Community Appropriate Industry

Instead of a nation that manufactures its own goods, the United States has become a nation of service providers, moving production “off shore” and relying on fossil fuel to transport its goods over long distances—an increasingly fragile supply line whether judged from an ecological, social, economic, or political point of view. While exporting jobs, we have also exported the skills and technologies for making the very products we depend on daily.

E. F. Schumacher defines a sustainable economy (economy of permanence, in his words) as one in which the goods consumed in a region are produced in the region. In keeping with this, Jane Jacobs argued for “import replacement” as a sound strategy for economic development.

Accepting the urgency of this strategy, we must then ask the question, How do we re-integrate manufacturing into a service economy and into the work force of a service economy? The old industrial model of large workplaces, repetitive tasks, and low hourly wages fails to inspire the necessary adaptation.

During his presentation to the attendees of the Schumacher Center’s 2007 Building Sustainable Local Economies Seminar Charles Turner maintained that workers need decision-making capacity to create institutions appropriate to their skills, needs, and desires. Giving people the potential to create businesses through their inputs—meaningful work, capital investment, community interaction—instead of only extracting value from their labor will drive new industry appropriate and responsive to its regional community.

The city of Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain offers a successful vision of how collaborative enterprises can positively affect the entire community. Under the direction of Father José María Arizmendiarrieta, Mondragon began educating its youth in industrial trades and then helped the graduates build worker-owned cooperatives that apply these skills according to the desires of the workers themselves. Most of these are industrial cooperatives making stoves, refrigerators, auto parts, wind generation parts, and products for daily life.

Staff visit to Mondragon in 2007.

Recognizing the role of the community in creating the climate for such production, the cooperatives return 10 percent of all profits as gifts to the community. Today the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, representing 104 cooperatives and 100,000 worker-owners, is able to fund free education, Basque cultural activities, and member health care. Mondragon is an example of how workers, given a stake in the means of production, can provide the basis for a vibrant city that meets the needs of its people.

Charles Turner has been working in the Boston area for 40 years to build the relationships that Mondragon exemplifies. He collaborated with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative to create a vital and diverse urban village informed and directed by the residents. By securing eminent domain over the vacant lots scattered throughout the neighborhood and applying the community land trust model, the committee of local residents was able to direct the development of the community to reflect their needs, including permanently affordable housing, new schools, community parks and gardens, and space for local business development.

Charles Turner served as the education director for the Industrial Cooperative Association, now the ICA Group. The organization seeks to create and save jobs through the development and strengthening of employee-owned cooperative and community based projects. The businesses developed by this organization have become anchors for the development of other worker-owned enterprises. ICA Group also helps businesses design Employee Stock Ownership Plans that help employees buy their company from a retiring or corporate owner.

Since 1999 Turner has been a Boston City Councilman representing Roxbury, Dorchester, the South End, and parts of Fenway. Before he took office he organized an advisory committee to help develop legislative and organizing strategies as well as coordinate monthly meetings, called the District 7 Roundtables. Out of these meetings came the “More than a Paycheck” campaign with the goal of pulling together the unemployed and underemployed to create policy for economic development that would benefit the workers. The best way to assure that the jobs created through their policy continue to benefit the worker is to promote worker ownership in new firms.

Charles Turner is a powerful advocate for a racially, socially, and economically just society. He believes that no one should suffer an unfair burden, be confronted with a limited number of options, or be shut out of the decisions that most directly affect his or her own life.

Charles Turner, Majora Carter, and Michael Shuman will be speaking at the Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures on October 27, 2007, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Tickets are 20 BerkShares or 20 dollars and 15 BerkShares/15 dollars for members/students/seniors.