Saturday
Mar242012

A Tea Party Cooperator?

From a political perspective, an interesting thing about cooperation and worker ownership is its potential for cross-partisan support. To the Left, community ownership can be seen as libertarian socialism, a grassroots collectivism opposed to the narrow self-interest and exploitation by the rich. To the Right, it can be seen as an expansion of the “ownership society,” including workers in the practice and benefits of capitalism.

Mentioned in passing in Gar Alperovitz’s recent NY Times op-ed “Worker-Owners of America, Unite!” was an example of a right-wing believer in worker ownership, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Mourdock is running an insurgent campaign in the Republican primary against veteran moderate US Senator Richard Lugar with the backing of not only the Tea Party Express but the full complement of national pro-corporate groups: the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Citizens United.

But, untypically for a Tea Party Republican, Mourdock is also a champion of employee ownership through Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs). With the goal “to make Indiana the leading state in the country for employee ownership,” Mourdock created Indiana’s ESOP Initiative (IEI)[pdf], the only one of its kind in the country. With an initial $50 million investment, “The [IEI] Linked-Deposit program will allow the Treasurer’s office to link its routine purchase of CDs from Indiana’s financial institutions to the Indiana company needing capital for the ESOP transaction.” Companies in a variety of fields have used the program to help make the transition to employee ownership.

ESOPs are different from worker cooperatives in that the company retains the form of a corporation, but with the employees owning stock. The ESOP may own any percentage of stock, so the employees may co-own the company with outside investors.

Mourdock justifies the program as a way to keep American jobs (“An employee-owned company has never, never, never, never, never, ever packed up and moved to Mexico or China.”) and also points to his own experience. Mourdock was an ESOP trustee when his employer, Koester Companies, transitioned to 100% worker ownership:

“The ESOP... allowed for the expansion of the company, helped develop a sense of employee ownership throughout its workforce, and increased the stock value of the company. At the age of fifty, Treasurer Mourdock left the company confident that his retirement savings were sufficient for him to begin his own business and to pursue his goal of public service.”

Mourdock clearly sees employee ownership as helping him achieve his vision of the American dream and launching his political career: “I would not have the opportunity to serve as Indiana’s State Treasurer if I had not been involved with an ESOP early in my career.”

If Mourdock ends up in the US Senate, it will be interesting to see if he acts on his passion for employee ownership. Could he work together with pro-community ownership legislators like Sherrod Brown and Chaka Fattah to take his ESOP program national or will he join his friends in the Club for Growth in crafting economic policies that favor multinational corporations?

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