In a remarkable and historic move, the United Steel Workers union (USW) and Mondragon International announced that they would be working together to establish Mondragon manufacturing cooperatives in the U.S. and Canada. The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) is the world’s largest industrial workers cooperative, located in the Basque region of Spain. It employs almost 100,000 workers in 260 cooperative enterprises that include manufacturing, a university, research and development, social security mutual, and retail shops. In 2008, MCC reached annual sales of more than 16 billion euros and is ranked as the top Basque business group, the seventh largest in Spain.
In the cooperative world, Mondragon, despite criticism of the compromises that it has made in the face of globalization, is still the gold standard of success and has inspired many other cooperative initiatives in other countries. In the U.S., for example, Cleveland’s $5.8 million Evergreen Laundry Cooperative start-up, the first in a network of local worker cooperatives, was inspired by the visit of a Cleveland delegation to Mondragon. The development of this cooperative network is envisioned as a way of creating jobs and revitalizing depressed neighborhoods of Cleveland.
In Chicago, the Austin Polytechnic Academy (APA), a public high school, follows in the footsteps of Mondragon. The first industrial cooperative of MCC was started fifty years ago by five graduates of a technical training school under the guidance of a visionary local priest, Father José María Arizmendi, who continued to play a central role in the development of Mondragon until his death in 1976. Austin Polytech prepares its students, almost all of whom are from low-to-moderate income families in an African-American neighborhood, for jobs in Chicago’s high skilled industrial sector, and even more importantly, to become worker owners. Towards this end, they have brought in speakers from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, another hotbed of successful cooperatives, and a group of APA students are currently on a study tour in Mondragon.
In the Bay Area, the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives takes its name from Mondragon’s visionary. It is a worker-owned network that provides assistance to new bakeries that are interested in following their successful cooperative business model. There are currently three Arizmendi Bakeries in addition to the original worker-owned Cheeseboard that provided the model and technical assistance for the Arizmendi Association.
It is clear that Mondragon is a source of inspiration for many other initiatives to build economic democracy. The collaboration with the United Steelworkers raises the potential to a whole new sphere of possibilities.
The USW-Mondragon collaboration grew out of a USW ‘green industrial revolution’ project that created a partnership with Gamesa, a Spanish wind turbine firm, to establish production in Pennsylvania by refitting shuttered steel plants. Gamesa is based near Mondragon and it wasn’t long before one thing led to another and the USW-Mondragon connection was made. Discussions and meetings followed over the course of the following year and culminated in this historic agreement to create worker cooperatives in the manufacturing sector, either through worker buy-outs or new start-ups. Other aims include integrating collective bargaining with the cooperative model and exploring co-investing through the USW backed Quebec Solidarity Fund and Mondragon’s Eroski Foundation.
The United Steelworkers (USW) is the largest industrial union in North America, representing 1.2 million members in a diverse range of industries. In a time where labor unions and worker cooperatives have drifted far away from their common roots—when worker cooperatives were seen by some unions as a way to eliminate the class struggle between owner and worker—it is enormously significant for a union of this weight and history to reforge those alliances. It is a signal to the labor union movement as well as the wider public that cooperatives are part of the solution, not some alien phenomenon from a parallel universe. USW spokesman, Rob Witherell said that the collaboration was not a hard sell. Most of their members had been unfamiliar with the concept of worker coops, but once it was explained, they easily ‘got it’ and were very interested. He believes that there is a great potential to expand this project, citing the Blue-Green Alliance, which was launched by the USW and the Sierra Club in 2006 and now numbers 8 million members, as an example of how these initiatives can catch fire.
We continue to see rising unemployment, stagnant wages, cuts in benefits, deteriorating workplace conditions and the hollowing out of our manufacturing sector. This announcement breathes hope of reviving our manufacturing base and rebuilding communities that have been devastated plant closings. Rising oil and transportation prices, combined with the falling dollar are creating the conditions for a manufacturing renaissance in the U.S. Imagine if this renaissance could be infused with, as USW President Leo Gerard said, “Mondragon’s cooperative model with ‘one worker, one vote’ ownership as a means to re-empower workers and make business accountable to Main Street instead of Wall Street.”
And when workers own and run the factories they work in, they’re not likely close up shop at the first sign of stress—in over fifty years of operation, Mondragon has only seen three of its cooperative enterprises fail. Imagine.
1. Mondragon website: http://www.mondragon-corporation.com/language/en-US/ENG.aspx
2. The full text of the agreement is available at http://assets.usw.org/Releases/agree_usw_mondragon.pdf
3. “Can the U.S. Bring Jobs Back from China?” BusinessWeek, 6/19/08 http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_26/b4090038429655_page_3.htm