The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

January 18, 2010

#19 Participatory Management

The next principle from Mondragon is that of Participatory Management. This seems like a no-brainer for worker co-operatives. What is the point of going through all the work of setting up a worker co-op if the workers don’t actually have a say in how the place is run? They would be better off in a unionized Employee Stock Ownership Program.

I’ll get more into this in a second. First, I want to share the language of the principle from Mondragon (translated, as they all are, of course):

“The Mondragon Cooperative Experience believes that the democratic character of the Cooperative is not limited to membership aspects, but that it also implies the progressive development of self-management and consequently of the participation of members in the sphere of business management which, in turn, requires:

a)     The development of suitable mechanisms and channels for participation.

b)    Freedom of information concerning the development of the basic management variables of the Cooperative.

c)     The practice of methods of consultation and negotiation with worker-members and their social representatives in economic, organisational and labour decisions which concern or affect them.

d)    The systematic application of social and professional training plans for members.

e)     The establishment of internal promotion as the basic means of covering posts with greater professional responsibility.”

(source: The Mondragon Cooperative Experience, by José María Ormaechea, 2000)

Second, I want to parse the word management. We manage our co-operative whether or not we have a person holding a title with the word “manager”. Some co-ops manage collectively, some manage through a hierarchy, but we all manage the same things: assets, liabilities, equity, work performance, customer satisfaction etc. In this, as in most posts, I use the term management and manager in the broad sense.

Participatory management does not mean democracy and democracy does not mean participatory management. I say this because they are often linked together in a synonymous manner. A worker co-operative can have a strict top-down hierarchy that allows little or no member input and still elect its board of directors. Likewise, the concept of participatory workplaces can exist in capitalist organizations.

This principle exposes some dangers to worker co-operatives in that it is this area that the co-operative movement may be co-opted. World Blu has created a list of the “most democratic workplaces” for a couple of years now. While I have nothing against their mission, they misuse the word democracy when they mean participatory management. Only a handful of the companies on their list are co-ops or esops. In other words, they are honoring workplaces as “democratic” when the workers have no control over the governance of the organization. While I think that participatory management is a noble thing for a stock corporation to entertain, it isn’t democracy, it isn’t a right. It can be taken away as soon as the stockholders decide the experiment isn’t making them enough money. While I support World Blu’s efforts to humanize capitalism, I don’t think it will ever succeed on a grand scale but am glad that the workers in those business have a decent place to work.

A worker co-operative should abide by the values and principles of democracy. Participatory management should be another user principle for co-operatives even if it isn’t in the Identity Statement. It is the means by which the workers of the co-operative “use” their co-operative. Just as consumers use the products and services of a consumer co-operatives, workers use their ability to participate in decisions affecting their work life (roughly ¼-1/3 of our lives) as their right of membership.

Mondragon has created an excellent definition of participatory management. It isn’t simply deciding what type chairs to get for the office, it involves a complete involvement of the workforce in the operations and planning of the organization.

Note though, that the principle discusses the creation of “suitable” methods. Decisions have to be made and they have to be made in a way that enhances the organization in terms of serving their customers and succeeding in the market place. A restaurant can’t hold a membership meeting to discuss which person serves which table every time a customer walks in for dinner. A cab company can’t hold a debate about call assignment for each and every order. However, the co-operative can create methods of having these discussions about systems that ensure fairness and those methods should involve a wide range of voices from the membership.

Information has to be available to everyone or how can it truly run as a democracy. This isn’t on a “need-to-know” basis, but on the basis of ownership.

Another key point is that the co-operative needs to create bodies that will assist the worker-members in finding their voice. This might be a peer support program, a traditional stewards’ council, or even a labor union (although that is decidedly not what Mondragon is talking about). The bigger point being that management in a worker co-operative (whether run with a hierarchy or not) needs to establish means for worker’s to have a real voice in the discussion. Depending on the size of the organization (and the work week schedule) this will have different levels of formality. Rainbow Grocery is famous for its collectivist approach while Union CabMondragon models the labor movement through a stewards’ council and committee structure. uses a “social committee” in which elected representatives help provide input to the board and management as well as acting as a watch dog.

The last two points of the principle create an imperative of making participation systemic. As with the Sovereignty of Labour, this principle promotes the belief of internal promotion. The top end positions of a worker co-operative should generally not be hired from the outside of the worker co-operative movement. It is better for worker co-operative to create strong in-house training (and utilize professional development programs such as the Masters of Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions) to develop the future leaders of the co-operative. One of the problems, in the United States, is that our co-operatives tend to be small and this limits opportunity for workers to advance and develop. It also limits the level of education and training that can be provided. However, we need to think beyond our stand-alone co-operatives. Just as Mondragon is a system of 180 or so co-operatives, we should start thinking of US Worker Cooperatives existing as an economic base.

Ormaechea chose this particular quote from Don José: “Co-operation brings people together in a collective task, but it gives each one responsibility. It is the development of the individual, not against the rest, but with the rest.”

By creating a base of strong management of our co-operatives we build the capacity for the movement to grow. We create the means for our co-operatives to cross-pollinate, to occasionally go outside of our stand-alone co-ops and we also create the means for the rank-and-file members to expand themselves, to develop themselves as people.

Next Week: Payment Solidarity

1 Comment »

  1. […] principle is “participatory management.”  Here’s another quote from Mondragon’s […]


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