuse…. In the 80s, when there were a lot of businesses going belly up, unions were sometimes suckered into bad deals for their members where ESOPs were used as a kind of a last way of ringing out concessions from employees as the business was going down,” Jamison explained. However, for him these abuses are primarily a thing of the past. Again, he states that the recent track record for ESOPs in Vermont demonstrates that the potential gains far outweigh perceived risks.
Many people currently employed in ESOPs tend to agree. Pat Bates, an employee-owner of the Gardener’s Supply Company, is a firm ESOP supporter. She sees employee ownership as a means for workers to feel more connected with the business, as well as a way for them to share in the rewards. “It’s [in part] about sharing the profits. We’re not working our eight hours a day, putting in our 100 percent so that the few elites can reap the benefits and profits and put them in their pockets. We all get to share in it. In the good times we can celebrate and in the difficult times we come together to find those creative resolutions,” says Bates.
At Green Mountain Coffee Roasters I talked with a ten-year veteran of the company. He affirmed that the benefit package and pay provided by the company is very good (i.e., full healthcare, time off, and occasional yoga classes) and he is particularly happy with the additional pay accrued by his stake in the ESOP. However, he also confides that in his opinion the company employs too many temps.
One former temp told me his experience at the company was not qualitatively different than at other non-ESOP factories. He says, “I didn’t see any signs of anything [at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters] being any utopian pleasure palace. I saw people just trying to get through the day with equipment that was malfunctioning and deadlines that were to be met and demands by management to make more portions for sale.”
As for the coffee company’s claims of establishing a culture of ownership, he charged, “They said there was an open door policy, but saying that there was and actually accepting any feedback are two different things…. The only feedback that they [management] wanted to hear was, ‘Yes, I will work harder’.”
While this worker’s experience may or may not be common within ESOPs, many Vermont workers are still drawn to the model. Dan Brush and the former Capital City Press employees have chosen to organize their new business venture as an ESOP. Even so, they intend on borrowing certain elements of the cooperative model in order to provide meaningful worker oversight of management.
Brush asserts, “When we get up and running, we will be making all the decisions. We’ll all be shareholders. We’ll own a majority of the business. We will sit down and make the decisions. We’re not going to make the day-to-day decisions [for that they expect to hire a plant manager], but the big decisions.” Brush continues, “Since people are all union members and are used to having those types of meetings and making those type of decisions, this is something we are very comfortable with doing.”
The print workers also intend on keeping their status as a union shop. “There are a lot of good shops that are union shops where there aren’t a lot of problems between the union and management. I think we would be evolving into one of those shops and I think we may be growing into a vision as to what the future might be for parts of the labor movement as our manufacturing base leaves the country,” concludes Brush.
Whatever the future may hold, it is likely that worker-owned companies will continue to play a dynamic and increasing role in Vermont’s economy. What remains to be seen is whether or not this trend is capable of delivering actual workplace democracy or if it will be limited to providing financial rewards and a perception of employee participation. Regardless, in this era of outsourcing and stagnant wages, employee ownership will likely be embraced as a marked improvement to the status quo by many a Vermonter. The print workers are just the start.
David Van Deusen is a freelance jounalist and writer from Moretown, Vermont. He is also a member of the National Writers Union, Local 1981.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
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LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.