New Yorkers Discuss Co-op Conference

Alex Ellefson Jun 7, 2014

Mississippi has long been a flashpoint in the struggle for racial equality. It’s the place where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s bloated, mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River in 1955; in many ways his open-casket funeral in Chicago energized the early Civil Rights movement. Almost a decade later, U.S. troops were sent to the University of Mississippi to quell violent riots that erupted after the first African-American was admitted to the historically segregated school. And it was in the state capital of Jackson where NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated in front of his home hours after president John F. Kennedy delivered his nationally televised 1963 speech in support of civil rights.

So it’s fitting that Jackson, Mississippi, which is nearly 80 percent black and one of the poorest cities in the country, has emerged as a hot spot in the struggle for economic self-determination. On Tuesday, June 3, a panel of activists and researchers at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s offices in Midtown discussed the challenges of building a network of worker-owned cooperative businesses in Jackson as a means of revitalizing the city’s impoverished minority neighborhoods.

The panel convened to report on the two-day Jackson Rising conference, where nearly 700 concerned citizens and social activists from around the world met last month to discuss social solidarity strategies that could lift Jackson residents out of poverty. The conference was the brainchild of former Jackson mayor Chokwe Lumumba, the longtime civil rights activist and radical leftist who died last February after only eight months in office.

Kazembe Balagun, a project manager at the foundation, which co-sponsored the Jackson Rising conference, opened the discussion by describing his experience driving through Mississippi on his way to the conference.

“In knowing the history of Mississippi, when I was going past these towns like Vicksburg or Sunflower County, those are all towns that talk about the deep fight for democracy in this country,” he said.  “And when we dig deeper into the Civil Rights movement and by contrast any movement, we understand that there has always been a cooperative movement attached to them. Any movement that’s worth its weight has always had some sort of economic arm for social justice to it.”

The Jackson Rising conference, while focused on issues related to the American South, was meant to draw attention to a cooperative economic model that addressed the urban decay, particularly in minority neighborhoods, that occurred in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.

“Before the late Mayor Lumumba passed away, he had a vision of Jackson being a hub of a new type of economy, one that put human needs first. And even though he’s gone, the movement is not gone,” Balagun told me before the panel discussion.

Lumumba’s plan to transform a broad portion of Jackson’s economy into a worker-run, worker-owned engine took inspiration from successful cooperative models throughout the world. Spain’s seventh largest company, the Mondragon Corporation, which was founded in 1956 as a confederation of worker-owned businesses, earned $19 billion in revenue in 2012 and employs 80,000 people. Similar cooperatives have taken root in Italy and Argentina, largely as a response to economic hardships in those regions.

Building an interlocking network of worker co-ops in Jackson, which would not only bring money into the city but also keep that money in the community, was always a priority of Lumumba’s administration, said panelist Kali Akuno, who was Lumumba’s coordinator of special projects and an organizer of the conference. He explained that Mayor Lumumba envisioned large-scale projects, such as a cooperative waste management company, that would be paid for with money from the 1 percent sales tax introduced by Lumumba to improve the city’s infrastructure. 

“We’ve scaled back a little bit, kind of out of necessity,” Akuno said, referring to no longer having the resources of the mayor’s office. “It was one thing when we had some of the city’s resources to use as leverage when we build to scale, it’s another thing when we have to raise our own capital for a fleet of waste management trucks and a facility. That’s a direction we want to go but it’s going to be hard for a start up to draw in all those resources.”=

After Lumumba’s death, his son lost the mayoral election to Democrat Tony Yarber, whose victory was came largely from the overwhelming support of Jackson’s white residents. He received 90 percent of their vote. 

Akuno said the next step now is to focus on a campaign that ensures that the money generated from the Lumumba sales tax, which goes towards improving infrastructure, will be used to create jobs for the residents of Jackson. 

“Unlike Detroit, where the city is bankrupt, this is the first time in Jackson where there’s so much money on the table,” he said. “But without that campaign, you best believe that 90 percent of those resources are going to leak out to elsewhere.”

But the Jackson Rising conference, besides unveiling Lumumba’s vision of a cooperative economy to Jackson’s residents, also drew the attention of international organizations that train and fund worker co-ops. 

Panelist Karen Haskins, who attended the conference as a representative of the Working World, an organization that provides investment capital and technical support for worker cooperatives, described Jackson Rising as a diverse and powerful place that drew people from around the world. 

You had people from a lot of different areas. You had people who were really involved in community organizing, people from the co-op world, economic justice and then people who were involved in politics in Jackson and elsewhere,” she said. 

While the co-op movement in the United States has been growing at the grassroots level for a long time, city government have only recently started to encourage employee-owned businesses, and for now, mostly as a means of improving living conditions in low-income neighborhoods. New York City approved an initiative in 2013 to facilitate training and legal support for worker co-ops. In 2008, with financial support from the city and philanthropic organizations, an initiative in Cleveland began to incubate worker-owned businesses to rebuild an impoverished eight-square-mile neighborhood. 

However, the lessons drawn from Cleveland, if anything, demonstrate that worker-owned cooperatives hardly guarantee success. Like any business, co-ops have to compete in the marketplace. The companies struggled early on due to poorly planned business strategies that depended on large contracts from Cleveland’s health care, educational and cultural institutions, many of which never materialized. When cooperative-owned businesses try to get off the ground, these kinds of institutions often serve as much-needed anchors of financial support. 

“These are businesses,” said panelist Omar Freilla, founder and coordinator of Green Workers Cooperatives, an organization that trains and develops worker cooperatives in the South Bronx. “You can get the anchor institutions to put in and say they want to support. You can get the city to put in and say they want to support. Some of the promises may actually materialize and some won’t but at the end of the day what you’re left with is your own crew of people and your own skills.”

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