Mondragon in America?

Can Mondragon Really Happen Here?

The Great Recession has brought renewed interest in worker cooperatives in the United States. It has also generated a lot of interest in Mondragon as an example of how to move worker coops beyond small shops and into the big time. The number of people who tour Mondragon is staggering. It has increased to a level where they need to manage the traffic flow. People come away very impressed with what they created but is it something that can really be replicated over here? The people in Cleveland are giving it a go and even Mondragon has made an agreement with the US Steelworkers to try and create something along the Mondragon model in the US. However, I think that whatever industrial coop base arises in the US will need to look beyond Mondragon. As I will discuss over the next couple of posts, we may even need a renewed period of syndicalism to achieve the distributist vision of Arizmendiaretta.

I bring this up for three reasons:

1)    I just finished Jobs of Our Own by Race Matthews who calls for a new distributism movement and cites Mondragon of the example in the world of how a distributist economy/society would work. Of course, Matthews also takes about how other cooperative models fall into the Rochdale cul-de-sac and the Agency Dilemma while also pointing out that even Mondragon has some Agency issues of their own.

2)    My friend and colleague, Rebecca Kemble recently toured Mondragon. She made a very quick post on Facebook with the following description:

“Today our group of cynical, competitive Americans walked into the Star Trek episode, “Errand of Mercy,” our Basque hosts cleverly disguised as Organians, patiently waiting for us to “get it.”  What other explanation for a society with a long history of oppression and violence in which, of the 33,000 members in their worker coops, only 3 people have been fired in 50 years, nobody has left except to retire, and the fact that they will not produce anything that will be used in military or nuclear equipment is so “self-evident” (their words) that it they hardly dignify the question with discussion and they haven’t bothered to write it down in policy anywhere?  Members of our group keep asking questions about rules, laws, accountability structures, and how they punish and control individuals and co-ops that don’t fall into line with expectations.  Mondragonians look at us as if we’re 5 years olds who haven’t learned the first thing about getting along with other people, dialogue, respect or trust.  They are speaking a language that even the most enlightened and progressive folk in our group find it difficult to grasp, because the society in which we live is so heavily determined by class, race and gender inequity, and our government and business structures are so corrupt, driven as they are by the demands of capital.  We have a loooooooooong way to go in the worker co-op movement in the US to attain anything like the integrity, openness and honesty that pertain in the Mondragon Cooperatives.

3)    The Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives will be meeting at their annual retreat this week to discus the big ideas facing our movement in the US.

Today, I want to focus on one of the key differences between Mondragon and the world. I will also discuss the role of Agency in the United States (especially when it comes to community development and anti-poverty efforts) and finally discuss how we might start building a distributist society through a combination of distributist and syndicalist efforts. I invite people to jump into this conversation. Please post a comment and if your comment goes more than a couple of hundred words, then please register and ask me to assign you contributor status.

Basque Exceptionalism

It is easy to fall in love with Mondragon. It can also be easy to criticize them for not living up to the ideals of US intellectuals. But to answer the question, “Can we create Mondragon in the United States?” we need to consider some to the historical discussion. The first consideration responds to Rebecca’s comments by discussing the concept of Basque exceptionalsim.

The Basque people populate six provinces (two in France and four in Spain) in the Pyrenees mountain chain. They have lived there almost forever. This culture existed prior to the indo-Europeans. Some have even suggested that they are the fabled “Thirteenth Tribe of Israel”. The name for their people Euskerra simply means those who speak Basque. The Basque historically met under a tree in Guernica as the seat of their government. One of their primary goals in life has been to be left to govern themselves. This has been difficult due to their occupying a major trade route from Africa through the Iberian Peninsula and into northern Europe. In fact, as noted shipbuilders and sailors, the Spanish Armada set sail from Bilbao and it is likely given that I am “Black Irish” on my father’s side, that part of my lineage is from a Basque sailor rescued from the sea in 1585! Abutting the Basque is the medittereanean port of Barcelona, which had and still has a rich and vibrant history of anarchism and promoting the rights of the worker. This would not have been lost on the Basque especially during the civil war.

The point of all of this is that Mondragon is a Basque organization whose mission is to create and maintain jobs for the Basque. The worker-members share a common culture based on their historic ideal of self-governance and solidarity as well as a common religion (Catholicism). A religion that, despite its failings,  has a strong commitment (at least in their teachings) to education, the value of human life, and the value of work. The Basque also have a strong commitment to education. The Jesuit Order was founded by the Basque general turned priest Ignatius Loyola—who took his vows at the church overlooking Oñati just south of Arrasate (Mondragon). It was the Jesuits who fought against slave holders in South America seeking, instead, to create farmer collectives among the Guarni and thereby save their souls. The movie, The Mission, uses this struggle for worker and human rights as the backdrop for its story.

Finally, the role of Franco’s fascism and his Phalange Party cannot be dismissed. Had Franco lost the Spanish Civil War, Don José María Arizmendiaretta likely would have been assigned to Bilbao instead of Mondragon. A more liberal government might have created educational opportunities for the children of the working class and the specific conditions that gave rise to the FAGOR plant may never have materialized. Even so, by the time that Mondragon had formed, the economic vitalisty of the Phalange had already begun to wane. The Communists had re-grouped in the south and the Anarchists had reorganized in Barcelona. Franco simply had too many distractions to worry about a crazy priest and a group of people that could easily be called “entrepreneurs.”

We cannot dismiss the exceptional role that the Basque region and Spanish history played in the creation of Mondragon.

While the Basque certainly had some unique things going for them, we must also recognize the difficulties facing us in the United States when it comes to worker cooperatives. While the Basque live in a culture that goes back thousands of years and value the Basque community, the English speaking countries have a very different culture especially in how it relates to the value of humans and their work.  While, like the Federation in Star Trek, we may think that we have it all figured out, we need to take a hard look at our own culture to see why creating something like Mondragon will be such a struggle.

The next post will talk about how US culture (and perhaps that of the Americas as well) has created significant barriers to creating a workplace like Mondragon.

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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5 Responses to Mondragon in America?

  1. Mark Heffernan says:

    Would that the standard that the manufacturing side of the cooperatives will not sell to the military or to the nuclear industry be enough to meet a distributivist review, but what the group from the US (I was part of Rebecca´s group) saw and heard in response to our questions as to the humanitarian standards applied left some still wanting for greater sensitivity to these issues. Not the least of which is the observation that, having gone down the road of corporate sized and self declared market driven motivations for their own growth, the very standards we demand from marketers of products we apply to big box marketers in the US does not, in my opinion, allow MCC to not have such anti sweat shop and other environmental standards written into their corporate bylaws. It is nice to assume that the humanitarianism of the history of the Basque people will just predispose their organization to good behavior, but I am not convinced given the product offerings in their consumer cooperative Eroski. Even a shallow inspection of distributivist philosophy as can be found by a simple perusal of “The Distributivist Review” will leave one with these same questions and a well justified apprehension that the good intentions of the MCC group will not prevent the de-humanization of the consumer class it creates as it participates more fully in this consumer culture. One already knows that the insensitivity of the consumer to the origins of the product is a basic result of this system in our country. I am personally hard pressed to find any greater sensitivity amongst the consumer class in Spain and in the Basque region. So it is not the structure of the businesses themselves that leaves me wanting for more, rather it is the awareness that the creation of insensitivity in the consumer class (whose numbers exponentially exceed the number of worker owners in the region)is not being and is not going to be addressed, at least not as far as I could observe or hear from the answers and statements of the company members with whom we had the opportunity to speak.

  2. Benjamen Hansen says:

    The fact that the coop is not dependent on the sensitivity of the consumer to the origin of products may be the best proof of its viability and ability to survive an open market. Possibly they just make good stuff, and market it, always a winner, and benign neglect of origin in favor of quality not a bad thought.

  3. Mark Heffernan says:

    this is what we seemed to be fearful of in asking the people at MCC to address the social aspects of their business

    “What so many of the best-known examples of co-operatives and other mutualist enterprises – the major credit unions, agricultural co-operatives, mutual life assurance societies, building co-operatives and consumer co-operatives – now have in common with one another is the blind alley or ‘Rochdale cul-de-sac’ they have come to occupy, consequent largely on having gravitated from the hands of their members to those of bureaucracies. In the absence of any meaningful measure of member involvement and participation, they have become for all practical purposes indistinguishable from their conventional commercial counterparts.

    In so doing, they have in most instances wholly or in part forfeited their niche advantage over their competitors in terms of the principal-agent relationship. Moreover, recent experience suggests that the Rochdale cul-de-sac is not, as has been supposed, a stable – not to say stagnant – condition which can be counted on to continue indefinitely, but rather one of extreme fragility and precariousness. It invites either commercial failure as in the case of some major European consumer co-operatives – the one-time elite of the co-operative movement – or being taken over and looted either from without or within by predatory demutualisers[27].”

  4. The comment from the distributist review is an excellent discussion of the Rochdale cul-de-sac. Matthews continues to argue that worker cooperation is an anti-dote. He doesn’t address the issues of sourcing and fair trade; however, if the dominant business model were worker co-operatives, the required occupational safety and health standards demanded by the workers would elevate the the commercial product. I certainly don’t think that there is anything about Mondragon that places a halo on the heads of the workers or consumers of the region; however, I am hesitant to judge them by US standards (let alone the standards of the gentrified South-Central Wisconsin). I don’t know the organic standards of Spain or the European Union, so it is hard for me to comment on the quality of their food.

    The consumer co-ops in our country may be miles ahead in product selection and sourcing, but they have also priced working men and women out of their stores. They have become boutiques for the well-heeled: a far cry from the vision of the Rochdale pioneers. Eroski serves their community and provides a very decent living for their workers which is more than most grocery stores do in the United States.

  5. Mark Heffernan says:

    Thank you, John, for the comments about consumer co-ops in this country not being a place that serves the needs of working people. The concern I am raising is one of a precautionary nature that further expansion of cooperatives without some additional something, perhaps a constitutional piece, leaves the movement vulnerable to the Rochdale cul-de-sac. Matthews and yourself and all of us in the movement are hopeful for the eventual growth in the worker ownership model to become the dominant business model. As that model matures I am looking for a larger set of standards to which the owners hold themselves that includes sourcing and fair trade standards currently absent. I think that these standards taken up by the consumer cooperatives would go a long way to facilitate the work place standards and eventual establishment of worker ownership across the board. It would put energy from both ends of the marketplace – consumer & worker. The expectation is that the consumers must have more than their own interests in mind to be really effective in this regard. To this end we find ourselves right back to the begennings of the Rochdale pioneers and their need to educate people. Keep up the good work, a critical mass is surely coming sooner than we know!!

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