Progressives should embrace employee ownership as one of the best ways to challenge corporate power from the bottom up and put supporting the growth of worker-owned firms in the center of our strategy. As the economy becomes Uber-ized and dominant firms in all sectors take up more and more market share, structural reforms like better antitrust regulation and portable benefits are absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, to reversing inequality.
What’s needed is a massive wave of support for shared ownership and community capital. The difference in an employee-owned business from another type of business is simply where the profit goes: Does it flow up to an executive suite and a small set of investors? Or, is it shared by the members of the enterprise, who put in the time and effort to make it successful? The product may be nearly the same from the perspective of the consumer, but the change inside the firm itself is durable, because it’s not subject to the shifting winds of legislators. Community capital allows those of us with the ability to invest to put our wealth into local businesses, rather than exclusively into Wall Street funds.
These models that were once seen as “niche” and hippie-like may be our best shot at centering working families as both value creators and value receivers in the American economy to come. For example, shared ownership of platforms—the rising business model that Uber embodies, where workers aren’t employees but instead “gig” workers, or independent contractors—can turn a platform into a way for its owners to best employ their skills in a just-in-time economy, as nurses in California have identified. And if the “gig” or “platform” business model is here to stay—and its embrace by millennials demonstrates that it is—there’s a real opportunity to move from the “sharing” economy to the shared ownership economy.
In a way, shared ownership is simple: Through a variety of legal structures like a Limited Cooperative Association or partnerships with multiple partners, worker-owners have rights to the value created by the firm just as investors do, and they often have decision-making power over major corporate decisions, as well. Worker ownership of a firm does not mean that everyone sits around in a drum circle to decide what type of pens to purchase—firms owned by employees may look and feel just like a regular firm, where members-owners have the right to vote on the major issues that face the firm. In fact, employee ownership is much more common than people think, in the form of Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs)—over 10.5 million workers partially or wholly own their employers this way. A recent study by the National Center on Employee Ownership found some striking statistics about the benefits of ownership: For employee owners aged 28-34, such workers had 92% higher median household wealth, 33% higher income from wages, and 53% longer median job tenure, when controlling for demographic factors.
What employee-owned firms have lacked for a long time is capital: New firms require investors willing to take risks on entrepreneurs with a vision, and investors have long been skeptical of founders who planned to share the value of the firm with employees. But the rise of social capital and impact investing, alongside new opportunities for community capital-raising after the implementation of the JOBS Act and investment crowdfunding regulations, means that capital is starting to unlock for such firms.
Policies to encourage worker ownership have slowly been getting more attention from lawmakers—several Democratic senators have introduced legislation this year to fund employee ownership centers in the states and to create a fund of public capital to support conversion to worker ownership. And prominent progressive voices like Roosevelt Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz are speaking out in favor of the model. It’s crucial that spreading worker ownership becomes as central to the progressive economic narrative as raising the minimum wage and supporting financial reform.
The best way to fight Uber? Own it.
Also published on Medium.