After last month’s economic democracy conference at SLU, new ideas and conversations are bubbling up in New York City and beyond. How can we implement some of our best ideas about democratizing our workplaces and our economy?
One attendee, Evelyn Wright of Commonwealth Hudson Valley, wrote a blog post outlining her work and ideas and summarizing some of the conversations that the day generated…
Last Friday I went into the city for a daylong conference on Economic Democracy and System Change at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. Deputy Mayor Philip Thompson opened the day with a talk about why we need economic democracy, how economic democracy differs from the socialism and social democracy of the twentieth century, and what the city is doing to promote it.
Although the city government has spent over $8 million supporting worker coops over the past four years, Thompson says this is a drop in the bucket relative to the challenge of creating meaningful economic change. He described his vision for building what he calls civic infrastructure, “funding community organizing, labor organizing, and popular education on a massive and ongoing scale…democratically, without strings and conditions on what people can work on or advocate.”
He recounted first being alerted nearly twenty years ago to the opportunities cooperatives offer to mobilize community economic power by a cell phone coop in Colorado, “where some hippies, 5000 of them, organized to buy cell phone service together, collectively, in one contract.” The cell phone company paid the coop several nearly half a million dollars per year in contract incentives to get their business. Thompson described the “lightbulb” moment when he realized that “if you want to finance organizing, this is a lot better way to do it than begging money from foundations, where they tell you what you can and can’t do with the money. The hippies could do whatever they wanted with the money. It was their money.”
Shortly thereafter, he met the founders of a credit union for undocumented workers in North Carolina, whose explicit aim was not just to create economic stability and opportunity for their members, but also to organize and educate the community. “Ten years later,” Thompson said, “they had branches in seven cities in the state, they financially supported over fifty Latino community organizations, and they had their own nonprofit policy arm. So I learned that it’s possible to use banking to fund community organizing and politics.” Today Latino Community Credit Union has 77,000 members from over 100 countries and continues to provide financial education and promote housing affordability and economic development for immigrants throughout the region.