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[Editor’s note: The following essay turned up in Employee-Owned America’s Christmas stocking in December 2018. It was evidently delivered not by Santa but by a time traveler from the not-too-distant future.]

In late 2018, a University of Iowa professor named Colin Gordon published an article reciting what were by then some familiar but dismal statistics. Wages and incomes for most Americans were stagnant, even though unemployment was low. Labor’s share of the nation’s output was down. The middle class was struggling. Good jobs were hard to come by, especially if you didn’t have a college education. Virtually all of the economic growth over the previous 45 years had gone to those at the top.

Today, three decades later, those trends have been reversed: incomes and wealth for average Americans have been climbing steadily. Though several factors have contributed to this reversal, most economists believe that the prime mover has been the remarkable growth of employee ownership. Employee-owners typically earn more than those who work only for a wage. They have higher household income and higher net worth. At the moment, roughly three out of every five private-sector workers hold more than a token amount of stock in their employer, and companies have begun paying greater attention to the employees who are often their largest (or only) group of shareholders. So it is hardly surprising that those employees are benefiting financially.

The surprise lies in how this came to be. Though employee ownership was well established by 2018, it was limited to a several thousand companies. Most of those enterprises were prospering and growing, but the concept itself wasn’t spreading rapidly. Then, quite suddenly by historical standards, things began to change: employee ownership seemed to reach a sort of tipping point. Political leaders all over the country began supporting it. More and more companies started ownership programs. More and more enterprises were sold to their employees through one legal device or another. By the early 2030s—as subsequent years have demonstrated—this was an idea whose time had arrived.

Modern historians argue about the timing and the sources of this tipping point. But nearly all agree that the years from 2019 to 2024 were critical. That’s when advocates and activists were first able to break through the barriers that had constrained them and bring their message to a large constituency—a constituency, as things turned out, that was ready and waiting for it.

How They Did It

The key strategies naturally involved plenty of the diligent, day-to-day work of social activism. The National Center for Employee Ownership, for example—now one of the nation’s leading nonprofits—continued the essential tasks of spreading the word, offering information and assistance to companies and their owners, and connecting the employee-ownership world through conferences and meetings. Other organizations continued to publicize and to advocate for the idea, and to build support. Employee-ownership scholars kept up their research and publication, providing the still-small movement with the data that showed the concept’s value.

But the strategies also involved several extraordinarily bold moves. Here we will look at just three.

Purple policy development. As activists and advocates in the field always recognized, their work depended on political leadership and supportive governmental policies. Without the enabling legislation spearheaded in the 1970s by Senator Russell Long, for example, ESOPs might have been relegated to a tiny corner of the marketplace. But most new policies don’t emerge in a vacuum. Promising ideas are discussed and developed over time, notably by Washington-based think tanks and their academic colleagues, and by the legislative aides with whom the think tanks interact. One obstacle ESOPs had to overcome in the early days was the fact that the idea had emerged full blown (so to speak) from the head of Louis Kelso and was written into law by Sen. Long’s office and a handful of congressional supporters. The ESOP concept hadn’t run the gauntlet of think tanks and academic debate, nor did it enjoy wide support from any of the established Washington interest groups. And so it was mistrusted.

During the 2019-2024 period, however, groups of employee ownership supporters began developing new policy ideas, including the now-familiar provisions that any sale of a company to an ESOP or similar structure triggers a host of tax incentives to the seller, and provides the newly employee-owned company with a variety of preferences, tax benefits, and access to funding sources. This time around, the advocates didn’t stint on building support. They took their ideas to the DC policy community and to similar groups in and around the nation’s statehouses. They wrote white papers and articles. They held meetings and made presentations.

They also made it a point to avoid the trap that had ensnared so many other promising policy ideas: partisanship.

Early 21st-century Washington, as many will remember, was plagued by a fierce and bitter partisanship. The partisanship reflected the well-known red vs. blue divide among voters, but it was more virulent and more toxic in the capital than anywhere else in the country. If one party supported something, the other was automatically against it. The think tanks, of course, mirrored this divide, and most supported only the proposals that would find favor with their preferred side of the aisle. But the employee ownership supporters took their proposals to both sides. They refused to color their ideas either red or blue; indeed, they made a point of staying purple, adopting language and specifics that would appeal both to liberals (spread the wealth, help average Americans) and to conservatives (create more owners without any handouts or big government program). That’s why they were able to get so many proposals passed.

Such bipartisanship had always been a part of employee ownership’s pedigree, but it was an unusual and daring approach in 2020s Washington. It did, of course, come with a cost. The advocates had to refrain from pushing their proposals on 2020’s two presidential candidates for fear that the ideas would thereby take on a partisan flavor. Only when the Unity ticket emerged in 2024 did a national candidate make employee ownership a centerpiece of a party platform.

Model states. In 2017, a couple of consultants specializing in nonprofits published an article in Harvard  Business Review called “Audacious Philanthropy.” It traced the history of several major social changes, including the long-term effort to discourage smoking and the movement to spread the use of infant car seats. One key to bringing about such a change, the authors argued, was to “drive (rather than assume) demand.” In other words, advocates needed a sales force. They needed boots on the ground.

A lot of employee ownership’s “sales reps” at that point were associated with state-level centers, of which there were then fewer than a dozen. The staffs of these centers helped market the idea locally. They organized peer-to-peer events at which company owners could discuss the pros and cons of selling to an ESOP. The granddaddy of centers, in Ohio, had facilitated scores of such sales. In 2018, a group calling itself the Employee Ownership Expansion Network set out to create many more of these organizations, and thus many more boots on the ground. Its staff worked for a couple of years to raise money and identify likely possibilities for new centers.

But then, in 2022, something unusual happened, and the network blossomed. Almost simultaneously, aides to incoming governors in Pennsylvania and Colorado contacted the centers in those states to express interest in employee ownership. Thanks to the network, these discussions led to others, and before long gubernatorial staff members from each state were talking to each other—even though one governor-elect was a Republican and the other was a Democrat. The centers’ staff and board members in the two states provided technical advice and ideas about legislation. They brought in experts from the NCEO and elsewhere. They helped to run interference with key legislators. Soon, with only a little prodding, the two governors declared that Pennsylvania and Colorado, which were still recovering from the sharp recession of 2021, would be Model States for a new kind of free enterprise, namely employee ownership.

Needless to say, the joint blue-red declaration made headlines around the country. The states really were laboratories of democracy, the journalists gushed, using Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous phrase. Other states began sending representatives to Harrisburg and Denver to learn more. By the end of 2023, the network was booming: there were centers in formation in over a dozen new states. Employee ownership’s sales reps had a firm foothold.

“I love my job!” The third strategy that made a difference—and it was a big one—was the campaign that by now has found a place in marketing’s hall of fame, and that will surely be remembered by anyone born before about 2010. It began in January 2023 and lasted a full year. Those who want to can still find the videos and other materials on the internet.

The origins of the campaign are obscure. Apparently a handful of employee ownership advocates had come up with the basic idea and had been scouting around for backers. The identity of the backers they found has never been revealed; we do not even know whether it was one individual, a family, or a small group. But whoever it was left his-her-or-their anonymous mark etched into the cornerstones of history. Estimates of the campaign’s cost vary wildly, but few historians of the era believe that it was less than $80 million.

It began slowly. Short videos started appearing on key TV shows and on websites, along with a scattering of print ads. Each ad focused on a single individual, showing that person at work, describing what he or she did for a living. “I love my job!” was the tagline. What made them so powerful was the range of people profiled: office employees, technicians, truck drivers, kitchen workers in a restaurant, accountants, computer programmers, machine operators, on and on. Each ad highlighted something different. One might emphasize pay and retirement security, another the employee’s feeling of belonging, still another how the employee had come to understand business. They were by turns poignant, inspiring, and smack-on-the-head commonsensical.

The ads also raised a question that added to the drama: who was behind the campaign?

Pretty soon, the answer began to be apparent. Under the usual tagline came the phrase, “Sponsored by America’s Employee-Owned Companies.” A year or so before, the Washington-based organizations that represented the employee ownership community had decided to merge. They rechristened their new organization, and they opened themselves up to any business with substantial employee ownership, from co-op food stores to giant stock-market companies with broad-based ownership programs. The marketing campaign, it turned out, was being carried out under this organization’s aegis, though of course it was conceived and executed by the professional marketing firm that had won the competition for the job.

After a few months, the campaign took a new tack. The new tagline was, “I wish I loved my job!” Now the videos and ad copy profiled people who had lost their jobs because a plant or store closed, or who worked long hours at minimum wages, or who had been mistreated by their bosses. Where once viewers had been inspired by the ads, now they were outraged.

And then, in the last third of the year, the campaign began drawing the connections. Some of the earlier workers appeared again, drawing the connection between “I love my job!” and employee ownership. (Sample: “It’s like a family business—only now you’re part of the family!”) Talking heads appeared, giving quick sound bites about the virtues of employee ownership. Pennsylvania’s and Colorado’s governors joined the chorus, touting their Model States. In December, the advertising wound up with a now-forgotten-but-then-popular celebrity looking straight at the camera, saying “Let’s give America a holiday present: employee ownership.” Everyone knew what she was talking about.

Like any good marketing campaign, the effort went well beyond conventional advertising. Social-media experts tweeted and posted, helping to make several of the videos go viral. Public-relations specialists watched for news pegs like plant closings or business relocations and helped reporters draw the connections with ownership. Coincidentally, a popular book appeared lambasting conventional ownership structures and describing how employee ownership worked.

The Outcome

The rest, as they say, is history, well known to most of us today. Support for employee ownership spread. Politicians of both parties made it a part of their talking points and legislative proposals. Several high-profile entrepreneurs created comprehensive employee ownership structures, selling large amounts of stock to their workers instead of, or sometimes in addition to, taking their companies public. Many consumers and business-to-business purchasers began looking for the “Certified EO” marker before they bought. Prospective employees began inquiring about companies’ ownership programs during job interviews—and companies began advertising their programs to potential hirees. From an economic perspective, the results were remarkable. People in 2018 knew that employee ownership typically boosted productivity, but only after its spread could the effects be seen in the statistics. Product and service quality improved as well, because—as polls showed—large numbers of employees began to take more pride in their work.

There were bumps in the road, to be sure. Just as in the early days of ESOPs, some financiers and company owners were quick to take advantage of legislative oversights and poor regulatory enforcement, enriching themselves under the guise of establishing employee ownership programs. Reporters, ever on the lookout for negative stories, found companies where groups of dissatisfied employees charged that ownership was an illusion. A couple of unions led strikes demanding an end to ownership and a return to adversarial collective bargaining—even though labor as a whole had come to be supportive of employee ownership.

No doubt all that was to be expected. What matters from the historian’s point of view is the bigger picture: the fact that all those sorry economic trends of the early 21st century have finally and firmly been reversed, and that the United States is once again a nation where people of all sorts can prosper because they have good jobs—including ownership.