Policy and advocacy organization plans to build political momentum for broad-based ownership policies
Building a political movement in support of broad-based ownership is the aim of a new organization launched this week, Ownership America. Founded by Jack Moriarty, a recent graduate of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, with support from a group of long-time employee ownership advocates, the initial goal is to accelerate the growth of employee ownership across the economy. “For decades the number of employee-owned companies has stagnated, growing only 1 or 2 percent a year,” says, Moriarty. “Think of the impact if we could increase the rate of growth to 20 to 30 percent per year.”
Ownership America’s mission is to make broad-based capital ownership a ‘foundational objective’ of public policy.–Jack Moriarty, founder of Ownership America
Ownership America’s mission is to make broad-based capital ownership a “foundational objective” of public policy. The idea is to build a nation of owners who have the freedom, dignity, and agency that comes from economic independence.
This isn’t a new idea, notes Moriarty. It’s what the founders believed. “Every man a proprietor,” said Thomas Paine. Just as the right to vote is necessary for the political enfranchisement of ordinary Americans, asset ownership is essential to economic enfranchisement. The two together build a stronger democratic society. The problem, says Moriarty, is that this isn’t an objective of any political constituency today. It’s not part of our political discourse.
The new group hopes to fill a void not addressed by existing advocacy groups for employee ownership, which tend to focus primarily on federal and regulatory lobbying on behalf of their members. Then there are nonprofit state centers, which are engaged in outreach and education among business owners and business service providers but are limited in their political engagement. Multiple nonprofit groups also provide educational and technical assistance for employee ownership conversions, a space Moriarty notes is already well-served. Despite this relatively robust ecosystem, no other organization has a core mission of linking policy development with grassroots advocacy to build a movement for broad-based ownership—including, eventually, asset classes beyond business ownership.
Employee Ownership Lacks Political Constituency
Moriarty entered business school with a growing interest in employee ownership. Through mentor Christopher Mackin, president of Ownership Associates and adjunct faculty at Rutgers University, he got to know the Lake Quinsigamond group, an informal collaboration of long-time employee ownership advocates who were developing a policy agenda to accelerate the growth of employee ownership. Several members of this group are serving on the board of directors for Ownership America, including Board President Michael Quarrey, vice president at the 100% employee-owned manufacturer Web Industries, and Corey Rosen, founder of the National Center for Employee Ownership.
No other organization has a core mission of linking policy development with grassroots advocacy to build a movement for broad-based ownership.
Moriarty, who grew up in a political family, noticed something missing from the Lake Quinsigamond strategy. Employee ownership lacked the political infrastructure necessary to move policymakers. This was in part a fluke of history. When Louis Kelso brought the idea of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) to Senator Russell Long back in the 1970s, Long liked the idea so much that he included it in ERISA, legislation that has continued to shape American pension plans and retirement options for more than 50 years. Politically, ESOPs leapt from idea to legislation without ever building a political movement.
This isn’t to say that employee ownership doesn’t have its supporters. It is one of the few issues in Congress that consistently garners bipartisan support. But only a handful of legislators have led these efforts, and in recent memory only one piece of legislation—the Main Street Employee Ownership Act—has advanced employee ownership at the federal level.
Building a Grassroots Movement
Ownership America intends to build political support to advance policies that incentivize employee ownership, whether ESOPs, Employee Ownership Trusts, or worker cooperatives. The goal is to build a grassroots-powered social and political movement, starting in the states. Organized as a 501(c)(3) with an affiliated 501(c)(4) to coordinate public education and political advocacy, the national organization will support state advocates with digital organizing resources, policy papers, sample legislation, coaching, and best practices.
The national organization will support state advocates with digital organizing resources, policy papers, sample legislation, coaching, and best practices.
Moriarty is modeling Ownership America on an organizing model that succeeded for a wide variety of issues, from women’s suffrage to legalizing marijuana to same-sex marriage. In each of these cases, grassroots groups at the state-level initiated reforms that brought the issues to national attention. For example, same-sex marriage first became legal in Massachusetts when LGBT advocates sued the state. Success in Massachusetts helped to then expand same-sex marriage in other states through the judiciary, ballot initiatives, and legislation. Eventually, momentum grew for change at the federal level.
Moriarty believes this same approach will work to advance the employee-owned business model. Widespread public interest won’t be catalyzed by employee ownership per se, says Moriarty, but by invoking the many issues that people care about and are already working on: increasing financial security for America’s working families, strengthening U.S. industrial competitiveness, addressing the business succession crisis, building retirement security, narrowing racial and gender wealth gaps. “Broad-based employee ownership can help to solve every one of these problems,” says Moriarty. “So people who care about these issues are already supporters. They just don’t know it.”
Opportunities to Advance Employee Ownership at the State Level
Ownership America hopes to connect to many natural constituents for employee ownership across the political spectrum, building support by showing how employee ownership changes lives and melding that interest into support for local policy agendas. State activists might work toward a Colorado model, with a commission to advance employee ownership embedded in state government. Others might advocate for state financing to support education and outreach as well as loan funds, credit enhancements, or tax incentives to increase the pace of employee ownership transitions.
One example of low-hanging fruit, says Moriarty, is endorsing employee ownership in state party platforms. Only a handful of state Democratic or Republican platforms include such language. After partnering with a Texas legislative effort that was successful in adding employee ownership as a plank in the state’s GOP platform, Ownership America worked with Democrats in Massachusetts to affirm support for the issue during their recent platform revision process. In both cases, party activists knew little about employee ownership, providing an opportunity to educate the most politically active people in the state. They wanted to know: why haven’t we heard about this? What can we do to help to build an infrastructure to support it?
At the recent Massachusetts Democratic Party convention, delegates went a step further, endorsing a resolution in support of a permanent state government office on employee ownership. The office would provide public education and technical assistance to support employee ownership transitions. Democratic party activists are now poised to support the necessary legislation to make that vision a reality, proving the point that political action can, in fact, advance employee ownership.
To learn more about Ownership America, go to www.ownershipamerica.org. With the official launch, the Ownership America released its first policy paper, Turning Employees into Owners: Rebuilding the American Dream. For a copy of the paper, contact Jack@ownershipamerica.org.
Karen Kahn is a communications consultant and the editor of Employee Ownership News.