Feeling the Bern at local business, not in Washington

Bernie Sanders may be out of the race for president, but the revolution he rallied us to join races on. To follow its progress in the newspapers, skip the front page and turn to the business section, where evidence of a democratic-socialist movement (or the dire need for one) can be found with increasing frequency.

Before I cite examples, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. As the esteemed economics professor, author and lecturer Richard D. Wolff explains, the modern Marxist movement is not modeled on the economic and political systems set up in the Soviet Union and China after their communist revolutions. Those systems gave the government an extraordinary amount of power and control, but did little to change the way businesses in those countries actually operated day after day.

The Marxism extolled by Wolff and others is concisely described as “democracy at work.” (See democracyatwork.info for more info.) The concept is simple: employees democratically decide how the company they work for will be run. That includes, most crucially, the question of what to do with the profits the company generates.

When the workers collectively own and control their business, they make better choices for themselves and their community. As Wolff rhetorically asks, would such workers vote to pay the CEO a salary hundreds of times greater than that of the hourly employees? Would the workers vote to outsource their jobs overseas? Would they decide to erect a power plant that would spew pollution over their town? Obviously not.

Members of what are commonly called “worker co-ops” essentially have two job titles: employee and owner. These employees naturally feel a greater sense of pride and commitment to the company they collectively own. They tend to be both more productive and happier, for reasons that are self-evident.

So, on to the examples. An article in the Portland Press Herald caught my attention this week. The headline: “Freeport-based Warren Construction shifting to employee-owned status.” The company’s founder and CEO, Peter Warren, is transitioning the company to employee-ownership through an employee stock ownership plan (or ESOP). Under the plan, Warren Construction’s 40 or so workers “receive an increasing number of shares in the company over time,” the paper reported, and the company “eventually will become completely employee-owned.”

Beneath that article on my iPhone, the Press Herald recommended several other stories under the heading “MORE LIKE THIS.” The first carried the headline “Unum in talks to outsource tech jobs, reportedly including hundreds in Portland.” Like I said, the business section is also littered with articles that show us why the time for an economic revolution promoting democracy at work is now.

Below that was an article about another local construction company, Scarborough-based Landry/French, which converted to employee ownership in May. “According to Landry/French, research has shown that employee ownership tends to foster a culture where workers are motivated and dedicated, which ultimately leads to increased productivity and profitability,” the Press Herald noted.

“We’ve always empowered our employees to think like owners,” Kevin French, the vice president of the company, which has roughly 30 workers, told the paper. “By transitioning to an employee-owned company, it allows us to reward them for their hard work. Now everybody has a vested interest in the company’s success, and a piece of ownership.”

Reporter J. Craig Anderson noted that several other Maine companies have recently transitioned to employee ownership, including GAC Chemical in Searsport and Augusta-based Kennebec Technologies.

Are you feeling the Bern yet?

I don’t know the political persuasions of the executives at these Maine companies, but that doesn’t matter. As Landry/French pointed out, the shift to employee ownership is about productivity and profitability, not politics.

There are some helpful things government can do to encourage democracy at work, such as making it easier for employees to finance the acquisition of their company when its CEO or board decides to sell out or move out of the community. But in the meantime, the conditions of our current economic system — the gross income inequality, mass outsourcing of labor, and recklessness on Wall Street — are compelling employees and executives alike to take matters into their own hands and do what’s best for all involved.

We don’t need Bernie or Hillary or even Green Party candidate Jill Stein to do this for us, and we sure as heck don’t need The Donald. We need conscientious and responsible local business leaders like Peter Warren and Kevin French. And we need to shift our focus from the national political circus to the circumstances governing our own lives, knowing full well that we can make things better when we all work together.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.