THINGS GOTTA CHANGE—old-hat rhetoric? lachrymose echolalia? dyspeptic parroting of unfulfilled election promises? Well, taking an even cursory glance at just about everything driving the news these days, I’d like to reverse polarity and add a positive movement to this rather gruesome mix of new-decade decline-and-fall downerisms ad infinitum.

And I’m going to take Cleveland, and the “Cleveland Model,” as a new and enlightening nexus point, that is, its cooperative spirit, literal co-ops and bright green focus—and, hoop fans, I’m not talking LeBron James, Shaq, turn$tile revenues (green of another sort) and the concomitant full-glaze opiate common of professional sports. This is—drum roll, please—CHANGE TO BELIEVE IN! And I think we’re all ready for a true (a posse ad esseannus mirabillis.

Opening of the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry.

WHAT CLEVELAND IS DOING, AND DOING QUITE WELL, is creating jobs, many of them green, generating wealth, spurring growth and enhancing community, through Evergreen Cooperatives, a Cleveland-area partnership between six city neighborhoods and “anchor institutions,” which include the city, the Cleveland Foundation, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Businesses launched so far include Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, Ohio Cooperative Solar and (still in prelaunch) Green City Growers—all local, employee-owned and for-profit companies that utilize green best practices (such as LEED silver certification and a small carbon footprint at the laundry). And they’re doing this despite current economic conditions, and in a city not normally associated with growth (Cleveland’s population has halved since 1950 and the poverty rate stands at more than 30 percent).

This cooperative model has been inspired by the MONDRAGON Corporation in the Basque Country of northern Spain, which includes 256 independent companies (more than 100 of which are worker-owned cooperatives) and employs 100,000+ people. MONDRAGON’s governance (instituted by the principle of one worker, one vote) shares its overriding resources with the individual companies, assisting with planning, research, funding and more. While not impervious to the recent global economic downturn, the cooperative has seen a significant €1,324 million in investment—a clear, determined commitment to the future—with no market share or position lost in relation to its competition.

Evergreen Cooperatives, instead of “business as usual,” limits the spread between high and low salaries: no top-management employee earns more than five times any entry-level employee. The Evergreen Cooperative Development Fund, meanwhile, managed by ShoreBank Enterprise Cleveland, offers low-interest, long-term financing; it’s capitalized by $5 million in grants and expects to raise another $10-$12 million, which will ideally leverage up to $40 million in additional investment funds. The fund’s website adds:

In keeping with the wealth building goals of the Fund, the Fund also works to ensure the availability of “wrap around services” so that neighborhood residents may become effective employees and organizes the businesses to have an ownership structure that makes employees into employee-owners, who not only have the ability to earn a living wage, but also the chance to build wealth and assets as part-owners of the companies where they work.

Ohio Cooperative Solar—could the name be much greener?!—is currently installing solar panels on the roofs of the city’s largest nonprofit health, education and municipal buildings, working to meet Ohio’s mandate to generate 60 megawatts of solar energy by 2012 (2 megawatts are presently being generated). It’s also leading the way in Ohio’s weatherization program, ripping a noble page right from Van Jones‘ Green Collar Economy.

What about in-the-works Green City Growers (in a city that can certainly benefit from local, affordable produce)? This co-op will open a 230,000-square-foot hydroponic-food-production greenhouse, utilizing new-tech energy-efficient lighting, of course, and produce nearly a million pounds of basil and other herbs and 3 million heads of lettuce a year. In addition to job creation, this will certainly help supplant an over-reliance on fast food, common in urban “food deserts”—a very healthy benefit, indeed.

A newfangled, new-new-deal-wrangled commie plot to take down the greater system? Hardly. I’d rather subscribe to the theory as espoused in a recent story about the Cleveland model reported in The Nation (March 1, 2010):

The overall strategy is not only to go green but to design and position all the worker-owned co-ops as the greenest firms within their sectors. This is important in itself, but even more crucial is that the new green companies are aiming for a competitive advantage in getting the business of hospitals and other anchor institutions trying to shrink their carbon footprint. Far fewer green-collar jobs have been identified nationwide than had been hoped; and there is a danger that people are being trained and certified for work that doesn’t exist. The Evergreen strategy represents another approach—first build the green business and jobs and then recruit and train the workforce for these new positions (and give them an ownership stake to boot). (Emphasis added.)

Key here is seeing this model not only successful in Cleveland but rolled out across the country. Again, from The Nation:

What’s especially promising about the Cleveland model is that it could be applied in hard-hit industries and working-class communities around the nation. The model takes us beyond both traditional capitalism and traditional socialism. The key link is between national sectors of expanding public activity and procurement, on the one hand, and a new local economic entity, on the other, that “democratizes” ownership and is deeply anchored in the community. In the case of healthcare the link is also to a sector in which some implicit or explicit form of “national planning”—the movement toward universal healthcare—will all but certainly increase public influence and concern with how funds are used.

Change to believe in? Absolutely, albeit it’s certain to be filled with both trials and tribulations, which are part and parcel of any learning process and establishment of something new. This is a true grassroots movement, from the bottom up, influencing larger organizations and players and getting them aboard in supporting roles (those “anchor institutions,” as mentioned previously)—putting power in the hands of the individual and folding it into a galvanized collective, letting workers take legitimate pride in ownership, rather than shake in their boots fearing their jobs may soon vanish overseas to help actualize greater bottom-line profits.

People and the planet figure large in the Cleveland model’s bottom line, that is, the triple bottom line. So let’s get that remarkable year, that annus mirabillis, in gear. Consider this a different form of bipartisanship to believe in—a completely different animal—from Cleveland, with antecedents in the Basque region of Spain. And finally, that said, this doesn’t let state or federal government, not to mention banks, off the hook or free to escape culpability—funding channels, with actual cash flow, need to be encouraged, established and supported.*


*See Robert Pollin’s excellent piece, “18 Million Jobs by 2012,” in the March 8, 2010, issue of The Nation for realizable ways to help generate additional funding for sustainable-job-building programs like Evergreen Cooperatives. Related calculation details can be found at UMass’s Political Economy Research Institute.

One Response to “Stairway to Cleveland: Evergreen Cooperatives, a New Model of Job-Building Success”

  1. Challanging out children to learn and implement things like this in their everyday life should be a must! I can’t wait to see what 20 years later has to offer.