What’s the difference between Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia and Ohio Cooperative Solar in Cleveland? The mine, in which 29 workers were killed in 2010, created wealth for CEO Don Blankenship and Massey’s shareholders and “illth”—poisoned streams, toxic air, and deliberate inattention to safety in and around the mine—for everyone else. Ohio Cooperative Solar, in contrast, is a worker-owned enterprise that operates on a one-worker/one-vote model and, as part of the Evergreen Cooperatives, seeks to improve conditions for its workers and the surrounding communities.
As Erik Reece [ht: db] explains in a remarkable recent essay, “The End of Illth,”
As CEO of Massey, Don Blankenship hadn’t dug up an ounce of coal, but in his last year at the company he walked away with $17.8 million and a deferred compensation package valued at $27.2 million. [Former CEO Steve] Kiel told me that under the formula OCS had developed, profit-shares were determined one third by a worker’s wages, one third by the hours he or she had worked that year, and one third by his or her overall tenure with the company. The model sought to reward commitment to the co-op and to the community.
“The deal we make with employees is that this is not an overnight ATM machine,” Kiel said. “You’re going to have to work here eight to ten years before you see the benefits of ownership. . . . What we get in return as a community is people living in these neighborhoods for long periods of time with long-term job security, and that leads to the entire community stabilization we’re looking for.” What’s more, when the workers are the stakeholders, long-term thinking about what’s best for the company replaces the short-term, profit-driven motives of today’s average shareholder. “Most capitalists have a return-on-investment threshold,” Kiel said. “Typically venture capital is going to put up a million dollars up front and will look to get a [huge] annual return. We don’t have that capitalist on board, so we have a different measure, which is how many people can we hire.”
The worker-owned model advocated by Reece represents a new answer to the question “which side are you on?” not only for the traditional coal-mining areas in Appalachia but for the rest of the country.