Volume 23, Number 4

More Democracy

Fred Schepartz

“In times of trouble at Union Cab, what we need is not less democracy. What we need is more democracy.”

These are the words of co-worker Eric Smith during a brief exchange in the Union Cab parking lot. It was a pleasant autumn night, a little after midnight. I was immediately struck by these simple words: straightforward, to the point, yet profoundly profound.

In times of trouble, what we need is not less democracy. What we need is more democracy.

Words to live by.

But what do they actually mean?

Specifically, they mean a great deal in the context of what Eric was talking about. Union Cab is a worker-owned-and-operated taxi company in Madison, Wisconsin. I have worked at Union Cab for 24 years. I’ve been there so long partially because I’m too lazy to look for another job, but mainly because it’s a great place to work. Thanks to seniority pay increases, I make an excellent wage, but more importantly, because we’re a cooperative, we strive to create a humane and democratic work environment.

Union Cab is one of the more successful worker cooperatives in the United States, but it is important to understand that this means two things. First, Union Cab is successful as a business. Second, Union Cab is successful as a cooperative. There are some among our membership who believe these concepts are mutually exclusive. I do not agree.

Yes, there can be tension between Union Cab the business and Union Cab the worker cooperative. But this is a dynamic tension that ultimately creates a synergy that makes Union Cab stronger, both as a business and a cooperative.

Prior to the most recent fiscal year, Union Cab had turned a profit in each of the last several years. Even during the Great Recession, Union Cab continued to be profitable. Union Cab lost money during the last fiscal year due to actions by the State of Wisconsin, which resulted in the loss of a good chunk of our weekday business.

At the same time, Union Cab took dramatic steps to become even more democratic. Ever since its inception, Union Cab has been governed by a board of directors, elected from the membership, by the membership. The board creates committees to hammer out policy, study procures and serve whatever other functions the board deems necessary. Any member can serve on a committee.

In addition, there is the Worker’s Council, which is a vehicle for workers to appeal disciplinary action taken against them.

Historically, management has handled discipline. Historically, management has functioned according to a traditional model where the board hires and supervises a general manager, who hires and supervises subordinate managers.

All of this changed in recent years.

First, the role of discipline was removed from the managers’ job descriptions. The old system was replaced with the Peer Review System where discipline is handled by a network of councils, which consist of rank-and-file members.

Second, the hierarchy that had manifested itself in the management team was replaced by a concept of team management. The position of general manager was eliminated and replaced by the position of business manager. Much of the job description is the same, but the business manager does not have the responsibility of making unilateral decisions as in the past.

Instead there is a Steering Team. Steering Team meetings are open to any who wish to attend. Decisions are based on consensus, though there are mechanisms in place to prevent obstructionists from intentionally filibustering the process.

This is what democracy looks like.

But sometimes democracy looks like a lot of people wasting time in a lot of meetings and getting paid for it.

I am reminded of an exit interview I did with a former general manager. She was hired from the outside and never really understood or appreciated the cooperative way of doing things. Regarding the Worker’s Council she said, “I’d sit in those meetings and would constantly hear the sound of money going down the drain.”

And she is not alone in that sentiment. There is a great deal of debate at Union Cab about the cost of our democracy. Given that Union Cab lost money in the last fiscal year, some argue that we cannot afford to waste all this money with committees and councils and teams. Simply hire a strong general manager and let that person make decisions without having to sing Kumbaya around the campfire.

“In times of trouble at Union Cab, what we need is not less democracy. We need more democracy.”

Again, those words. Again, what do they mean?

Here’s a concrete example from Union Cab’s recent experience. Last summer, Union Cab had to lay off drivers due to the above-mentioned drop in business. Under the old management system, the general manager would’ve simply laid off drivers based on whatever criteria he or she felt were either most fair or most expedient. The action might or might not have included much if any input from the membership.

But that’s not what happened. When it was decided that lay-offs were inevitable, the Steering Team handled it, and in the process came up with a system that was probably about as good as it could have been. And this was because it was a democratic process. Yes, it probably took longer to hammer out and was probably more cumbersome than if the general manager had simply done it, but it meant that those who would be affected had the opportunity to have their say and were able to help make the procedure that much more fair and equitable.

It should be further noted that the Union Cab Steering Team also worked hard to find ways to cut costs. This helped the cooperative absorb last year’s fiscal loss and puts the cooperative in a stronger financial position in the future.

There is an important lesson here. I’m reminded of the song by the German Art Students, “The Power and the Trust,” that is included on the CD Cheddar Revolution: Songs of Uprising, a compilation of protest songs inspired by the Wisconsin Uprising, which I co-produced last year.

It's not about me
It's all about we
It's not about them
It's not about us
It's all about the Power and the Trust

What makes this song so moving and so powerful is that while it’s written about the dictatorship of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and all the other Republicans who had a hammerlock on the Wisconsin political system following the 2010 election, it applies universally. However, in the context of the Wisconsin Uprising, the lesson is clear.

The autocratic actions that led to the stripping away of basic worker rights and the plundering of our public schools, our towns and our healthcare safety net came under the pretext of fiscal emergency, but in reality were a perfect example of Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism,” where a fiscal crisis, real or manufactured, is used to justify draconian measures that are more about policy than genuine economics.

The result: public workers stripped of their rights to organize themselves into labor unions. The result: further tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. The result: forced austerity on the poor and the middle class. The result: maximum economic pain imposed on a maximum amount of people.

We all know the Wisconsin Uprising happened as a direct result and response to these autocratic actions taken by the Walker Administration. We need to forever understand that regardless of who was in what office, this should not have happened. Wisconsin faced a fiscal crisis. Wisconsin also faced an economic crisis. Yes, Wisconsin needed to get a handle on its budget, but also Wisconsin needed to work hard to create jobs. It was everybody’s problem, and everybody should have been part of the solution.

In times of trouble what we need is not less democracy. We need more democracy.

Trouble doesn’t belong to one side or the other side. It belongs to everybody, and everybody should have been part of the solution. If a crisis is real, all sides needs to sit down together and talk, but not as “sides” but as citizens, citizens with different perspectives and different ideas, but with a common cause and a common goal.

I’m not saying our state houses or even Congress should turn into giant town hall meetings. That simply is not practical. We can have a representative democracy, but we need lawmakers who will listen to their constituents. We need lawmakers who will listen to other lawmakers. We need lawmakers who understand that the problems they confront are the problems we all confront.

Democracy is not merely about voting in elections every two years. It is about inclusion. It is about allowing people to get involved, within reason; the more the merrier. If the process is more inclusive, there are greater opportunities for good ideas to get a hearing. And it does need to be noted that those who are directly affected, by a situation or a policy or whatever, generally have pretty good ideas.

Also, allowing greater inclusion results in greater educational opportunities for those who choose to get involved. This can only pay dividends down the road.

This is what democracy looks like: all of us, coming together to solve OUR problems.

In times of trouble, what we need is not less democracy. What we need is more democracy.