Ted Howard, architect of the Cleveland Model, on the journey to a new economy

The social justice advocate tells how the lessons he learned from Mondragon to work in a city ruined by deindustrialisation

Earlier this summer, Co-operative Futures and Co-operatives West Midlands hosted an evening with Ted Howard, at the co-operatively owned Warehouse Cafe in Birmingham.

Mr Howard, who co-wrote The Making of a Democratic Economy with Marjorie Kelly (see review), has spent his career working in social justice advocacy and campaigning for a democratic economy.

He co-founded the Democracy Collaborative in 2000 (he remains executive director) and was the architect of the green jobs and wealth-building program in Cleveland, Ohio, known as the Evergreen Cooperatives (or the Cleveland Model), which was based in part on the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. In 2010 he was named one of ‘25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World’ by Utne Reader magazine.

“I am convinced that there is a very interesting, dynamic dialogue between the UK and the US,” he said, recalling the 1970s and 80s, when UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan ushered in a bold neoliberal agenda that swept the globe.

But, but added, “I am hopeful a new expression is emerging for our countries and for the world – that of a democratic economy”.

Co-founding the Democracy Collaborative was a significant turning point for him. “That was when I began to make the journey beyond politics and policy reform to look at the key structural issues that are embedded in our capitalist economy,” he said.

“What are alternative ways of organising enterprise that are more democratic, committed to and rooted in community, that produce greater benefit for people? That journey has led me into an inquiry about how can we envision a political economy that is neither centralised state socialism […] nor this hyper-corporate capitalism that we have now.”

Related: Democracy Collaborative says co-ops can help cities tackle climate crisis

A second turning point was the experience of Mondragon, which he has now visited six times. “It has influenced the work we’re doing in Cleveland. It’s illuminating to see highly democratic worker ownership done at scale. But as they say there, this is not paradise and we are not angels. There are still challenges.”

The third part of his journey came when he was challenged to actually build a co-op structure after years of researching and writing about the model.  “This is our work in Cleveland,” he said. “When we started, I said ‘how hard can it be, this isn’t rocket science…’ Eventually a friend of mine said ‘no, it’s not rocket science, it’s much harder than that’. The reality has been a transformative experience in my life.”

In the 1950s and early 60s, Cleveland, Ohio was one of the five wealthiest cities in America, and one of the largest with a population of nearly 1 million. JD Rockefeller, the industrialist, was born there, and at one point it was home to 50% of the world’s millionaires. But then came the deindustrialisation of the 70s and 80s. Today Cleveland is one of the country’s five poorest cities, with a population of just 385,000.

“There had been a sense of great futility,” said Mr Howard. “I was invited to come there by a number of institutions to try to find a new way to develop the economy. What we hit upon was to emphasise worker ownership rather than just a salary; emphasise decent work, not just a job; and we created a strategy, working with legacy institutions (universities, hospitals, cultural centres, etc) to encourage them to buy locally, while at the same time setting up worker co-operatives in the city to provide the services they need.”

One of the challenges was to find people to run these services – often technical and complex, such as with industrial laundries – while remaining true to values. Bringing in co-operators and training them in this work didn’t work. “What did work was bringing in corporate experts and training them in co-operative culture,” says Mr Howard.

“We made every possible mistake in the book, but we’re still standing.”