Can Syndicalism Help Worker Co-ops?

If you talk to a lot of co-operative developers and community organizers in the United States about Mondragon, you will likely hear them extol the virtues of the Caja Popular (former the Caja Laboral Popular). The bank owned and controlled by Mondragon played a major role in the development of the Basque co-operatives and many see it as the key to creating Mondragon in America.

Well, who wouldn’t want a bank that caters especially to worker co-operatives? But is this really the secret to Mondragon success? It certainly played a key role and provided a method of developing new cooperatives, creating strong business plans, and otherwise ensuring the financial viability of the co-operatives. However, keep in mind that the banking system of Spain in 1959 was hardly a modern system and it really wasn’t able to grow due to the isolation of the nation under the heel of the Phalange. The CJP gave Mondragon access to capital and that is something that any worker co-operative can use.  I would argue, based on experience, that successful worker co-operatives have no problem accessing capital from today’s financial institutions and we do have several development funds available in the United States including the Northcountry Co-operative Development Fund’s Worker Ownership Fund* (Now Shared Capital Cooperative –10/31/19). Granted, the availability of start-up capital has been much harder to come by and there are few, if any, Angel Investors in the worker co-operative world. A worker co-op bank can be started at any time. All that needs to happen is for the co-ops who want to create our version of the CJP to simply pool their assets and hire a bank manager (yeah, I know that it isn’t THAT simple, but bear with me).

I think that the stronger part of the Mondragon model is the Social Council. Unlike the social committees of most co-operatives, this group doesn’t plan the summer picnic and winter party. The Social Council represents workers as workers. It is essentially a watch dog on management and the governing councils. This body within Mondragon provides a model for our co-operatives as it infuses the distributist structure of the worker co-operative with a definite syndicalist voice.

Syndicalism was made popular in the United States by the Industrial Workers of the World. The Syndicalist rejected both the capitalist and socialist world views. They sought, instead, to create a world in which the basic political unit was not the dollar or the voter, but the worker. They saw a structure that is quite similar to Mondragon’s structure with individual worker collectives connected by industry and sector into a regional, national and international alignment. A colleague of mine discussed his view of neo-syndicalism on this site back in December of 2009. While Fred speaks about direct action along the lines of the Buenos Aires workers featured in the excellent documentary, The Take, the structural concept of syndicalism already exists. It involves pulling our workplaces together and creating a strategy. It also means making sure that our worker co-operatives really have a syndicalist basis and aren’t simply capitalist partnerships trying to sneak in to good party.

Arizmenidiaretta would have been quite familiar with the logic and ideas of the Anarcho-Syndicalists of Barcelona as they were heavily involved in the fight to save the Republic in 1936. Certainly, Mondragon arose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the Republic. So, we should not be surprised to see that the Mondragon co-operatives developed  distributist and syndicalist institutions. Both offered third ways between the state socialism of the the Fabians and the “invisible hand” of the Free Marketeers.

It is in this juncture that the distributists and the syndicalists converge. To me, that is the lesson of Mondragon and what should be imported into the United States worker co-operative movement. This also appears to be the pathway for co-operative development as envisioned by Mondragon and the US Steelworkers. A renewed syndicalist movement in this country could well be the pathway to creating a distributist society and overcoming the culture of wage and chattel slavery. The IWW’s great slogan, after all, was “Instead of saying ‘A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work’ we say ‘Abolish the Wage System!'” We need to start changing the world to one that values the worker. We need to bring back syndicalism as not just a counter-weight to ne0-liberalism, but with the goal of it displacing neo-liberalism as the preferred economic model for sustainable communities.

The creation of a new syndicalist movement should be quite natural to those of us who have chosen worker co-operation, but it is an easier thing to think and blog about that to actually create. For one, my guess in that only one in a hundred of the workers in our co-operatives could define syndicalism, let alone distributism or any of the other economic models. Given the amount of neo-liberal arguments that I hear in my own co-operative and other debates, I can tell you that many worker co-operative members do not see a significant difference between capitalism and co-operation.  Just recently I talked to a fellow member who supports keeping the Bush tax cuts because “I want to rich some day.” <Heavy Sigh> In this environment, spouting the slogans of the IWW from a hundred years ago will likely generate more eye-rolling than anything else.

How do we create what we need without sounding like we time traveled from 1967? or 1907? Another lesson from those Co-op Priests: Tompkins, Coady and Arizmendiaretta:  we need to create educational programs that are modern but still promote the differences between the “one-dollar, one-vote” of capitalism and “one-worker, one-vote” of co-operative syndicalism. We need an education programs and we also need to create incentives for people to participate in them. We need to act internally and externally.

Internally, we need education programs and a constant focus on how we are different. How does Rainbow differ from a traditional grocery store? How does Union Cab differ from a traditional cab company? How does Co-operative Home Care differ from a traditional home care service? You and I might easily answer that question, but can every member of your co-op answer how their co-op really differs from the capitalist competitors in your industry? I don’t mean simply describing the structure (which would be great) but the underlying concept of the organization. Does the analysis stop at “We own it!”, if it does, then the understanding may be a mile wide, but it is only an inch deep.

In addition to the educational process, we need to create the social committees. We can call them Steward Councils, or Member Advocates, or any language that our community knows and understands. However, we need to create real syndicalist functions within our co-operatives. These councils need to do more than simply help members file grievances and present ideas, they can’t simply mimic the antagonistic labor relations from the factory. They need to educate people on their history as a worker in addition to the former educational process of the co-operative. They need to create solidarity among the entire workforce (not against management or any other group, but among all those who work including the leadership) and they need to be the voice for the workers while the board speaks for the members and management speaks for the business.

Externally, we as a movement, need to create the basis for seeing a syndicalist worker movement as a viable means of managing the economy. We need to use our institutions and our co-operatives to present a true alternative to the dominant paradigm of capitalist and theft of labor. In this regard, we need to turn away from the rather insular Mondragon model and borrow a tactic from a very different guide and trailblazer: Milton Friedman.

More on that, tomorrow.

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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4 Responses to Can Syndicalism Help Worker Co-ops?

  1. hi
    I actually think its the Empressorial Division AND the bank. for a long time, the first 30 years the entreprenuerial division and the financial division had a single manager within the secondary coordinating cooperative. It was kind of like a venture capital firm for worker-cooperatives.

    Finance is one thing, venture capital another.

    btw, there is always Mike Leungs work

  2. But how does that make it a worker cooperative or a democratic workplace? Capital is important, but it must be (even in Mondragon’s world) subordinate to Labor. I have always seen the Empressorial division and the bank as necessary evils of Mondragon and one of the key points in which they could easily have devolved into Agency driven ESOP’s that create paternalistic workplaces paid for by the workers. The Social Committees give the workers’ power as workers and help keep the gulf between white collar and blue collar work from widening.

  3. Hi John. Your co-members comment, “I want to get rich some day,” is really classic and interesting. I think the mystification of economics combined with the privileges of various socioeconomic groups contribute to the problem of peoples’ understanding and views. Nevertheless, “getting rich” doesn’t need to be an idea to be overly discouraged. For example, at the Arizmendi Cheese Shop in Berkeley, California, the co-operative workers pooled their resources and bought and built a get-away place together.
    The problem with sindicalism, I think, is that like unions, they depend on their relation to bosses for the economic vision. I think “entrepreneurship” is a better paradigm, which can be linked to concepts like “teamwork” to really focus people and aid in demystification. The Rochdale Pioneers, for example, were all suffering to one degree or another in England’s Industrial Revolution and responded to the simple innovation to combine various co-operative principles of democratic and economic participation. They then opened their pioneering co-op grocery store. Food co-ops can also contribute to this entrepreneurial and teamwork process by the reverse process of discounts. Organic food at a 20% discount for working just 3 hours a month was a big advantage at my former food co-op in Brooklyn, NY. You mention The Take which I also consider excellent, and I also think of Colin Beavan’s No IMpact Man. In the latter, he acts to change his family’s lifestyle, but I think there is a very entrepreneurial feeling about the whole process.
    Another aspect occurs to me, that the various democratic and democratic-oriented enterprises offer diverse opportunities for people to learn more and more about concepts, realities, and possibilities. ShoreBank with its community programs is not a credit union, for example, but they are community oriented. They have had some success, and even opened an environmental branch, Shorebank Pacific. Green Century Mutual Funds, founded and owned by a consortium of the PIRG NGOs, is another. The same consortium also owns Earth Tones phone company. In addition, William Greider’s book, The Soul of Capitalism, is very well written, I think, and he did a range of interviews in developing his amazing discussion and analysis.
    Thanks again for the probing discussions on co-ops and all. Good work, and see you again.

  4. REgarding my last comment, I think that by trying out investing in Shorebank, for example, or Green Century, people can begin to understand the functioning and will ultimately have a good chance to learn about the realities of the financial system. What is the difference between a bank’s offering interest to depositors, and stock market returns, for example? I have learned a lot over the years, but have found very few who share the same clarity of that difference. That is, the stock market in its secondary trading function only acts as a sophisticated roulette wheel with neglected possibilities for ownership, while a bank can offer substantial support for entrepreneurs.

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