Nearly 400 organizers and activists gathered at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst March 19-22 for the first national gathering of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, exceeding the expectations of its organizers.
The deepening economic crisis made the meeting quite timely. The overall theme was ‘Building Another World,’ and drew participants from the East Coast, South and Midwest of the US, even Alaska and Puerto Rico. Internationally, delegations came from Quebec, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, and Canada. People represented economic justice and green jobs projects, food coops and credit unions, worker coops and labor unions, and peace and justice organizing efforts.
"Our diversity was very dynamic and creative," said Julie Matthaei, a USSEN coordinating committee member. "It served us well in affirming our unity, discussing differences, and helping us reach a deeper understanding of the solidarity economy in our context."
The solidarity economy is a grassroots movement widely known throughout Latin America, arising from people turning to each other for survival in the face of the slashing of social safety nets imposed by globalization and neoliberalism. It consists of peasant cooperatives, workers seizing abandoned factories and a variety of organizations of the urban poor. In Europe and Quebec, it’s also known as part of the social economy, with deep ties to the trade unions, worker-owned cooperatives and the nonprofit sector in social services. Together, the social and solidarity economy are quite strong there, with successes in pushing public policy.
USSEN was launched at the US Social Forum in Atlanta, 2007, which drew some 12,000 participants. SEN activists had organized over 80 panels and workshops, and the network was founded from among the participants. It has added to its numbers since then, with the Amherst meeting its first major U.S. project. It was co-convened with the Universidad de los Andes from Venezuela and RIPESS-North America, the Intercontinental Social Solidarity Economy Network.
Emily Kawano, USSEN director, welcomed everyone at the opening plenary and took note of this history. "We know the solidarity economy is new to activists here in the U.S., but we’re very excited about how it is being taken up. We’re very clear on its core meaning, but at the same time, we like the concept that we build the road as we travel it." Ethel Cote followed with a description of how the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNET) she was representing was facing new challenges in coming to scale in the new period of crisis, while Benito Diaz of the Venezuelan University on the Andes described the large cooperative movement launched as part of the Bolivarian revolution in his country.
The conference was organized around some 70 workshops in eight time slots, with four major plenary sessions, as well as an opening tour of local examples of the solidarity economy in practice in Western Massachusetts. A total of 199 speakers made presentations and facilitated discussions.
The topics covered a wide-range: A common policy agenda in the context of Obama’s recovery plans, cooperative housing, fair trade, credit unions, alternative currencies, cooperatives in Venezuela, worker takeovers in Argentina, feminist economics, the social economy in Quebec, the role of labor unions, worker cooperatives, green jobs alliances, solar power and many more.
The Friday morning plenary was packed. Elandria Williams from the Highlander Research and Educational Center in Knoxville, Tennessee fired people up with descriptions of organizing battles for economic justice. "We’ve been engaged in the solidarity economy for our survival for and long time. We just never applied that name to it." She shared the platform with Ethan Miller from the Grassroots Economic Organizing network. He delighted the session with an extensive graphic mapping of all the interconnected features of the movement cast on a giant screen.
The question of the solidarity economy’s connection with the wider "green jobs" movement came up early in an opening round workshop on shaping a common policy in the context of the Obama stimulus. The issue was underscored by the recent appointment of Van Jones of Green For All to the White House team–Green For All and Jones are highly regarded here. While there was no consensus answer, almost all agreed that there was considerable overlap between the two, and the solidarity economy projects had an important role in the green jobs movement.
"They’re not exactly the same," said one participant. "T. Boone Pickens, the Texas millionaire guy who wants all those wind turbines to make the Midwest the Saudi Arabia of wind power is clearly part of the green economy, but he’s most likely indifferent at best as to what makes for a solidarity economy, worker and community ownership and the like. But that’s where we come in, what we can offer to the green jobs movement."
The "Obama debate" emerged in several workshops over the weekend. There were a range of views on the new White House, with many sympathetic to Obama. Some declared themselves as Green voters, however, and a few didn’t bother with the election. In fact, there are two major underlying discussions and debates in the solidarity economy movement almost everywhere. One is whether SE projects operate as alternatives to markets or as a dynamic option within them. The other concerns the state, and whether SE projects grow mainly by linking horizontally outside of government, or whether they partner with government to force structural reforms, especially on the local level. Both views were expressed, but neither saw the need to force a conclusion on the matter.
But most participants were simply upbeat about the size and diversity of the turnout, and intrigued over the array of choices of workshop subject matter they could sample.
The Friday evening plenary deepened the internationalist dimension of the conference. Nancy Neamtan from the Chantier de l’économie sociale in Quebec, the network of networks of all organizations involved in social economy, explained the deep connection with the labor movement through a number of battles and crises, and how the social economy is critical to the survival of the working class, especially working women. Graciela Monteagudo, speaking for the Argentina Autonomista Project, gave a powerful slide show on the efforts of that country’s urban street poor to organize themselves in recycling cooperatives, while Jose Sojo of Venezuela described the ongoing challenges with cooperatives surviving in the marketplace.
By Saturday morning the conference workshops had the problem of being overcrowded, as more activists arrived in Amherst for the weekend.
"Community Owned Green Jobs and Green Energy" was a popular choice. Organized by Massachusetts Coop Power, the presenters gave excellent detailed descriptions of creating green jobs for youth installing solar powered hot water heaters in residential homes. Even low-income families could take advantage of a number of creative plans to cover up-front expenses for the units by borrowing against their future savings on power bills from the utility companies.
"It’s ‘Win-Win’ all round," said Lynn Benander of Coop Power. When queried about how she won over dubious inner city youth to take up the program, she replied: "I put a foam cup of hot water in the middle of the table and asked, ‘How would you keep it hot?’ and got them to compete for solutions. Then I said, ‘OK, good, now how you keep this room and this building warmer? Here’s a detector, find the heat loss, and think about how to stop it. Worked like a charm; they got into it."
A workshop that followed up on a similar theme was "Building an Inclusive and Equitable Green Economy," presented by the Massachusetts Green Jobs Coalition.
"How do we actually do it?" asked Kalia Lydgate, a MAGJC organizer. A student inspired by Van Jones and his book, "Green Collar Economy," she went on to describe how they used his ideas to build cross-sectoral alliances that are inclusive of those needing green jobs the most. "If you walk in a room and it’s all white guys in suits, you’ve got big problems. That just won’t work." MAJJC turned out to be a successful statewide coalition and advocate that got bottom up job training and funding done the best way.
"This is one of the most thought provoking and enlightening experiences in my life," said Tylik Railey, a young activist with the Asbury Park Neighborhood Cooperative in New Jersey. "I’m so glad that I am a part of a movement this huge and worldwide. Not knowing too much about solidarity economy, I was a little hesitant into walking into this world of organizers, scholars, students, and small business people. But in little to no time I was sharing my experiences with these same people."
The afternoon round featured a workshop on labor. Yvon Poirier of the Canadian CED Network and a retired Quebec trade unionist gave a presentation on the critical role of unions in the Quebec social movements. "With our conservative government in Ottawa," said Poirier, "a progressive agenda is not fully possible right now." Still, he went on to explain the advanced way, compared to the U.S., that since the mid-1980s, Quebec unions made use of their own pension funds to support growth in the social economy that served the basic needs of the population. Others in the workshop brought up some of the problems with "business unionism" in the U.S, but noted there were now a number of openings for work around wider issues. All agreed that SEN activists should take up the Fight for the upcoming Employee Free Choice Act that the GOP Right is trying to block.
Worker cooperatives are at the heart of the solidarity economy. One workshop discussed a number of projects in the Bronx and New York City. Workshop participant Bucket von Harmony, a member of a rural coop in Virginia, reported:
"We learned how many immigrant workers in New York City are treated poorly by their employers. So a group of folks got together and formed various collectives: a childcare co-op, a construction co-op, and a house cleaning co-op. They each have different structures. One requires that everyone put in 2 hours of marketing work a week. The construction co-op gives women the opportunity to participate in construction that they had not access to before and they all pay each other equally no matter what their skill level is. It is awesome to see how sharing and cooperation can better the lives of those who have the hardest time getting by, as so much our movement is made up of those who have had a lot of privilege in the mainstream culture."
Credit unions are also a feature of the solidarity economy. The workshop, "Guide to a Better Banking System," organized by the Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, spotlighted how they have been hit by the overall financial crisis, when their own national center was caught with securities, supposedly safe AAA investments, that were really based on toxic mortgages. "We’ll take a hit,’" said Cliff Rosenthal, "but we’ll come through it better than others." He went on to explain the value of credit unions, themselves coops, in meeting the financial needs of local worker and community-base cooperatives.
Rosenthal also led off at the Saturday evening plenary with a short version of the workshop. But the role of credit unions became apparent with the other presenters with him: Van Temple of the National Community Land Trust, which works to develop affordable housing on community-held land; and Nick Regalado of West Virginia’s Coal River Mountain Watch, which promotes windmill farms and opposes the "mountaintop removal" method of strip mining coal ravaging the Appalachian highlands. This session concluded with a militant call by Julio Chavez, the former mayor of Trujillo, Venezuela for greater cooperation internationally, and solidarity with the Bolivarian revolutionary process unfolding in his country.
A cabaret of solidarity culture closed out the evening with high energy. First was Raging Grannies, a colorful group doing peace and folk songs, and a number of folk singers including Red Valley Fog, Jay Mankita and Ethan Miller. "Brick by Brick", an inner city hip-hop group changed the pace with rap poetry written that day, to much enthusiasm. Finally, a spoken word group read from the writing and speech of famous labor leaders over a span of 150 years, and ended with everyone standing, singing a rousing version of "Solidarity Forever." Among the more grey-haired veterans of labor battles in the 1970s, there wasn’t a dry eye to be found.
Sunday was wrap-up day, as people prepared for catching planes. A last round of workshops featured one of Egalitarian Communes led by Bucket von Harmony, and another on "Women Feminism and the Solidarity Economy" with Ethel Cote, Julie Matthaei, and Nedda Angulo of RIPESS. Angulo gave the final plenary a militant call to expand the work on all continents, and to encourage those who could to attend the upcoming RIPESS meeting in Luxembourg.
Throughout the conference, SEN had three "business meetings" on the work of building the organization and the wider network. It agreed to form a new board of directors and a smaller coordinating committee, as well as setting other priorities and refining its message and mission. Quebec’s Yvon Poirier summed up the conclusion:
"Back in June 2007, in Atlanta, there were about 40 people in the final meeting, out of the 80 workshops, that decided to go forward. Now there are about 350 or 400 people in the US that know a lot more, and are certainly interested in one way or another, in promoting Solidarity Economy." With scarce resources, it won’t be an easy task. But the times demand it, and if the people who gathered in Amherst are any indication, they will rise to the occasion.
[Carl Davidson is a SEN Coordinating Committee member, and webmaster for SolidarityEconomy.net and 'Progressives for Obama'. He is also a National Committee member of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, http://cc-ds.org If you like this article, go to http://progressivesforobama.net and make use of the PayPal button.]