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We Need a Green New Deal to Expand Worker Ownership of Our Economy

A Green New Deal can’t just move us towards ecological sustainability — it also has to democratize the entire economy by expanding worker ownership.

Bernie Sanders and AOC hold a news conference to introduce the Green New Deal outside the US Capitol in November, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The primary reason why we face climate catastrophe today is because corporations have had far too much power over the economy and politics. We know that fossil fuel and utility companies — those who stand to lose the most from carbon-cutting policies — have fought to buy off politicians, lobby the hell out of Congress, dissuade the public of climate science, scare voters about electricity prices skyrocketing, and fund climate-denying think tanks. The climate movement hasn’t built the strength to overcome this corporate power, and thus, the US government allows the climate crisis to go on unchecked.

The political strategy behind the Green New Deal (GND) has rightly bound the interest of traditional environmentalists with environmental justice, racial justice, and labor and economic justice interests. The thinking behind GND does so by expanding the policy package from technocratic emissions rules (i.e., old climate policy thinking) to investments in jobs, frontline communities, housing, transit, and more.

This is smart: climate, as its own “issue,” can barely muster a minimally viable coalition to get moderate policy passed (like the market-friendly cap-and-trade bill attempt in 2009). But combined with the interests of other organized groups, alongside voters who may not care much about climate impacts but do want more affordable housing or jobs opportunities, climate justice might just be achievable.

There’s a key way to strengthen Green New Deal–style thinking as a political vision and policy package: democratize the entire economy. A GND with this political commitment at its center would include mandates for companies to transfer more equity — and decision-making power — to their workers. Crucially, this wouldn’t just include fossil fuel companies and allied groups. It would include all big companies in the United States. (In this respect, Europe’s GND is ahead of ours.)

Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign platform included this basic idea: corporations earning over $100 million annually would be required to slowly hand over stock to their employees, until workers owned 20 percent of all big companies. The campaign cited research showing this would materially benefit the average employee by $5,000 per year — which doesn’t even include the enhanced sense of control over a worker’s life through having more ownership. Bernie’s plan also mandated that those big companies give up to 45 percent board seats to workers. Elizabeth Warren’s plan required companies bigger than $1 billion to get up to 40 percent of workers on boards.

Incorporating “democratize the economy” into GND-style thinking is both politically strategic and good policy. Others, like Kate Aronoff, have described the nationalization of the fossil fuel industry as a key part of the fight for climate justice. This is also necessary to rapidly avoid the worst of climate devastation. However, this would be different than democratizing the ownership of all companies as there would be no clear constituency that would tangibly benefit in the short-term from the public ownership of dirty industries, since the voting public technically becomes the owner.

Moreover, it allows for other (non–fossil fuel) companies to retain their authoritarian structures and shareholder-focused incentives. Many non–fossil fuel companies also oppose anything in the realm of climate policy (as recent research has shown), so, potentially, a strong anti-climate business coalition would still exist. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t nationalize all fossil fuel companies and utilities, but it does mean a GND should take a step further in its revision of the structure and ownership of companies.

Adding comprehensive worker ownership is politically strategic because it would provide immediate material gains to all workers. That’s a lot of voters. Current GND-style thinking prioritizes green jobs and a job guarantee. These are fantastic — both strategic and great policy — but what about workers who have jobs they want to keep in the future GND economy? Newer green jobs — for anyone who needs one — are primarily a draw for those who will want those new jobs. That’s potentially a sizable chunk of the United States, but it’s not everyone.

Giving existing workers more ownership of capital completes the circle of benefits for the entire working class: in addition to a healthier and more just world, better-connected cities, and more housing options, this provides an immediate economic boon in the bank accounts of all workers. It’s no surprise that the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives supports the GND.

Accompanying the politically strategic reasons, a GND with worker ownership provisions is fundamentally good policy. It will immediately raise the current and future wealth of workers, while transferring less money — and corporate decision-making power — away from rich CEOs. Through more jobs and a job guarantee, existing GND thinking hopes to make a serious dent in economic inequality.

This addition is a sure-fire way to redistribute more wealth and power. Others like Nathan Schneider and the Democracy Collaborative have written about this, too, though not in a way that mandates worker ownership for the entire economy, nor about the politically strategic reasons to do so.

A long-term strategic reason to ensure a worker-ownership GND is that we just can’t let corporations continue with their eyes solely on profit for shareholders, which has also involved relentless rent-seeking tactics to influence public policy. We’re in this mess of a climate crisis because a small group of CEOs were able to control climate politics. If we expect to really get a hold on emissions and overcome the power of fossil fuel companies — in addition to other powerful industries like finance, Big Tech, and Big Pharma — we must hit all of corporate America where it hurts: ownership and decision-making.

If we can successfully get the US economy more firmly in the hands of workers, we can worry less about companies routinely trying to get another tax break, or preventing serious, transformative policy change. Not only could worker ownership aid us in mitigating the climate crisis, economic inequality, and racial injustice, it could also help facilitate meaningful policy change in many other domains by breaking the power of corporate America.

Certainly, recent developments in federal climate politics have shown the Biden campaign increasing the size of its green jobs investments. But it still falls short of a bold GND that offers a job guarantee, housing guarantee, and health care. Even if Democrats win the Senate, corporate-friendly, drilling-defending senators will hold pivotal swing votes. For those reasons, a serious GND seems very unlikely to pass in Congress in the next four years.

But all is not lost. States which have passed GND-style packages like New York and Maine are in the midst of GND-like battles and can incorporate worker-ownership into their thinking. And the battle over ideas isn’t lost until a bill is passed. This kind of idea can still be pushed in intra-Democratic party policy fights — AOC- and Bernie-type legislators can still raise hell about ideas like this in a possible 2021 Democratic-controlled Congress.

Overall, the GND push has been politically smart, but it must go further. We can’t just substitute renewables for fossil fuels, employ many more people, provide more social benefits, and think the world has been saved. We also need to shift the long-term power balance within the US economy toward workers, and away from CEOs and shareholders, who are the primary barriers to policy change on so many issues. Not only is this good for working people in the United States, but it very likely would grow the active, supportive constituency behind transformative GND-style policy.

The US economy must be democratized. It’s time to tie that to climate policy via a Green New Deal — for the sake of political strategy, enhancing the power of workers, and preventing the ongoing havoc that corporate elites wreak on society and politics. We need a worker-owned Green New Deal.