Building Economic Equality through Co-Ops: Benny Overton - Vanderbilt Divinity School


Benny Overton is the President of the UAW Local 737. Committed to the cause of social and economic equality, Benny will be leading a course at TSU on co-op ventures. The following are his edited remarks at the opening of the inaugural event on April 10, 2019:

I am to speak on co-ops, co-op ventures and trying to build something new.

First, I'd like to tell you why it is necessary to reveal something new. It has to do with inequality and democracy. We are all aware of the growing income and wealth inequality in this country today. Nashville is not immune. This has an impact on democracy because as you have a concentration of wealth, you also have the concentration of political power. A study was done some years ago that says that we no longer have a democracy; we now have an oligarchy. This is part of the impact of inequality. This is one reason why co-ops are necessary.

Another aspect is the racial dimension of inequality. Two hundred and twenty-eight years. That is how long it will take the average black family to reach the wealth of the average white family today. If we continue to do things the way we've been doing, if we continue on the current trend, it will take 228 years. That's using average family wealth. Some say you should use median family wealth to make that measure, but if we use median family wealth, it will become even more dismal.

We've got to do something different. We've got to reexamine the way our economic system works. This is one of the things we are doing with co-ops.

I'm so optimistic about co-ops because of an experience I had at the glass plant. I'm the President of the UAW Local 737. This used to be the Ford Glass Plant. Before they sold it about 11 years ago, the glass plant had always been very profitable. As part of the Ford Motor Company vertical integration, Henry Ford believed in owning all aspect of the supply chain. He even owned rubber trees to produce his own rubber for tires.

The glass plant was something we made very profitable until Ford had a change of strategy. They wanted to get rid of the vertical integration and focus their profit center at the assembly and manufacturing facility. Therefore the profitability of the glass plant diminished. Pricing pressures forced the price down and we were no longer profitable. It was then they decided to sell.

When we got word that they were going to sell the plant, management – in their attempts to whip us into profitability – came out with draconian, authoritarian measures that were punitive in nature. What we needed was a way to be innovative and creative in our way of operating. You didn't get that by being punitive. So a couple of friends and I petitioned the management looking for greater involvement in some of the decision making at the plant.

To our surprise, they decided to do an experiment with Nashville and allowed us to be co-managers of the plant. So the workers and the management worked together with total parity from all levels in making decisions. I saw the impact that had on operations in finding new ways to improve performance.

I learned that from involvement comes commitment. When you are involved in making decisions, you have greater commitment in seeing that whatever course of action you devise, you have a greater commitment to seeing it work.

With a cooperative where workers are the owners, and where workers have involvement in decisions, it's only natural that they will exhibit the same level of commitment. Something that holds a lot of promise is not only to create good paying jobs, but to allow the workers to start building equity and building wealth to start to address the wealth inequality that we have. That is why I look forward to working with co-ops.

I want to give a shout out to Joseph back here in the room. We started this co-op initiative through NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope). I was vice chair of NOAH until recently, and one of our tasks was to launch the co-op initiative. Joseph was a part of it and I appreciate your work.

I look forward to working with Joerg and others. Come check us out. We have a co-op class coming up soon at TSU on Saturdays. If you are interested in co-ops, please stop by.

Click here to read a recap of the event and see photos.