Niki Okuk
1,301,462 views • 12:27

Are you tired of your boss?


Are you tired of going to work and making money for other people? And who are those people anyways? Those people that make money from your work. Well, they're capitalists. They have capital, and they use your labor to make more capital. So if you're tired of going to work and making money for other people, then you're probably like me — just tired of capitalism. Which is ironic, because I'm a capitalist.


I own a small business — Rco Tires in Compton. A few years ago, when I read Van Jones, and he wrote, "Let's make green collar jobs in the hood," I took him really seriously. So I cofounded, own and operate a tire recycling company, and I'm really proud of what we've done. So far, we've recycled a hundred million pounds of rubber. That's 21 million gallons of oil diverted from landfills into new products.


We also employ about 15 guys — mostly people of color, most of whom are felons, and we pay above the minimum wage, and we are now proud members of the United Steelworkers Union.


Now, Rco is not a cooperative now. It's a privately held company with community-minded ownership, but I would like it to become one. I would like for them to fire the boss — that's me.


And I'm going to tell you why, but first, let me tell you how we got started. So a lot of people ask, "How did Rco come to be?" And I have to be really honest. I leveraged my white privilege. So, here's how white privilege worked for me and Rco. My white grandmother was born on her family's plantation in Arkansas in 1918. She traveled with her white father west, following the oil boom. And he held various union oil jobs — jobs which would have never been given to my black great-grandfather, had he lived here at the time. Granny became a hairdresser and then got a loan with her husband who built their home in West Los Angeles — a loan which would never have been given to a black family at the time. And after my grandfather passed away, my granny was able to keep that house because she had his pension and his health care from a state job which he held, which again, would have never been given to a black man before the anti-discrimination act of the 1960s.

So, you fast-forward 30 years, and I graduate, and I want to start my own business with a pile of debt and a credit card, and no experience in the tire industry. But I had what most people didn't have. I had a clean, safe, free place to live. I moved in with my grandmother, and I was able to rent our first warehouse, buy our first truck, pay our first employees, because I didn't have to worry about paying myself, because I didn't need to feed myself, because I am the direct beneficiary of generations of white privilege.

Now, telling the story of white privilege is important because very often people say, "Oh, we want more companies like yours. We want more Rco's, we want more black-owned businesses, female-led, triple bottom line, Ban the Box, green manufacturing companies," right? But the question we have to ask is, where is the wealth? Where is the money? Where's the capital in our communities to build the types of businesses that we want?

And in telling a story of the white side of my family, I needed a dozen ways where blacks were excluded from the economy, whereas the white side of my family was able to gain access and traction, and build wealth ... Primarily because racism and capitalism are best homies, but —


but what that means is that when we ask ourselves, "Why are our communities broke?" — Like, we're not just broke because we're broke; we're broke for a reason. Historical context really does matter.

But our history tells another story as well. There's this incredible book called "Collective Courage," which is the story of how thousands of African Americans have been able to build businesses and schools, hospitals, farming cooperatives, banks, financial institutions — entire communities and sovereign economies, without a lot of capital. And they did it by working together and leveraging their community assets and trusting each other and putting solidarity first — not just profits by any means necessary. And they didn't have to wait around for celebrities and athletes to bring their money back to the hood. However, if you are a celebrity or an athlete, and you're listening to this, please feel free to bring your money.


But they did it through cooperative economics, because they knew that capitalism was never going to finance black liberation. So, there are so many great examples in this book, and I suggest that everybody just read it because it answers the question I asked earlier, which was where are we going to get the wealth to build the types of business that we want. And the answer is going to have to be cooperative economics.

There's a lot of different versions of cooperativism. What I'm talking about today is worker ownership. You may not have heard of worker ownership, but it's been an incredible tool for black economic liberation for a century, and it's also working all over the world right now. You may have heard of Black Wall Street or maybe the Zapatistas, but I'll give you an example that's a little bit closer to home. Right now, today, in South Bronx, is the country's largest worker-owned company. It's called Cooperative Home Care Associates, and it was founded by black and Latinx home care workers who are now able to pay themselves living wages, they have full-time hours, they have benefits and a pension, through their membership as a unit of SEIU. And these women owners now receive a dividend back on their ownership every year that the company has been profitable, which has been most years. So they're able to really enjoy the fruits of their labor because they fired the boss. They don't have any big investors. They don't have fat-cat CEOs or absentee owners taking the profit out of the company. They each pay in about 1,000 dollars over time in order to gain ownership, and now they own their job.

Now, there's hundreds of more examples of companies like this springing up all across the country. And I'm so inspired by what they're doing, because it really represents an alternative to the type of economy we have now, which exploits all of us. It also represents an alternative to waiting around for big investors to bring chain stores, or big-box stores to our communities, because honestly, those types of developments, they steal resources from our communities. They put our mom-and-pop shops out of business, they make our entrepreneurs into wage workers, and they take money out of our pocket and send it to their shareholders.

So, I was so inspired by all these stories of resistance and resilience that I got together with a few people here in Los Angeles, and we created LUCI. LUCI stands for the Los Angeles Union Cooperative Initiative, and our objective is to create more worker-owned businesses here in Los Angeles. So far, in the last year, we've created two: Pacific Electric, an electrical company, and Vermont Gage Carwash, which is right here in South-Central, some of you guys might be familiar with it. This long-time carwash is now owned and operated by its 20 workers, all of whom are union members as well.


So you might be wondering why the focus on union-worker ownership, but there's a lot of good reasons why the labor movement is a natural ally to the worker-ownership movement. To build these companies that we want in our community, we need a few things. We're going to need money, people and training. Unions have all of those things. America's working class has been paying union dues for decades, and with it, our unions have been building dignified, decent, and democratic workplaces for us. However, union jobs are on the steep decline, and it's time for us to start calling on our unions to really bring all of their financial and political capital to bear in the creation of new, union, living-wage jobs in our communities. Also, union halls are full of union members who understand the importance of solidarity and the power of collective action. These are the types of folks that want more union businesses to exist, so let's build them with them.

Learning from our unions, learning from our past, learning from our peers, are all going to be very important to our success, which is why I'd like to leave you with one last example and a vision for the future ... and that vision is Mondragon, Spain. Mondragon, Spain is a community built entirely around worker cooperatives. There's 260-plus businesses here, manufacturing everything from bicycles to washing machines to transformers. And this group of businesses now employs 80,000 people and earns more than 12 billion euros in revenue every year. And all of the companies there are owned by the people that work in them. They've also built universities and hospitals and financial institutions. I mean, imagine if we could build something like this in South-Central. The late mayor of Jackson had a similar idea. He wanted to turn his entire city into a Mondragon-like cooperative economy, calling his ambitious plan "Jackson Rising."

And when I look at Mondragon, I see really what working-class people can do for ourselves when we work together and make decisions for ourselves and each other and our communities. And what's really incredible about Mondragon is that while we are dreaming about them, they are dreaming about us. This community in Spain has decided to launch an international initiative to create more communities like it all over the world, by linking up with unions, by supporting organizations like LUCI, and by educating folks about the worker-ownership model.

Now, here's what you can do to be a part of it. If you're a union member, go to your union meetings, and make sure that your union has a worker-ownership initiative, and become a part of it. If you're an entrepreneur, if you have a small business, or you're interested in starting one, then link up with LUCI or another organization like us to help you get started on the cooperative model. If you're a politician, or you work for one, or you just like talking to them, please get the city, state, federal and county legislation passed that we need in order to fund and support worker-owned businesses.

And for everybody else, learn about our history, learn about our models, and seek us out so can support us, you can buy from us, invest in us, lend to us and join us, because it's really going to take all of us in order to build the more just and sustainable and resilient economy that we want for ourselves and our children.

And with that, I would like to leave you with a quote from Arundhati Roy, and she writes ... "Our strategy should not be only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To mock it. To shame it. With our art, our literature, our music, our brilliance, our joy, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Not the stories that we're being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they're selling — their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their sense of inevitability. Because know this: They be few and we be many. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she's on her way. And on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Thank you.