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February 23, 2010

The Cleveland Model
Let's go back to the co-op theme, shall we? Tom Philpott of Grist wrote some time ago about the need for a "less efficient and more robust food system." He sketched a vision, based on his experience with his own farm, of small interrelated businesses benefiting communities via the local multiplier effect and generating jobs, good wages and affordable, healthy food far beyond what globalized multinational corporations have been able to manage for most American regions. It's a vision that without doubt shouldn't be restricted to the food system. Philpott closed the piece with a question: "How do we get there?"

Well, Cleveland, Ohio -- of all places -- has attempted an answer which caused Philpott to review the Nation's coverage of this "new" phenomenon of large scale cooperatives:

In a must-read article in the March 1 issue of The Nation, Gar Alperovitz, Ted Howard, and Thad Williamson lay out what they call the "Cleveland Model," a reference to that city's emerging complex of worker-owned businesses under the Evergreen Cooperatives umbrella.

The key enterprise in the Cleveland initiative is the Evergreen Cooperative laundry, "a worker-owned, industrial-size, thoroughly 'green' operation" that "opened its doors late last fall in Glenville, a neighborhood with a median income hovering around $18,000," The Nation reports. Overall in Cleveland, the poverty rate stands at about 30 percent; the population has halved since 1950. The hollowed-out city, like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other rust-belt metropolises, stands as a stark rebuke to 30-plus years of de-industrialization and corporate-dominated globalization.

While these are "not your traditional small-scale co-ops," the authors report, they are also not faceless entities that turn workers into cogs in a vast machine. The authors write:

The Evergreen model draws heavily on the experience of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque Country of Spain, the world's most successful large-scale cooperative effort (now employing 100,000 workers in an integrated network of more than 120 high-tech, industrial, service, construction, financial and other largely cooperatively owned businesses).

...To fund the Evergreen initiatives, the project's founders have been resourceful: they've cobbled together funds from a combination of local foundations, banks, and city government, The Nation reports. And get this:

An important aspect of the plan is that each of the Evergreen co-operatives is obligated to pay 10 percent of its pre-tax profits back into the fund to help seed the development of new jobs through additional co-ops. Thus, each business has a commitment to its workers (through living-wage jobs, affordable health benefits and asset accumulation) and to the general community (by creating businesses that can provide stability to neighborhoods).

Besides the laundry, Evergreen also runs Ohio Solar Cooperative, which installs PV solar panels on commercial and government buildings and provides weatherization to homes. The group will soon roll out Green City Growers Cooperative, "a 100% worker-owned, hydroponic, food production greenhouse."

That's change we can believe in. Sadly, I question how much commitment there will be from the administration for this kind of thing. From the federal government's perch in DC it's easy to mistake what Cleveland is doing as "too small" to address the jobs crisis that we face. But that is nothing more than a failure of imagination. Still, the leadership on this will likely come from cities. Even so, we should all be thinking about how we might be able to get something like the Cleveland model to take root in our own communities.

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