As the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating impacts on lives and livelihoods have ebbed and flowed in the US since early 2020, we’ve heard a near constant call from businesses and their allied politicians to “get back to normal.” A normal where employers held all the leverage against workers, where “essential” workers could be paid less than a living wage for arduous, life-saving work, and where government has to just get out of the way of “job-creating investors.” Our take, and that of other advocates for a fairer economy, has been that normal was not good enough. We need to go Beyond Corporations in organizing our economy. It’s time to shift power.
In our announcement last year on our organizational evolution to fully tackle this goal, we identified as a key priority the lack of broad-based awareness of worker- and community-centered alternatives to the dominant corporate model — which prioritizes shareholder interest and exhibits concentrated ownership, fueling massive inequality. Far too few people know about the various ways business entities can be structured that can actually put workers and communities at the center of power and counter some of these malignant forces. This feeds our societal inertia of reimagining the economy in any other way, and leads to timid reforms that don’t truly challenge power.
Announcing Shifting Power
In 2021, we began working on our latest project: Shifting Power: Assessing Worker- and Community-Centric Alternatives to Conventional Corporations. The project will, in one user-friendly and visually appealing online platform, explore and evaluate a range of different policies, reforms, structural features of businesses (“models”) that either: (a) create some form of worker and community ownership of business entities, or (b) enable worker and community control in decision-making at those businesses. We will focus on models that are operating in or conceptualized for the US. These may include worker cooperatives¹ and employee stock ownership plans² but also newer (to the US context) or even less widely understood examples like steward ownership³ or corporations controlled by and benefiting indigenous communities.⁴ By creating a useable one-stop-repository of key information, case studies and research into existing alternatives, we hope to show that it is possible to meaningfully shift power to workers and communities — even if incrementally — and to help other allies and supporters of economic justice see how they can adopt, promote and advance economic models that do so. We believe this is crucial in order to shift corporate behavior away from the path of ever-increasing wealth and power concentration, and towards a more equitable distribution that advances economic justice.
The project has several overarching and interlocking goals:
- To create a hub of information on the various models that exist in the US that challenge the dominant corporate form.
- To analyze whether, how and under what conditions these alternatives meaningfully transfer power and profits to workers and communities, and uphold sustainable and equitable behaviors.
- To bring new, natural allies to the already vibrant field of worker and community ownership and governance.
We expect this project will have natural resonance for several key audiences:
- Partners in the business and human rights / corporate accountability movement who are interested in shifting focus towards the structural causes of rights violations such as concentrated power and decision-making.
- Practitioners and worker-owners in the new economy / solidarity economy movements who seek to learn about other models and best practices on integrating a rights lens into their work.
- The ethical investment community, some of whom may be looking to integrate ownership principles into the existing ESG agenda, as well as impact investors and other sets of progressive investors.
- Academics at business and law schools who see the need to teach a more worker- and community-centric story of how business entities can be organized.
- Wider social justice / progressive movements that already advocate with and against corporations but haven’t incorporated analysis of how worker and community ownership can advance their goals.
- Policy makers who are looking to tackle inequality and corporate concentration, and empower workers and communities.
- Workers, organizers, progressive business professionals and entrepreneurs who might be disillusioned with business-as-usual and looking for tools and resources to help imagine alternatives.
Opportunities to Get Involved
In our initial conversations socializing this project concept with advocates, practitioners, investors, workers and academics who are actively advancing or supporting some of these alternative models, we’ve been gratified by the response, which indicates there is a need for this kind of analysis. In the near future, after gathering initial research and data, we plan on convening a review circle, which will consist of representatives from the various target audience organizations and networks, to provide input on our initial findings and submit case studies. If you would like participate or partner in any way, including during this review circle, please contact us via email.
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¹ Enterprises where workers-owners “participate in the profits, oversight, and often management of the enterprise using democratic practices” (source: US Federation of Worker Cooperatives)
² A type of employee benefit plan that acquires company stock and holds it on behalf of employees (source: National Center for Employee Ownership)
³ Business form where shareholders and managers are replaced by people committed to the company’s purpose, employees, and broader stakeholder community (source: Purpose)
⁴ For example, the 13 Alaska “Regional Corporations” which were set up to benefit and be controlled by Alaska Native people (source: Alaska Resource Development Council)