Wisconsin Looks Toward Spain

Okay, that is enough of the summer re-runs for now. I will probably post other old posts in the future as they seem relevant or just to build up this site’s history and archive. For now, let’s get back to the present. . .

Recently, a group announced efforts in Iowa County, Wisconsin to create a “Mondragon Style” Co-op to distribute food through out the Midwest. While any new business venture in the current economic climate should bring applause to the area’s residents, this one is unique because they are using one of the most successful worker co-operatives as their model. Mondragon is a large corporation consisting of factories, research facilities, consumer outlets, grocery stores, a k-college educational systems, a financial system and a complete health-care/social security system. It operates either as a worker-cooperative or a multi-stakeholder co-operative in which the worker stakeholders retain an equal share to the other stakeholders.
Many people consider co-operatives to be just another business. The difference between Sunkist and Tropicana is one of marketing. However, they are different. The Co-operative business model, while still based on a market economy, has key differences from their capitalist cousins. While both operate on market principles, the co-operative also operate on a set of values and principles specific to the co-operative model. The USDA refers to three of these principles as the “user principles” and they include open and voluntary membership, democratic member control and member economic participation. This is the “co-operative difference”

This difference means that the co-operative business model operates on a multi-bottom line approach. It focuses on financial sustainability over maximizing the return on investment. It seeks to benefits its users based on their usage with the principle of democratic governance at its core. In a worker co-operative, the users are the workers. They control the means or production, but still operate under the principles of co-operatives. They interact directly with their customers.
Democracy and Co-operatives
In essence, “Democracy” is the shibboleth of the co-operative movement. While others use it in a very broad sense that allows governments to act in bizarre ways, the co-operative movement has always made it their core belief. In the early days of modern co-operation, the activists saw the new world of capitalism and worked hard to present a different viewpoint. It wasn’t just providing good, wholesome food at prices workers could afford, it was really about creating a democratic society. While capitalism replaced the serf being tied to the land with the worker being tied to the machine, co-operation was about the bond between people and their community. The people who created Rochdale were also fighting for participatory workplaces and Universal Suffrage.
While the first set of “Rochdale Principles” never mentions democracy that omission was likely because democracy was such a common value among the small membership that it wasn’t needed to be expressed on paper. One-member, one-vote in the co-operative was the base belief for people who were trying to change their government to one-person, one-vote.
In the modern era, the Co-operative Identity mentions democracy thrice. Once in the definition of a co-operative; once in the values of co-operatives; and once in the principles of co-operatives. In the principles, it is explained as follows:

“Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.”

The Mondragon system has other principles that go beyond the Co-op Identity. They believe that there should be “payment solidarity” among the workforce and limit the highest paid to the lowest paid to a 6:1 ratio—yes, 6:1. They also believe in the supremacy of labor and the subjugation of capital. Ultimately, though, they believe in education and the role of work should be social transformation.
If the new Iowa Co-op truly follows the path of Mondragon, the socio-economic and the political landscape of south-central Wisconsin could look very different and very improved in the coming decades. Roughly ten worker co-operatives exist in central Wisconsin today (including Dane County). It is a growing sector of the co-op movement nationally.
For those seeking social change, they should embrace worker cooperation as their economic movement. Capitalism isn’t broken. It was always intended to benefit the people who put up the most money. If you want an economic system that benefits the community, it already exists in the form of co-operatives.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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2 Responses to Wisconsin Looks Toward Spain

  1. Bernard says:

    Super great post!

    Besides this development in WI there is another in Cleveland that your readers might like to know more about. An urban development that’s based on the same co-op principles as this one near you.


    And since you are so close to the Wisconsin development, how about an interview with the dude spearheading that economic project?


  2. Bernard,

    Great idea! I am trying to get a hold of them. There was a “slow money” presentation here last Sunday, but I had to work a long cab shift instead and was too tired to attend.

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