Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Grenfell - More Revelations

 The smoke ventilation system at Grenfell Tower was “woefully inadequate”, breached building regulations and is likely to have contributed to deaths.

The network of ducts and vents was supposed to keep the building’s common parts clear for escape but it failed, allowing thick smoke to spread through hallways making evacuation harder.

The smoke control system installed as part of the refurbishment completed a year before the fire “actively posed a very significant hazard to life safety”. Dr Barbara Lane, a leading fire engineer providing expert evidence to the inquiry, has concluded it breached building regulations and British standards performance criteria.

 Dense smoke filled the hallways, making it impossible for many people on the upper floors to escape, and a coroner investigating the 72 deaths, Dr Fiona Wilcox, has said most of the victims succumbed to smoke inhalation.

 Experts repeatedly warned the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) the system was not working properly and breached fire regulations. In 2014 the London fire brigade also issued a deficiency notice because a quarter of the smoke vents did not work.

A replacement system installed during the disastrous 2014-16 refurbishment should not have been approved by building control officers at Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council. It failed to account for the possibility that multiple flat doors might be opened as occupants escaped or that firefighters might prop open stair or lobby doors with fire hoses, all of which happened on the night of the fire when some dampers did not close properly and others leaked. Checks on the system were “inadequate” and this was “brought into sharp focus by the lamentable events just days before the fire”, Barwise said, when the main refurbishment contractor, Rydon, noticed the vents were not working. A quotation obtained by JS Wright, the subcontractor that installed the ventilation, to get its designer to fix the system was not acted upon.

Grenfell smoke ventilation ‘woefully inadequate’, inquiry told | Grenfell Tower inquiry | The Guardian

Never Again?

 The shameful secret of what happened to children from Canada's First Peoples communities keeps on being revealed. 

 The remains of nearly 182 have been found on the grounds of St Eugene’s Mission, a former residential school near the city of Cranbrook, British Columbia., adding to the growing tally of unmarked graves across the country.

 Some of the remains were buried in unmarked shallow graves only three and four feet deep.

“It is believed that the remains of these 182 souls are from the member Bands of the Ktunaxa Nation, neighbouring First Nations communities and the community of Aq’am,” the Lower Kootenay band said in a statement. Records list the deaths of 19 students at the institution, highlighting the gap between official figures and what many believe is a vast undercounting of the deceased.

The discovery at St Eugene’s adds to the growing list of unmarked graves. Last week, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced the discovery of 751 possible unmarked graves. Last month, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc announced they had found 215 unmarked graves, most of which are believed to be children.

Jack Kruger in 1956 was taken from his family and transported by train and cattle truck to St Eugene’s. He was six years old at the time. “I lost my language for 40 years because they told me it was the ‘devil’s tongue’. I was brainwashed so badly. I didn’t speak to no one in it – and I didn’t let anyone speak the language to me.” Kruger witnessed rampant sexual and physical abuse of his classmates and friends. His best friend took his own life at the age of six after he was raped by a priest, he said. “I thought I dealt with it and I healed from it. But then every night I have nightmares... The priests are chasing after me again. Even if you put them in jail, it’s not going to stop.” Kruger helped design a statue commemorating residential school survivors. “I made sure the words ‘Never again’ were on there,” he said. “Never again will any of my children have to go through something like this. Never again will anybody try to take our children away. Never again.”

St Eugene’s was run by the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 schools, including the Marieval Indian residential school at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Kamloops Indian residential school.

Latest First Nations discovery reveals 182 unmarked graves at Canada school | Canada | The Guardian

For your listening pleasure

 All Socialist Party meetings/talks/discussions are currently online on Discord. Please contact for instructions on how to join.

Friday 2 July 19.30 (GMT + 1)

Is the environment now a better anti-capitalist argument than class?

Speaker: Paddy Shannon
The world has endured class society and rampant inequality for thousands of years, leading many people to see it as an inevitable and indeed sustainable cost of civilisation. But the same cannot be said of climate change and in particular the paradox that capitalism requires infinite growth on a finite planet. There’s no question of abandoning class politics, but is the environment now a better route into the socialist case?

Friday 9 July 19.30 (GMT + 1)


Speaker: Paul Bennett
Poverty need not mean destitution: it can be described as people being excluded from what others take for granted, such as decent living conditions. In this talk, we will look at the extent of poverty both in the UK (homelessness, food banks, etc) and globally. We will also examine the consequences and causes of poverty. And we will argue that the world can produce enough goods and services for poverty to be completely unnecessary.

Wednesday 14 July19.30 (GMT + 1)

General discussion on current affairs

Friday 16 July 19.30 (GMT + 1)

The Highland Clearances

Speaker: Alwyn Edgar
Thanks to Marx’s mention of it in Capital, the Duchess of Sutherland’s clearance of her vast estate in the first part of the 19th century is notorious. But it wasn’t just her. This talk explains how the Scottish Highlands came to be depopulated in the 18th and 19th centuries and why.


Friday 23 July 19.30 (GMT + 1)

The tragedy of the digital commons: On the expropriation and commodification of social cyberspaces

Speaker: Tristan Miller
Public discourse today is dominated by commercial social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as a plethora of smaller “walled gardens” that individual media companies provide for the discussion of their published content. These forums are tightly controlled, and their participants are shamelessly exploited for commercial gain. But the Internet was not always like this: in the 1980s and 1990s most online conversations took place on Usenet, a worldwide discussion network that was open to everyone and had no centralized structure, ownership, or control. Far from being an anarchic Wild West, Usenet succeeded in coalescing its millions of diverse users into a functional, thriving online society, united through shared culture, conventions, and values. In this talk, I discuss the developments between then and now that led to the free-access “public good” of Usenet being supplanted by privately owned discussion venues, the consequences of this transformation, and what these lessons can teach societies of the future, both online and in the
real world.

Friday 30 July 19.30 (GMT + 1)

For and Against Anthropocentrism

Speaker: Mark Z
“In religious fantasy, God made man the centre of the universe. In material fact capitalism has alienated him from it.” (Ted Wilmott, Socialist Standard, October 1959). The concept of a human-centred world is a double-edged sword: it can be an inspiring vision of a society of true equality (contra the claims of religion and capital), but it can also neglect the needs of other sentient beings and the planet itself.

Socialist Standard No. 1403 July 2021

 JULY 2021 PDF

Unbearable Temperatures

 This week in the Pacific north-west, temperature records were being broken. Temperatures reached 47.9C in British Columbia, Canada, temperatures more typically found in the Sahara desert, dozens have died of heat stress, with “roads buckling and power cables melting”.

Another heatwave earlier in June saw five Middle East countries top 50°C. The extreme heat reached Pakistan, where 20 children in one class were reported to have fallen unconscious and needed hospital treatment for heat stress. 

Additional warming from greenhouse gas emissions means that such extreme heatwaves are more likely and scientists can now calculate the increase in their probability. For example, the 2019 European heatwave that killed 2,500 people was five times more likely than it would have been without global warming.

Extreme heatwaves outside the usual range for a region will cause problems, from disrupting the economy to widespread mortality, particularly among the young and old. Yet in places in the Middle East and Asia, something truly terrifying is emerging: the creation of unliveable heat.

While humans can survive temperatures of well over 50C when humidity is low, when both temperatures and humidity are high, neither sweating nor soaking ourselves can cool us. What matters is the “wet-bulb” temperature – given by a thermometer covered in a wet cloth – which shows the temperature at which evaporative cooling from sweat or water occurs. Humans cannot survive prolonged exposure to a wet-bulb temperature beyond 35C because there is no way to cool our bodies. Not even in the shade, and not even with unlimited water.

A 35C wet-bulb temperature was once thought impossible. But last year scientists reported that locations in the Persian Gulf and Pakistan’s Indus River valley had already reached this threshold, although only for an hour or two, and only over small areas. As climate change drives temperatures upwards, heatwaves and accompanying unliveable temperatures are predicted to last longer and occur over larger areas and in new locations, including parts of Africa and the US south-east, over the decades to come.

 Heatwaves intensify inequality. Poorer neighbourhoods typically have fewer green spaces and so heat up more, while outdoor workers, often poorly paid, are especially vulnerable. The rich also buy up cooling equipment at high prices once a heatwave is underway and have many more options to flee, underscoring the importance of public health planning.

Heat can cause havoc with crop production. In Bangladesh, just two days of hot air in April this year destroyed 68,000 hectares of rice, affecting over 300,000 farmers with losses of US$39m (£28m). 

Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans | Simon Lewis | The Guardian

For the Maximum Program

 Donald Parkinson’s essay on the “Revolutionary Minimum/Maximum programme” reopens the debate that took place amongst English-speaking Social Democrats at the turn of the 20th century as to whether or not a Socialist party should have a minimum programme (of measures to be implemented under capitalism, by the capitalist state) in addition to the maximum programme of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production (to be implemented by the working class once it had won political power). Some, such as Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party of America, argued against this. The same position was taken in Britain by the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Founded in 1904 as a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation, the SPGB is in a line of descent from the French Parti Ouvrier as seen from the similarities in the wording of its declaration of principles. However, the SPGB adopted only the maximum programme set out in the POF’s preamble, rejecting adding a programme of immediate demands and has always refused to have one, campaigning for socialism and only socialism.

The reason for this rejection was not rejection of the demands as such — some such as political democracy and health and safety at work legislation are clearly beneficial for workers. It was because advocating them ran the risk of a socialist party being transformed into a reformist party, i.e., a party seeking only political and social reforms within capitalism, with the maximum programme relegated to the status of a long-term aim evoked only on ceremonial occasions.

The history of the Social Democratic parties of the pre-WWI Second International bears this out, amply. The support they built up, as expressed in votes in elections, was on the basis of their minimum not the maximum programme. What these supporters wanted were the proposed democratic and social reforms, not socialism. The parties became the prisoners of their non-socialist voters. Since socialism can only be established when a majority of workers have come to want and understand it and democratically organise to take political action to get it, this meant that these parties became useless as instruments for furthering the maximum programme.

The danger of lapsing into reformism from having a minimum programme of reforms, to be achieved under capitalism and implemented by the capitalist state, exists irrespective of the reasons invoked for having one. This applies to the Trotskyists’ “transitional demands”, which Donald Parkinson quite rightly rejects as dishonest and manipulative, but also to the alternative theoretical justification for one that he offers. A reform programme will always attract people who want the reforms; support built on that basis is built on sand as far as furthering the cause of socialism is concerned. Support needs to be built directly for socialism.

Adam Buick, 

The Socialist Party of Great Britain

“We are just Roma,”

 The Roma in the Czech Republic makes up just 2 percent of the country’s 10 million. The community struggles with discrimination in education, housing and employment. Ghettos, rife with rubbish and disease, scar towns and cities.

Stanislav Tomas,  a 46-year-old Roma man, in Teplice, a small city close to the Czech Republic’s northern border with Germany,  died after police knelt on his neck for more than six minutes. Many see similarities with the murder of George Floyd. The incident has shone a light once more on the plight of the large Roma communities that live in Central Europe, who face deep discrimination, and often abuse, at the hands of police and authorities. Reports of casual mistreatment by police and other authorities are common across the country. The Council of Europe and Amnesty International have called for an independent investigation into the incident

“The Czech police are racist,” said 38-year-old Milan. “We don’t believe anything they say.”

“This isn’t the first time the police have killed Roma,” said Jan Cervenak. “No one believes them about what happened here.”

There has been a deafening silence from across the political spectrum. Several political parties did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera.

“There’s no political advantage to be gained by supporting the Roma community,” suggested activist Gwendolyn Albert.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis certainly sees little potential. Within two days of Tomas’s death, he expressed his full support for the police.

One local woman, echoing claims made to Czech media, says that police have made witnesses sign agreements not to discuss the incident. She says people in the neighbourhood are scared of the police.

Police forced several witnesses to delete videos of the incident from their phones.

Roma see little hope as they mourn ‘Czech George Floyd’ | Roma News | Al Jazeera

‘Toothless’ Biodiversity Policies

  More money is being spent destroying the environment than protecting it,  according to the report from the environmental audit committee (EAC).

The government’s 25-year environment plan to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 and its promise to deliver biodiversity net gain on infrastructure projects look good on paper, but inadequate monitoring and a lack of compliance mean the government is not delivering on them. Nature is still not being taken into account in policymaking. Funding cuts and a lack of ecological expertise in government and local authorities is worsening the situation, MPs said.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “We are losing species at a terrifying rate and multiple warnings are not being heeded. The collapse in biodiversity has to be pushed up the political agenda, and nature protection and restoration given the priority and resources it needs, before it’s too late. The Treasury still sticks to an outdated mindset, which sees GDP growth as the key measure of progress and nature as an expendable resource. That has to change, as the report makes clear.”

Philip Dunne, chairman of the committee, said despite countless policies to improve the natural environment, they remain “grandiose statements lacking teeth and devoid of effective delivery mechanisms”.

Tories’ ‘toothless’ UK policies failing to halt drastic loss of wildlife | Wildlife | The Guardian

More Evidence of UK Inequality

 Sir Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute for Health Equity and a leading authority on public health,  revealed the coronavirus death rate in Greater Manchester was 25% higher than the England average during the year to March, leading to “jawdropping” falls in life expectancy and widening social and health inequalities across the region over the past year.

His latest report shows life expectancy in north-west England fell in 2020 by 1.6 years for men and 1.2 years for women in 2020, compared with 1.3 years and 0.9 years across England as a whole. Within the region, life expectancy dipped most sharply in the poorer areas. Such a rapid decline was in life expectancy terms “enormous”, Marmot said.

The deteriorating health equalities picture in the region and across similarly deprived areas of the country as a result of longstanding, avoidable socioeconomic inequities and ethnic disadvantage, exacerbated by a decade of spending cuts and amplified by Covid and the effect of prolonged lockdowns, he said.

The findings of the Greater Manchester report were “generalisable” across other deprived areas of England, added Marmot, saying: “It’s pretty bad for life chances to live in poorer parts of London, too. Levelling up shouldn’t only be about the Midlands and the north-east and the north-west of England. Deprived parts of London need attention as well.”

Life expectancy had gone down all around the country but the degree to which people were affected depended on two things: level of deprivation and the region of the country in which they lived. A decade of government spending cuts had left the poorest parts of England in a weakened state when Covid hit in 2020, and there was an urgent need to do things differently, Marmot said, adding that as the UK emerges from the pandemic it would be a “tragic mistake to attempt to re-establish the status quo that existed before”.

Covid-19 mortality rates varied within the region from around 400 males per 100,000 in the poorer boroughs such as Salford and Tameside to fewer than 250 per 100,000 in more affluent Trafford. For women, they ranged from just under 250 per 100,000 in Manchester, to 150 per 100,000 in Stockport. Almost all local authority areas in the region had mortality rates above the England and Wales average.

As well as damaging communities and harming health prior to the pandemic, funding cuts had “harmed local governments’ capacity to prepare for and respond to the pandemic and have left local authorities in a perilous condition to manage rising demand and in the aftermath of the pandemic,” the report said. 

Even before the pandemic, the UK had witnessed a stagnation in health improvement that was the second-worst in Europe and widening health inequalities between rich and poor. “That stagnation, those social and regional health inequalities, the deterioration in health for the most deprived people, are markers of a society that is not functioning to meet the needs of its members.”

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester,  said: “The pandemic has brutally exposed just how unequal England actually is. People have lived parallel lives over the last 18 months. People in low-paid, insecure work have often had little choice in their level of exposure to Covid, and the risk of getting it and bringing it back home to those they live with.

Life expectancy key to success of levelling up in UK’s poorer areas | Greater Manchester | The Guardian

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Rising Seas and Miami

 The exact cause of the collapse of a 12-storey building in the Miami disaster that befell the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside has yet to be fully determined, but already it has raised questions as to the role played by the climate crisis, and whether the severe vulnerability of south Florida to the rising seas may lead to the destabilization of further buildings in the future.

It has highlighted the precarious situation of buildings and maintaining high-rise apartments in an area under increasing pressure from sea-level rise. Experts say that while the role of the rising seas in this collapse is still unclear, the integrity of buildings will be threatened by the advance of salty water that pushes up from below to weaken foundations.

“When this building was designed 40 years ago the materials used would not have been as strong against saltwater intrusion, which has the potential to corrode the concrete and steel of the foundations,” said Zhong-Ren Peng, professor and director of the University of Florida’s International Center for Adaptation Planning and Design. “Cracks in the concrete allows more seawater to get in, which causes further reactions and the spreading of cracks. If you don’t take care of it, that can cause a structure failure.”

Champlain Towers South was built near the coast of what is a narrow barrier island flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Biscayne Bay on the other. Such barrier islands naturally shift position over time due to the pounding ocean, requiring a certain amount of engineering to keep them fixed in place.

Most of south Florida is just a few feet above sea level at a time when the region is experiencing a rapid increase in sea level, due to the human-caused climate crisis. Compounding this problem, the region sits upon limestone, a porous rock that allows rising seawater to bubble up from below.

This scenario means that Miami residents have become used to flooded car garages and water seeping up from drains onto roads, even on sunny days. The city is planning to build a major new sea wall to keep the ocean at bay but there is no simple defense against water rising from underfoot, placing the foundations of buildings at risk of being gnawed away by seawater.

The land beneath Champlain Towers South is also, unusually for eastern Florida, subsiding, according to a study released last year that found the condo was subsiding into the ground at a rate of around 2mm a year throughout the 1990s. Shimon Wdowinski, a professor with Florida International University’s Institute of Environment who conducted the research, said he was “shocked” to see the building collapse and didn’t immediately connect it to his study.

The region abuts seas that are about 8in higher than they were a century ago and this pace will quicken – with another 17in of sea level expected by 2040. Depending on the melting of the vast ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, south Florida could be assailed by a foot of extra sea level a decade in the second half of this century, according to Harold Wanless, a geographer at the University of Miami.

“It’s going to be an enormous to impossible job everywhere to deal with that,” Wanless said. “The sea level rise is accelerating and will do so more dramatically than most people anticipate. Every sandy barrier island, every low-lying coast, from Miami to Mumbai, will become inundated and difficult to maintain functional infrastructure. You can put valves in sewers and put in sea walls but the problem is the water will keep coming up through the limestone. You’re not going to stop this.”

A Flooded Future

 Up to 410 million people will be living in areas less than 2 metres above sea level, and at risk from sea level rises, unless global emissions are reduced, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.

Currently, 267 million people worldwide live on land less than 2 metres above sea level. Using a remote sensing method called Lidar, which pulsates laser light across coastal areas to measure elevation on the Earth’s surface, the researchers predicted that by 2100, with a 1 metre sea level rise and zero population growth, that number could increase to 410 million people.

Their maps showed that 62% of the most at-risk land is concentrated in the tropics, with Indonesia having the largest extent of land at risk worldwide. These projections showed even more risk in the future, with 72% of the at-risk population in the tropics, and 59% in tropical Asia alone.

Dr Aljosja Hooijer, specialist water resources expert for Deltares, an independent institute for applied research in water and subsurface, and the lead author of the study, said while the research was inherently uncertain, more focus was needed on tropical regions for long-term flood preventions.

He said: “There’s a lot of scientists looking at long-term scenarios. But it’s happening now in parts of the world, and in these parts of the world, mostly in the tropics. And not just in south-east Asia, it’s also for instance in the Niger delta and Lagos.

“If you look at sea level rise, the impact research to date is mostly focused on defining sea level rise scenarios. There has been relatively little attention to elevation data, and that is simply because people didn’t feel much could be done about it, including ourselves for a long time.”

Maarten van Aalst, professor in climate and disaster resilience, and a contributing lead author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said: “These numbers are another wake-up call about the immense number of people at risk in low-lying areas, particularly in vulnerable countries in the global South..."

Dr Sally Brown, deputy head of life and environmental sciences at Bournemouth University, said: “This research shows once again that many millions of people around the world are living in areas of flood risk. Sea-level rise increases the threat of flooding, which could have particularly severe impacts for communities and people’s livelihoods in developing nations.”

Up to 410 million people at risk from sea level rises – study | Sea level | The Guardian

Audio Discussion Tals

 Two more recent talks have been uploaded –

Has the era of social revolution arrived? – This discussion follows a video presentation by Mike Schauerte, 18th June 2021. (Part 2 of the discussion was on 20th June 2021)

Post-pandemic future Party activity
Fredi Edwards, 25th June 2021

US Segregation

 80% of America’s large metropolitan areas were more racially segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990, the researchers found, even though explicit racial discrimination in housing has been outlawed for half a century. The levels of residential segregation appeared highest not in the American south, but in parts of the north-east and midwest: the most segregated metropolitan area in the US according to the study is New York City, followed by Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit.

The racial wealth gap is primarily based on differences in home appreciation values: Black families historically had homes that did not appreciate and often went down in value. Segregated housing creates segregated schools: 75% of students in primary and secondary schools are assigned based on where they live. The racial impacts of the criminal justice system are rooted in racial segregation. 

Home values are twice as high in highly segregated white neighborhoods as in segregated neighborhoods of color. Poverty rates are three times greater in highly segregated neighborhoods of color. Life expectancy is starkly different. Every outcome that matters in life is shaped by environment. That’s what we mean by structural racism. It’s not about racial prejudice. It’s about the system and environment in which we live.

Segregation is not about separating people on the basis of their skin color: what it’s about is separating people from resources based on their skin color. It’s about putting people of color in neighborhoods that have less resources, fewer public goods – and predatory finance, harmful environmental exposure, and so on. Segregation is the most efficient way to do that. It’s about efficiency. You can spend all the money you want to try to compensate it: you will never fully overcome the disparity.

Anyone arguing just for redistribution to equalize equality of opportunity – you’re essentially saying, let’s make things separate but equal. When have things ever been separate but equal? It’s a fundamental fallacy. White people are not going to tolerate spending eight times as much in a black school as in a white school to create equality of opportunity. It’s unsustainable.

Racial inequality is a byproduct of self-interested behavior among the most powerful. The wealthy are channeled into the top zip codes, and the people who run those municipalities may be progressive politically, and pro-Black Lives Matter, but they want to protect their investment, and they will enact policies that minimize tax base outlays and maximize property values.

‘Where you live determines everything’: why segregation is growing in the US | US news | The Guardian

Monday, June 28, 2021

Summer School Session


One of the sessions at the ‘After the Revolution: Life in a Socialist World’ Summer School, being held on 6th – 8th August at Fircroft College in Birmingham will be Paddy Shannon speaking on ‘Socialist Decision Making And The Rule Of 3’:

For a hundred years and for a dozen practical reasons, the World Socialist Movement has favoured delegate democracy as the decision-making model most likely to be adopted in a future socialist society. But that was before modern online communications made direct democracy a real possibility.

 But though attractive in theory, it sounds like chaos in practice. Who would get to vote on what, and on whose say-so? Would people end up in so many meetings and votes every day that nothing ever got done in reality, the 'death-by-democracy' scenario predicted by some opponents of socialism? 

One can envisage a mountain of rules and exceptions the size of Everest in order to make such a system workable, especially if practised across the globe. But actually, the entire thing might be managed by the application of just three rules a small child could understand, backed by the same ethical principle that applies across every other sphere of socialist life: from each according to ability, to each according to need.

Further sessions will be announced soon! 

The event will also include an exhibition, exclusive publication and bookstall. Hopefully, the weekend will be able to run without any restrictions due to the pandemic, but this will depend on the situation at the time.

 Details of how to make a booking can be found here: 

Please note that the closing date for bookings will be 20th July, or earlier if all places are filled.

If you have any questions, please email



 This article is an insightful critique of cooperatives that many on the Left consider a revolutionary strategy and has much to recommend it. SOYMB blog considers it worthy of wider coverage and so has re-posted it. 

'In a recent episode of his podcast Democracy at Work, Marxist economist Richard Wolff argued that worker co-ops and unions should be working together to create better working conditions and prospects for worker liberation. Wolff contended that whereas labor unions bargain a better deal for workers from the employer, worker co-ops are the end goal because they are “the way in which workers don’t have to bargain with anybody else.” 

Worker co-ops have long been popular in left-leaning circles. The Democratic Socialists of America’s Libertarian Socialist Caucus’s platform statement from 2018 stated that “worker control over workplaces can only be advanced through the creation and support of worker-owned firms” in conjunction with unions and community councils. 

Workers collectively owning and operating a business removes the oppression and discipline imposed by the employer and puts the profits directly in the workers’ hands — or so the argument goes.

But we argue that worker cooperatives are often an off-ramp from organizing against the boss, and that even a mass cooperative movement can never pose a legitimate challenge to the employing class. 

The working class’ power comes from our ability to halt the flow of capitalists’ profits within their own companies. By withholding labor, workers can interfere with the capitalist logic of profit maximization and advance workers’ interests and demands. Worker cooperatives, on the other hand, retreat from the class struggle and actually entice workers into participating in the capitalist system. 

Peculiar bedfellows

One of the “success stories” often pointed to by proponents of coops is the Mondragon Corporation, based in the Basque Country of northeastern Spain. Mondragon is one of the largest worker cooperatives in the world, with over 80,000 members as of 2019. In 2009, Mondragon entered into an agreement with the United Steelworkers (USW) to found worker cooperatives in the United States.

Mondragon was first set up in the late 1950s as a small operation manufacturing paraffin heaters; today it has 257 companies in several countries. Spain in the 1950’s was still under the grip of General Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator installed by the European ruling class and Nazi Germany after the failed Spanish Revolution of 1936. Franco and his secret police were notoriously brutal anti-communists; labor organizers were regularly arrested, tortured, and murdered. Franco’s regime crushed unions — particularly the radical CNT — leading to a near complete collapse in class-struggle organizing. He was intolerant of anything that might pose a threat like the 1936 revolution had. 

And yet, it was during the Francoist period that Mondragon was founded and grew to a rather large size. Franco’s regime actually supported Mondragon’s development, more than happy to let a group of workers develop light industry in an underdeveloped region of Spain. In 1965, amidst an upswell of labor and student unrest, Franco’s Minister of Labor traveled to the Basque Country to award a “Gold Medal for Merit in Work” to the founder and then-director of the Mondragon Cooperative, José María Arizmendiarrieta (see The Myth of Mondragon by Sharryn Kasmir, p. 86). 

Decades later, in 2013, Mondragon was awarded for “Boldness in Business” by the Financial Times, joining Amazon, Apple, and FIAT. 

How is it that Marxist economists, leftist revolutionaries, unions, financial newspapers and the longest-reigning fascist in the 20th century can all support the same thing? 

Class struggle… or surrender

The idea of worker cooperatives is seductive to workers and radicals because we all believe on some level that our jobs would be better if we ran things ourselves. What is a cooperative if not having some control over our work and over the means of production? Isn’t building up worker ownership of capital a way of slowly building up socialism?

The problem is that cooperatives don’t and can’t organize the working class to fight the ruling class for wealth and power. Instead, they seek to build and develop a tiny slice of capital outside of the direct control of big industrialists. In other words, cooperatives retreat from the direct struggle between workers and owners to instead build worker-owners. 

This is precisely what made Mondragon palatable to General Franco. If anything, the development of Mondragon is a case study in the collapse and retreat of class struggle unionism. In fact, the founders of Mondragon started the coop after a failed attempt to improve working conditions at their previous employer. Instead of organizing the workers to fight and win, they became worker-owners, or petty capitalists.

This is a more common story than one might think. There are many recent examples of organizing campaigns devolving into crowdfunding campaigns to found worker cooperatives after a union drive collapses, especially in low-capital industries such as foodservice and retail.

Take the United Electricalworkers (UE) campaign at Augie’s, a small cafe chain in Southern California. In July of last year, the employer swiftly shuttered all five locations and laid off all workers after the nascent union “went public” to the employer by asking for voluntary recognition. The union then pivoted to a public shaming and social media campaign attacking the employer; this was quickly followed by a GoFundMe page to help replace wages and raise startup capital for what would become the “Slow Bloom Coffee Cooperative.” 

Former workers at House of Kava in Brooklyn pursued a similar strategy. After workers were fired in the course of their organizing campaign, they started a “cooperative pop-up kava bar” before combining with other veterans of barista organizing campaigns to try to fundraise for a permanent cooperative cafe.

Another example, again from the UE, is a print and copy shop called Collective Copy in Amherst, Massachusetts. A union drive and strike in the mid-1980s led to the employer closing the shop. The workers then solicited loans from “allies in the community” for startup capital for a six-member cooperative. 

In each of these cases, instead of workers going on to organize at other employers in the industry, they now operate a small business. This has been touted as a union victory. How is it that a union legendary for its history of class struggle unionism like the UE now sees founding worker cooperative small businesses as a way to “create union jobs” as opposed to “creating” union jobs by organizing non-union workers? 

The Lusty Lady campaign is often championed as an example of sex worker organizing. The workers at the San Francisco strip club initially formed a union with SEIU 790 in the late 1990s. After a strike in 2003, the owner shut the location down. Workers formed a cooperative and continued operating. However, they soon started competing against each other for customers, trying to drop heavier and nonwhite dancers from the shop because they brought in fewer customers and less money — the same issues they originally organized the union to tackle in the first place. The Lusty Lady closed in 2013 after a failed “community fundraising” drive to pay rents and debts.

With all of these examples, the pivot to a cooperative business happened after a decisive blow was dealt to the workers’ union by the employer. But this pattern of workers turning to operating as a cooperative represents a big missed opportunity for labor organizations. It effectively takes agitated and experienced worker-organizers, and removes them from the class struggle.

If each worker who got fired from a job for organizing were instead to go on to organize at another workplace, especially supported by union mentorship, they could do much more to shift an industry, if even on a local level, than they can by simply grinding out a living in a small business.

Fighting on the opponent’s turf

The dream of worker coops hinges on the idea that they can survive and compete with for-profit businesses owned by individuals or investors. Worker cooperatives “control production” in an immediate sense, but they’re subject to the same market discipline as capitalist enterprises.

Most cooperatives exist in the service industry, a relatively low-capital sector (it doesn’t take a lot of money or machinery to get a business up and running), but even then it is difficult to survive, even with investors, small business loans, and a reliable market niche. Many who seek to form coops don’t have the capital necessary to run a business at a loss for multiple years as they grow their client base or industry presence.

We might ask whether there will ever be a worker cooperative that can accrue enough capital to compete with something like Boeing in the commercial airliner market. But regardless, it would face the same reality that, through market discipline and pressure from their competitors, businesses under capitalism have to squeeze their worker-owners for increased productivity. This means downward wage pressure, unpaid overtime, and most other features of wage labor under capitalism. Workers at Mondragon have struck the company multiple times in the past few decades — one-third of the Mondragon workers (primarily its non-Spanish workforce) are outright employees, not member-owners.

At the core of it, the cooperative vision is to build something that will somehow eventually outcompete capitalist firms. But capitalism functions by leveraging worker exploitation. Coops have to survive in this same ecosystem. They may gain moral ground on capitalists by being less hierarchical, more fair, and more equitable in their ownership structures, but they actually give up political ground by avoiding the broader fight over where resources are allocated in our society.

A bigger base

Workers’ greatest power is the power to halt, slow, or otherwise affect production to extract concessions. A cooperative’s economic incentives discourage industrial action because the workers have an ownership stake in the business. But organized workers can bring a workplace to a grinding halt to win demands. If they are big enough, they can do the same with an entire industry — or economy. The base of potential union members who can take action is the entire working class, whose power is derived from their essential labor. 

After 65 years of development, the Mondragon Cooperative is slightly below the 100,000-member mark. It remains a minor player everywhere outside of southwestern France and northeastern Spain. And most worker cooperatives never reach a fraction of the size of Mondragon.

20 years before Mondragon’s founding, the two unions which led the Spanish Revolution, the CNT-FAI and the UGT, had 1.6 million and 1.5 million members respectively. In the preceding decades, these and other unions repeatedly carried out general strikes to improve working conditions and win political demands such as the abolition of the monarchy. During the revolution, workers collectivized private property en masse.

Cooperatives are seen as a kind of prefigurative experiment in running a socialist economy. But in a very real sense, businesses are already run “cooperatively” by workers every day: every construction crew, kitchen shift, and long-term care unit works in a coordinated way, on products or people or inputs that were produced or prepared by another team of workers elsewhere, and another team of workers takes over once they’re done. We already know how to run the economy because we do it every day; what we need to learn is how to fight against employers (private ownership) to run it for us and not for them. 

Unions are working-class organizations that introduce a completely different logic than the market’s logic of profit maximization. And they do so through power. The power struggle at the core of capitalism cannot be side-stepped by making the role of “worker” and “owner” coincide in a particular business inside of an economy that is still run for the sake of generating profits. The divide between “owner of productive capital” and “someone with no choice but to work for a wage” is a broader social antagonism that has to be fought head-on.'

Carmen Molinari, Lexi Owens, and Robert Fontana are members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

You can’t win without a fight: Why worker cooperatives are a bad strategy (