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

January 25, 2010

#20 Payment Solidarity

Filed under: Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 1:50 pm

The Mondragon Co-operatives maintain the concept of wage solidarity. From the beginning, the ratio of the highest paid position (manager) and the lowest paid (new worker) was locked at 3:1. In the 80’s this changed and today there are some positions that earn a 6:1 ratio and one (the CEO of the International MCC) who receives 9:1. Even with the tripling of the upper end of the ratio, it is still a far cry from the 150 or even 300:1 ratios that modern stock corporations tend to employ.

What interests me about this principle (and I think that it should be in the Identity Statement as well), is that Mondragon expresses the co-operative value of solidarity. It puts solidarity into the operations of the co-operative.

The language of Mondragon follows:

“The Mondragon Co-operative Experience proclaims sufficient and solidarity remuneration to be a basic principle in its management, expressed in the following terms:

a) Sufficient, in accordance with the possibilities of the Co-operative

b) Solidarity, in the following specific spheres:

  1. a. Internal. Materialised, amongst other aspect, in the existence of a differential, based on solidarity, in payment for work.
  2. b. External. Materialised in the criteria that average internal payment levels are equivalent to those of salaried workers in the area, unless the wage policy in this area is obviously insufficient.”

Note that the principle calls upon the worker co-operative to either ensure that its workers receive the prevailing wage or, if that wage is too low, become the wage leader in their industry and area. The prevailing wage must be at least a living wage*  for the community.

The principle of pay solidarity helps flatten the hierarchy in worker co-operatives. The pay differentials are kept small as a means of valuing all work performed to help the co-operative succeed as well as valuing all workers in the co-operative from the very new to the very senior. This principle helps to deflate the ego within the co-operative. Is someone with 30 years in the co-operative worth more as a worker? In some senses, the  experience and knowledge of the industry that comes with 30 years of work can be vital to the success of the organization, but is it worth them being paid 30 times the pay of a new hire?

Does someone who manages the marketing of the co-operative do more to create wealth (by getting customers) than front-line workers? Should that ability earn more than others?

These are very real questions for worker co-operatives and they are questions which can cause a lot of divisiveness. The way that the worker co-operative addresses these issues can dramatically effect the co-operative to enable it to succeed or cause it to fail.

Does a flat compensation system (everyone gets the same pay regardless of their job duties) encourage good management or cause the people who have management skills to seek employment elsewhere? Does a staggered system of seniority and pay levels create an aristocracy within the co-operative?

It is important for worker co-operatives to find the right balance based on their industry and their internal culture. It probably needs to be revisited from time-to-time. One aspect, in thinking about payment solidarity, should be leadership development. If the compensation levels are set too low, then the co-op will likely become a training center for its competitors or other businesses. If it is set too high, the co-operative may create a rift between the high bracket managers and the low bracket workers. Creating an “us vs. them” mentality can only lead to failure of the co-operative.

To truly maintain solidarity in payment, co-operatives must employ measures to develop leadership among their own ranks. When we need to hire managers from outside, who know the industry, we risk a lot. The culture of a worker co-operative can be destroyed by outside management who bring the attitudes of the traditional corporations with them. I’ve seen this up-close and personal and also from a far. Good Vibrations recently demutualized (becoming a standard ESOP) after hiring outside management (and changing the pay ratio to do so). Now, I am sure that the decisions to demutualize were very complicated (and it was a unanimous vote of the membership); however, it was clear that the culture of the organization changed after they increased their pay ratio in order to hire a manager from the mail order industry.

Of course, once we develop management, we also will need to compete with the outside world to keep them. Thus, our development programs must be based on two concepts: the management needs of the industry and the management needs of the co-operative. Whether our management has a traditional hierarchy or done through committee and semi-autonomous collectives, these two concepts need to be part of the discussion. With this in mind, it can be easier to develop a payment solidarity plan that recognizes a member’s experience, knowledge and commitment while also ensuring that the  “floor” for workers (whether by position or seniority) remains suited to a living wage for the community. This is the opposite of the corporations who figure out the senior management pay and stockholder dividends first and then use what is left over for the workers.

From Don José María Arizmendiaretta, “Solidarity is not just a theoretical proclamation, but something that should be put into practice and made manifest, willingly accepting the limitations of team work and of association, since this is the way to enable people to help each other.” (as reported by José María Ormaechea in his book The Mondragon Cooperative Experience)

This marks the end of the Mondragon diversion. I have called these four principles the “worker co-operative user principles”. These four principles should, in my opinion, be part of the Co-operative Identity. Co-operatives, regardless of the sector, require people to do work to benefit the users. Because of this, co-operatives should see the worker as a primary stakeholder and create means for the worker to truly benefit from their experience in the co-operative. I will even go so far as to argue that all co-operatives should either have a membership class for the workers or actively promote the unionization of their workers. Co-operatives must avoid exploitation. If we believe in Fair Trade for farmers producing coffee, chocolate, sugar and the like, then we must also believe in fair trade for the laborers who get those products on the shelf.

*what is a “living wage”? Madison, WI sets their definition as 120% of the poverty threshold for a family of four (currently $11.21/hour). Dane County arbitrarily declared it to be $8.70/hour. I think that worker co-operatives should work on this definition. I think that it should be a wage that allows a family to experience security with regards to nutrition, housing, health, education, clothing and socialization. This number will vary based on the community. I don’t think that it needs to mean a single-income home, but it should mean that someone can take care of themselves and their dependents at a basic level. Probably a topic for another post. . . .

Next: the 4th Principle—Autonomy and Independence


1 Comment »

  1. […] principle is what they call “Payment Solidarity.”  What this boils down to is that the pay differential between top management and the […]

    Pingback by RE-INDUSTRIALIZING NASHVILLE | DEEP GREEN PERSPECTIVE — June 7, 2015 @ 10:15 pm

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