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An American Mondragón?

 Posted by Michael Renner on November 4, 2009
Nov 042009

In late August, my colleague Tom Prugh blogged about a non-capitalist, worker-owned corporation—the Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa (MCC) in Spain’s Basque region. For Americans who are skeptical about European ideas of how to run the economy in a more socially-conscious manner, it may be all too easy to dismiss MCC as yet another crazy idea that will never take root in American soil.

But on October 27, the United Steelworkers (USW)—North America’s largest industrial union—and Mondragón Internacional, S.A. signed an agreement to collaborate in establishing Mondragón-style manufacturing cooperatives in the United States and Canada. These cooperatives are to be governed by MCC’s model of “one worker, one vote.”

MCC has its own—highly regarded—university. Photo credit: Mahaiburuak

MCC has its own—highly regarded—university. Photo credit: Mahaiburuak

MCC is a federation of democratically-run enterprises that produce and sell a range of goods and services (including appliances and machinery needed to produce solar panels). Set up in 1956 in the Basque town of Mondragón, it relies on democratic methods in its organizational structure and is concerned with generating assets for the benefit of its members and their communities, rather than for shareholders. Today, MCC is the seventh largest company in Spain. It has about 100,000 cooperative members in about 250 cooperative enterprises that operate in more than forty countries. (It should be noted that MCC has acquired some companies that are run in conventional capitalist style, although the idea is to convert them to cooperatives in due time. An MCC enterprise in Poland, Fagor Mastercook, has been embroiled in controversy over low wages and anti-union tactics.)

The loss of nearly 6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs over the past decade and the stagnation of real wages across the economy during the last three decades are throwing more and more families and communities into a tailspin. Signing the agreement, USW President Leo Gerard commented: “Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants. We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”

It remains to be seen how well the USW-MCC agreement can be translated into a new U.S. economic model. Even before this agreement was struck, some promising new worker co-op initiatives motivated by the Mondragón experience were started, including the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry and a solar installation service and an industrial-size hydroponics greenhouse, all located in Cleveland, Ohio. If the USW-MCC connection takes off, such initiatives may well multiply—not just in the service sector, but also in manufacturing.

  16 Responses to “An American Mondragón?”

  1. Tell me about the job lose. The industry has shut down many manufacturing plants and is killing the economy. So many people that live around me are now out of work and the government doesn’t seem to do anything about this. As for other countries bringing business to the United States, why not? This will help to stimulate our economy and get us in the right direction.

  2. The Mondragon cooperative movement is sorely needed as a model for sustainable development, environment and social justice worldwide.

    The paradigm of greed threatens not only to destroy our planet, (global warming), but also the bonds that bind our global family.

    This sort of bottom up management of manufacturing and services was well know earlier in the USA. A large percentage of goods and services before 1900 were manufactured by workers cooperatives. As those cooperatives aged, most of them decided to sell their companies to benefit the retirement of members. The mistake was to not insist that the new owners be also workers in that enterprise.

    Top down companies purchased those companies and the rest is the history of dog eat dog society as we are experiencing now 100 + years later.

    The Mondragon economic experiment is a living example of what can happen by joining together for a common cause of community and environmental sustainability.

    Good luck with the alliance of UAW and the Mondragon cooperative movement because It is clear that the current model of irresponsible business management is in need of a workers led revolution of self management.

    In a workers cooperative, the workers rent capitol, in a capitalistic company, those with capitol rent labor with little or no concern for anything but the bottom line. The time has come to launch an economic revolution and this model in my opinion is the best concept to emulate.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Carl. Two things stand out in my mind.

    One, the importance of remembering one’s history — which is an individual and a community responsibility. In our short attention-span culture, that’s an incredibly challenging task, and it almost goes without saying that those who are in charge of so much story telling (the media) have little interest in conveying alternative, non-capitalist narratives. Schools also have a critical task but all too often do not fare well.

    Two, I want to highlight your distinction of workers renting capital versus capital renting workers. This is a key perspective that, in most of the contemporary discussion, is neglected. Workers are typically regarded as tools or commodities that are inter-changeable with one another and vis-a-vis other production inputs like machinery and technology.

  4. Carl, it is not the UAW doing this. It is the Steelworkers.

    The UAW promotes dog-eat-dog competition between its members.

  5. We need a Mondragon/USW bailout of the Twin Cities Assembly Plant, currently held hostage by Ford’s Motor Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ford has threatened closure of the facility for years, using that to leverage serious concessions from its hourly workforce. How can TCAP workers explore Mondragon/USW as an alternative to closure and poverty?

  6. Our town (Bedford, Indiana) needs help desperately. One business after another gets outsourced. What do we need to do to start a Mondragon idea mentality and action to start a turnaround in our town? How do we seed this in our town?

  7. Thanks, Forever web pages

  8. Hmm hmmm … “including appliances and machinery needed to produce solar panels”

  9. Nice article and insight. Good to have bumped onto your blog and met you.

  10. Thanx very good.:):)Devamını beklerim..

  11. You make a good point. I hope others see this view as well.

  12. teşekütler -tahanks next

  13. Hello ! Do you use some variety of monetary gift box where I will render monetary gift in PayPal?

  14. [...] environmentalism’s early successes. But, as we have argued in previous Green Economy posts (here, here, here, and here), the naked economic fear that now drives destructive political processes and [...]

  15. u.s. is still doing industry? i only know tin lizzy.. It’s a good old liberal tradition in my country, too: industrial workers have not only big hearts, but big voices, too! regional worker’s associations are even stronger than in Britain after Thatcher. Not talking about the subsidies. lots of ants can beat the ants-bear up as well :)

  16. [...] My colleagues Michael Renner and Tom Prugh have already written about the Mondragón worker cooperative model in Spain, one example of the economic democracy concept described recently in World Watch magazine. Although more than half a century old, this cooperative structure is attracting new interest in the United States, having been adopted recently by a set of Cleveland businesses and embraced by the United Steelworkers. [...]

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