What do Bernie Sanders and Paul Ryan have in common? Mr Ryan recently learned he has some Jewish ancestry, but there is at least one other thing, tucked between their otherwise diametrically opposed visions for the US economy: both advocate enabling more Americans to co-own the businesses where they work.
Mr Ryan has been a longtime co-sponsor of bills supporting employee stock-ownership plans, or ESOPs, through which millions of workers reap the profits they help create, on top of their wages. Mr Sanders, meanwhile, is among those on the left now crafting ambitious bills to promote employee ownership nationwide. Americans seem divided on just about everything, but if the two of them can agree that we should co-own more of the businesses we rely on, maybe the rest of us can too.
In the 10 years since the onset of the global financial crisis, people have been rediscovering this powerful way of doing business. A new generation became interested in co-operative and worker-owned business on the tail-end of Occupy Wall Street, when activists around the country turned to co-ops as a way to earn livelihoods in keeping with their values. The Black Lives Matter policy platform refers to co-ops dozens of times.
Many of these activists, however, didn’t realize at first how broad a legacy they had to build on. Since the decades following the civil war, farmers have been forming co-ops to bypass big city capitalists, obtaining credit and supplies on their own terms. Meanwhile, urban labor unions built co-operative stores and apartments to ease the hardships of factory workers. Most rural communities in this country only gained access to electricity through co-ops they built and still own themselves.
Because electric co-ops serve districts that tend to vote solid red, Republicans have become some of their most dependable allies. Indiana co-ops, for instance, speak fondly of the vice-president, Mike Pence.
In the first half of the 20th century, the federal government passed enabling legislation for farmer co-ops, credit unions and rural electric companies. It produced newsreels and pamphlets promoting the co-op model as the next stage of development and democracy.
The onset of the cold war drove the co-op movement more underground. Some regarded it as a kind of communism. But co-ops remained a bedrock of the economy, through firms ranging from Land O’Lakes and Ace Hardware to the Associated Press and – at least at first – Visa. With the help of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, employee ownership flourished in companies such as Southwest Airlines, Publix Super Markets and countless regional manufacturers. Co-ops can provide local businesses with economies of scale to compete with big-box chains, and employee ownership has shown measurable advantages for worker productivity.