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All-American Workplaces

Film explores businesses based on the democratic model — cooperatives. Law professor Ruben Garcia leads post-screening discussion during law school's film festival, Sept. 19-20.

Arts & Culture  |  Sep 11, 2013  |  By UNLV News Center

Photo by Myleen Hollero

Editor's Note: 

The Boyd School of Law's Public Interest Law Film Festival will be held Sept. 19-20 at the Barrick Museum. It is free and open to the public. The documentaryShift Change will be screened at 10 a.m. Sept. 20 and followed by a panel discussion moderated by law professor Ruben Garcia. Here he offers insight on the film.

The 2012 documentary Shift Change offers an important revelation about a kind of workplace about which we don't often hear: cooperatives. In these organizations, worker-owners have shares and votes, much like shareholders in publicly traded companies. They are, in essence, democracies.

Shift Change offers answers to a question posed by Michael Moore in his film Capitalism: A Love Story: What would it be like if the American workplace was a democracy?

As Shift Change shows, the short answer is: The workplace would look a lot more like America itself if more workplaces were organized as cooperatives.

Most people think of cooperatives as something strictly European. Yet, they exist right here in the United States. The cooperatives featured in Shift Change are located in Cleveland, San Francisco, Boston, and Mondrag?n in Spain's Basque country. Cooperatives exist everywhere -- in cosmopolitan urban centers, college towns, rust belt cities looking for a new awakening and Midwestern towns like Oak Brook, Ill., the headquarters of Ace Hardware, and Arden Hills, Minn., the headquarters of Land O'Lakes.

Given that cooperatives seem so in line with American democracy, why don't we have more of them? The answer does not fall neatly into the standard responses -- "They are bad for business" or "Individualist workers don't want them" -- that are usually used to explain why the private sector unionization rate is 6.6 percent.

On this point, I would recommend research by Peter Molk at the University of Illinois College of Law. His forthcoming article "The Puzzling Lack of Cooperatives" argues that legal and institutional arrangements, rather than the endogenous preferences of workers or owners, stifle the expansion of cooperatives. Business owners also need a willingness to cede total control to workers, something that might explain why that private sector unionization rate is so low.

There are some questions of scale that might make cooperatives more difficult. As any institution gets larger, there may be difficulties in translating the cooperative model. But, as Molk points out, there is a long list of household names -- Land o' Lakes, the Associated Press, REI, Ace Hardware, State Farm Insurance -- that are owned by their suppliers, workers, or customers.

In my mind, the relationship between the decline of a more traditional form of worker voice -- collective bargaining -- and the possible rise of cooperatives bears further exploration. The film alludes at the end to interest by the United Steelworkers of America in cooperative relationships. I greatly enjoyed watching Shift Change and the cooperatives it depicts that serve as prime examples of American democracy in the workplace.