The Worker Coop User Principles and The Mondragon Experience

The US Department of Agriculture identifies the first three principles of the identity statement as the “user principles.’ In US parlance, this means that the users of a cooperative’s services benefit from the cooperative’s activities, the users of a cooperative own the cooperative and the users of cooperative control the activities of the cooperative.

However, in a worker co-operative, the users of the cooperative services generally do not own or control the cooperative. Should worker cooperatives have their own set of principles unique to the experience of worker ownership? The Mondragon Cooperative has developed a set of ten principles that it uses to guide its collective actions. The 10 Principles of Mondragon overlap to some extent with the Identity Statement:

Mondragon Coop Identity

1. Open Admission                                    Voluntary and Open Membership

2. Democratic Organization                    Member Democratic Control

3. Sovereignty of Labor

4. The Instrumental and Autonomy and Independence

Subordinate Nature of Capital

5. Participatory Management                   Member Economic Participation

6. Payment Solidarity

7. Intercooperation                                     Cooperation Among Cooperatives

8. Social Transformation                           Concern for Community

9. Universality

10. Education                                                Education, Training and Information

In considering this series, I initially saw the three principles of Sovereignty of Labor, Subordination of Capital and Payment Solidarity as the three that separated from the Identity Statement. However, it is clear that the Subordination of Capital directly relates to Autonomy and Independence. Yet, this principle also has a special nuance for worker cooperatives. Likewise, the role of Universality is a direct expression of the value of solidarity. It is not simply Concern for Community or Cooperation Among Cooperatives. It speaks directly to the need for worker cooperatives to support all movements that seek dignity for workers. This makes a substantial break from the principles and other cooperative sectors that may not support labor movements and may even be antagonistic to labor unions.

Over the next four weeks, I will detour from the Identity Statement of the ICA to consider the importance of the four Mondragon principles in order: Sovereignty of Labor, The Instrumental and Subordinate Nature of Capital, Payment Solidarity and Universality. For background information, I will be quoting heavily from The Mondragon Cooperative Experience by Jose Maria Ormaechea (January, 1993). Sr. Ormaechea is the “O” of ULGOR Cooperative, the first cooperative of the Mondragon Experience and the name was dervived from the initials of the five original members (it is known as FAGOR today). He was one of the first students of Don Jose Maria Arizmendiertta. He served as Managing Director of the Caja Laboral Popular (today, the Caja Popular) from 1960-1988. He also served at Director of Otalora, the management training facility and publisher of this book.

A Few Words About Mondragon

The principles of Mondragon are significant—in addition to acknowledging the history of the cooperative movement, they also expand upon the ideals of cooperation by addressing the role of labor. This was a very important issue for Arizmendiaretta. He believed in the sanctity of work and education. Through these two arenas, the human spirit could be elevated and all of society would benefit.

Mondragon was the pearl to come out of the fascist experiments of the 20th Century. Don Jose was in prison awaiting execution when the Pope decided that Franco had to quit killing priests. He was sent to the backwater industrial village of Mondragon instead of Bilbao to shut him up and ensure that his radical views would not gain traction. Mondragon succeeded in part because of some unique issues:

Communists in the South and the Anarchists of Barcelona had regrouped. Franco’s economic policies had failed even by his standards. It was easy for Franco’s people to see the Mondragon experiment as one of entrepreneurialism, not revolution.

Nevertheless, for the first two decades of Mondragon, the government was fascist and people had to be careful. They were harassed and had the deck stacked against them. The bank and social security systems were created because they were not allowed access to finances and health care otherwise. Add to that the role of the ETA and the Basque desire for independence (or at least to be left alone) and one sees a unique culture that produced Mondragon and has a lot to do with their decision making process.

The workers of Mondragon have “built the road as they traveled.” They haven’t always made the decisions that I would have made (sitting in my condo in Madison, WI instead of Basque Country), but those decisions were theirs to make.I have learned, however, that even when a decision is made, that may only be the beginning of the discussion. As with all of our co-operatives, sometimes decisions get made in order to survive to a day that a real fix can be made that will be more consistent with the principles.

I like that Mondragon refers to itself as an “experience.” I think that all of our worker co-operatives should adopt that attitude. We are an experience of our culture, society, place in history, and the good and bad tendencies of our collective memberships. The experience of cooperation offers us metamorphosis that will highlight our better natures. It is a process and a journey. We will occasionally stray from the correct path as a means of survival (or ignorance), but if our diversion will allow us the opportunity to correct ourselves in the future, we should be happy for another day.

That is my basic take on Mondragon. We have a lot to learn from them. They can learn some things from us too. However, we must always be cognizant of the principles that bind us. We must understand that we are only human and will make mistakes. We should embrace forgiveness and understanding of the human condition. There are as many ways to “co-operate” as there are personalities. We should be willing to honor our differences as much as our similarities, but always along the lines of the principles and values of the cooperative identity.

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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