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

September 29, 2010

Ontario Court’s Bold Move Protects Sex Industry Workers

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 12:22 pm

In a stunning and potentially landmark court decision, an Ontario federal court struck down key criminal provisions related to prostitution and the sex industry yesterday. Essentially, prostitution is not, in and of itself, criminal in Canada; however, almost all of the connected actions to the institution that offer any safety or protection to those men and women engaged in the are criminal. The ruling removed those criminal barriers. The basic argument is that the law creates a real and present danger to the workers violating their Charter Rights as Canadians.

The ruling will allow those in the sex-trade industry to organize unions and worker co-operative. It will allow co-operatively managed bordellos. In community health terms, it will allow licensing, health codes, and other means of worker and consumer protection to enter this taboo industry dominated by physical and emotional abuse, slavery, and unsanitary working conditions. For several years, organizers in British Columbia have been pushing for de-criminalization provided that the workers are organized in a bona-fide worker co-operative.

The Harper government will be appealing this ruling. Even if the ruling stands, the Parliament will likely take steps to re-criminalize the sex trade. That would be a shame. Despite thousands of years of being illegal, the sex trade thrives. It is through the criminalization of the industry that the worst abuses are allowed to become prevalent. A well regulated and taxed sex trade will benefit those  all who engage in it. Rather than creating some puritan myth that this trade can be eliminated by sweeping it into dangerous back allies and creating economic incentives to engage in slave trade, the government would be better off by creating worker and consumer protections.

September 23, 2010

A Vision of Our Movement (or a beginning of a discussion)

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

Today, as this goes to post, I am about to start the first day of a two-day retreat for the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives board. The last several posts had a lot to do with this event as the Federation enters it sixth year. We have zero turn-over on the board and an opportunity to develop some clear vision and institutional infrastructure this year. It also marks the end of the original five year plan drafted back in Minneapolis in 2004.

Yesterday, I ended my post with this short comment: “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.”

Yes. Milton Friedman has something to teach us. Under his leadership, he corrupted Breton Woods, turned the International Monetary Fund into a tool for economic extremists, destroyed Keynesianism, led the Chinese Communist Party to enroll entrepreneurs and created a thirty-year legacy of expanding the gap between rich and poor. Obviously, I think that his ideas are bankrupt and, to be honest, it would be hard for anyone to show where they have truly succeeded without the force of a military behind them. But, I am not here to discuss Disaster Capitalism. Naomi Klein has already written an incredibly power (and very well documented) book on this topic: The Shock Doctrine. You should add it to your list if you haven’t read it yet. I am more interested in how Friedman managed to expand his teachings from the University of Chicago to take over the world.

Friedman wasn’t interested in mere academic arguments. He believed in direct action. He put his ideas into practice. More importantly, he created plans and ideas. He made himself and his “Chicago Boys” a force in the world by showing up at Congressional sub-committee meetings and countless other functions. He realized something very important.  Economic movements cannot relegate themselves to being merely social movements. They must also be political movements. The Fabians understood this as well. Both the Chicago School and the Fabians churned out papers and proposals, attended meetings, and pushed their cause. The result is that when the opportunity struck, they had the ability to act. The Fabians took a long-term evolutionary approach, however, and really only succeeded after their big guns (George Bernard Shaw) had passed away leaving little legacy for the next generation. Friedman, on the other hand, acted quickly. While at first he operated in conjunction with US Foreign Policy and Cold War politics, he quickly understood that creating change at the end of a bayonet could never produce lasting changes (most of this discussion comes from The Shock Doctrine). Of course, I bring Friedman up mostly for the shock value, but he knew how to push his message.

What does this mean for our movement? At the National Worker Bi-Annual Conference held in Berekely last August, Executive Director Melissa Hoover noted that her hope is for worker co-operatives grow to the point that they are no longer considered the “alternative” but the “model”. So, how do we really get there?

In Haiti, after the earthquake, the proposals for rebuilding came from the usual neo-liberal sources with former US President Bill Clinton invoking their anthem: “Don’t let a good disaster go to waste.” In the rebuilding of Haiti, the discussion in the press was about privatizing government controlled businesses and services. Where was the worker co-operative plan for rebuilding the country along a democratic worker friendly economy? Well, it doesn’t exist yet. A couple of years ago, I asked Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz why co-operatives aren’t even mentioned when the city discusses development plans. He said, because you don’t show up.

We need to start creating plans and finding places to implement them. We need to engage our academics and help them become secular missionaries along the lines of our Co-op Priests from yesteryear. In Canada, they have that tradition and are working to put their ideas into practice. Isobel Findlay from the University of Saskatchewan presented work that she did last spring on creating co-operative options for single women. The Canadian Cooperative Association in conjunction with several research partners (led by Sonja Novkovic) are expanding St. Mary’s work on the Co-op Index to the larger community called Measuring the Co-operative Difference. We, as a movement, need to join them and start creating the programs, the plans, the position paper, and the buzz.

  • We need to develop “Best Practices” for worker co-operative in the United States that give our movement and identity and common language. Best Practices that combine the co-op identity with the distributist and syndicalist models. Best Practices that support us as workers and create solidarity with our external stakeholders (consumers, family, community).
  • We need to develop urban and rural planning guides for using worker co-operatives to meet community needs in a sustainable manner.
  • We need to develop a true alternative to neo-liberalism that provides a real plan of economic and environmental sustainability for communities and honoring the labor of the men and women who create the wealth of this country. Plans that generates wealth and distributes it among the people who create it.
  • We need to find communities that will work with us to implement our plans and see them to fruition (like Cleveland and the Evergreen Initiative only with a stronger sense of worker control). There are a lot of people doing this now–some are getting paid, a lot are not. The work of John Logue was certainly along this line and we need to continue that.
  • We need to create spokespeople for our movement in every major community who can speak a common economic language of worker co-operation and support these ideas at City Council Committees, State Government and even Congressional Subcommittees.
  • We need to be able to show up when the disaster strikes with our plan. We need to develop our larger ideas and models so that they are seen as a legitimate challenge to the status quo even without the pedigree of the University of Chicago or the Harvard Business School.
  • We can do most of this in bits and chunks, but I fear that has been our path and the result is that we get bits and chunks, we get people re-creating the wheel, and we get into a lot of long, drawn out debates over process and semantics. For all of these reasons, we really need to an institutional structure to help collect and then sift and winnow the ideas. Then we can debate them, take them out for  a spin and start creating our “ism”. The other side has a lot of these groups: Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institute.
  • We have the UW Center for Co-operatives, which does great work, but they are grant driven and have limitations placed on them as a tax-payer funded entity. We need something for worker co-operatives and for building our model. We need our policy wonks to be able to come together with the time to develop. We need our community organizers and co-op developers to help put those ideas into action. We need our charismatic folks to bring that message to the politicians and get them to start seeing us as a viable alternative. Mostly, we need to create a national definition of ourselves so that others don’t define our movement for us and there are already plenty of people trying to do just that.

Is this were the Democracy at Work Institute should go? How would we create a non-profit worker co-operative institute to further our movement and development along the distributist and syndicalist lines? More importantly how do we fund it so that the institute can actually do more than have phone conferences every quarter?

I’m ending this series of thoughts with a lot more questions than answers. While writing, I took a quick break and went for a walk. While walking, I was reminded that February will mark the 20th anniversary of my first election to the board of Union Cab. At the time, I was still planning on being an English professor. In 1995, as president, I answered a survey on worker co-ops from a Canadian researcher. When I asked him later for results, he said that there weren’t any. It turns out that he couldn’t find enough worker co-ops in the US to conduct valid research. Nine years after that, the first national worker co-op conference was held in Minneapolis and next year, just seven years later, the first North American Worker Co-operative Conference will be held in Quebec City, Quebec. There are almost 300 identified worker co-ops in the US with about 1/3 of them members of the US Federation. We are about to certify the first cohort of Worker Co-op Peer Advisors.

We have the momentum right now, but we need to find a way to channel it. We need to find a way to push our movement to the next level. We have to find a way to help our co-ops educate their members on the co-op difference and, in turn, help create the energy needed to maintain the momentum and extend it. I intend to spend the next thirty years, if I have to, to figure it out and I hope that you join me–and I now I have to go join a meeting.

Thanks for getting through this five-day post–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

September 22, 2010

Can Syndicalism Help Worker Co-ops?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

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*. 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.

September 21, 2010

The Agency Dilemma in Worker Co-operatives

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

Last week at my other blog, Breathing Lessons, I discussed the Rochdale cul-de-sac as it applies to consumer cooperatives. This week, as part of this discussion over the future of US worker cooperatives, if not the labor movement in the United States, I want to put the spotlight of the Agency Dilemma on our movement.

It would be a mistake to presume that worker cooperatives, by their nature, enjoy an immunity to the agency dilemma. Race Matthews notes that even Mondragon has its issues. In the US, we have a lot of issues that arise from our culture as well as from the Agency Dilemma.

A More Critical View of Mondragon

First, while I am impressed with Mondragon and loathe to point out the cobwebs up in the corners, it is worth mentioning that perfection is a goal that we strive for, but can never attain. Thus, the criticism of Mondragon (and our own co-operatives) should be accepted in the effort to make them better.

The single biggest criticism of Mondragon has been their outsourcing labor to the developing countries without developing worker co-operatives. This not only runs counter to their principles but invokes the legacy of Spanish imperialism especially when they are engaging the South American economy. However, even within their co-operatives, Mondragon can succumb to elitism and a class separation among their workforce. Matthews cites research conducted by groups within and without Mondragon. Specifically the work of Cornell University anthropologist Dayvydd Greenwood and the ethnography of Sharyn Kasmir . Matthews also taps the work of Mondragon insiders José Luis González (at the time, the Director of Human Resources at FAGOR), and  Mikel Limenez. The work that Matthews uses is from his 1990 position as the Director of Sociological Research for Ikasbide, the predecessor of Otalara Institute. Mikel generally leads the tour groups.

While the workers love their co-operatives and appreciate them, they also recognize that there are “those above” and “those below” (Matthews, 1999, 225) They also speak of issues that should resonate with those of us in the United States, “we are less equal among ourselves than the workers in a capitalist firm; being members, many of us often have to put up with things that workers in other firms would not tolerate.” (Matthews, 1999, 225) Certainly, the 1974 strike revealed a very real rift along gender lines in the co-operatives. While the official discussion of the strike resulted in limiting the size of co-operatives (the factory co-op that suffered the strike had over 2,500 members), it did not talk about how the strike leaders were treated. According to Kasmir in The Myth of Mondragon, twenty-four leaders from the strike were fired (2/3’s of them women). Twenty-two were re-hired except for two women. They were unable to find decent employment in the Basque country for almost five years (public pressure finally forced their re-hiring). (Kasmir, 1996, 110-120) Kasmir’s work provides a Gramsci-esque critique of Mondragon. I can tell you that it is not well received by academia and considered flawed. It is an ethnography so her work does have certain limitations, but I think that it does raise some issues that shouldn’t be ignored.

The point is that our co-operatives can easily succumb to the dominant paradigm of capitalism. Even Mondragon can create an environment where mental and physical labor has separate value within the organization. We are not immune from creating agency theory. If our Human Resource department only has the corporate world of human resources to use for educating itself, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our HR departments talk and act like other corporations. Unless we create a structure that either flattens hierarchy or contains and channels its power, we are susceptible to it overcoming our democracies. If Mondragon cannot eradicate it despite their principles and culture, then it will be doubly hard for our US Co-ops.

The US Agency Dilemma

Our coops have few, if any, resources as worker cooperatives. While the Worker Co-operative conferences offer some skill sets and workshops, it can be difficult to translate between industries. We often have to turn to our industry and their “best practices.” As I have mentioned before, we need to critique the “best practices” rather than simply accept them. In whose interest are these practices best? My guess is that they work best for the managers first and the stakeholders second. The workers are far down the pecking order.

Because US culture bases itself on control and power, it creates an environment where it can be quite easy for our worker co-ops to mimic them. We often haven’t the time or energy to explain and debate every detail of the operations to the membership. It is easier to let individuals specialize in their area and run it. However, that needn’t take away from the democracy of the organization. For the smaller co-ops, it is easier to maintain a collective attitude; however, as co-ops grow, they cannot always follow the Rainbow Grocery or the Arizmendi models due to the needs of their industry. These co-ops do need some level of structure and we shouldn’t see hierarchy as an automatic failure or example of Agency. We shouldn’t simply hire managers to run our co-ops and then complain about their decisions.

The Danger of Agency

One of my current fears regarding the Agency Theory and US Labor Movement comes from the two sources. First, the traditional labor movement has largely given itself over to Agency long ago. Corporate officers and union leaders make as much as the CEO and have little in common with the rank-and-file. SEIU’s growth strategy has resembled Wal-Mart more than a people’s movement. In our movement, we are seeing social workers and “community developers” find ways to co-opt the movement to include well-heeled consultants and advisers. Elsewhere, worker co-operatives are being created to outsource unionized government services with lower paid and benefit-poor positions.

The Cleveland Model offers hope, but also offers dangers. It is an agency development model that focuses on good jobs and keeping the neighborhood intact. However, it is based on the benevolence of a couple of large institutions and has a control structure that will fill the key decider roles from the established philanthropists (at least initially). Capital, in Cleveland, is creating worker co-ops to serve it, but doesn’t really adopt the concept of the sovereignty of labor or the subordinate nature of capital. This might end up being a revolutionary act and greatly aid the development of large scale co-operatives, or it might be a wonderful act of charity that really can’t be replicated (and subject to the goodwill of the benefactors). The real test of this project will come when the primary financiers step aside and allow the workers complete control over their destiny.

How Do We Move Forward?

We need to create a set of best practices for worker co-operatives regardless of their industry, size, and structure. Certainly, the CICOPA Declaration on Worker Co-operatives can provide a lot of guidance in this effort. Worker Co-op Best Practices need to be aimed at diffusing the control and power of elite groups within the organization as well as preventing cliques and informal processes from overcoming the democracy of the organization. This can and should be a role for the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives or its “project” the Democracy at Work Institute.

We need to recognize that few workers come to our co-operatives with the illumination of the co-operative movement. We need to create the means for them to understand and develop. We need to follow Arizmendiaretta’s belief that our movement is an educational movement with an economic basis. We can’t simply teach people how to read a balance sheet or write a cash-flow statement and think that we are done. We need to teach critical thinking an analysis. We need to develop a work force where every member has the knowledge and intellectual skill to engage as a fully vested member of the co-operative.

This means working to overcome our culture of treating people and labor as mere machinations of the marketplace. We need to find a way to develop a new path through our co-operatives that provides a real answer to neo-liberalism. If we only try to democratize capitalism, then we really fail. We can only be a parody of our capitalist competitors: children playing dress-up as opposed to engaging as a true adult and providing a counter-weight, a true Third Road to Socialism and Capitalism.

To overcome our Agency dilemma and develop a true Distributist society, we will need to challenge our institutions and our co-operatives to step forward, to be leaders of the labor movement. My next post will discuss the idea of how to do that and creating a neo-syndicalist movement to counter the neo-liberals.


Kasmir, Sharyn The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, State of University of New York Press, Albany, 1996

Matthews, Race Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society (Alternatives to the Market and the State), Comerford and Miller and Pluto Press. Syndney and London. 1999

September 20, 2010

Roadblocks on the Path to Mondragon: The Theft of Labor

Filed under: Society,Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:00 am

The three English countries (UK, Canada, and the United States) have, at their core, a culture that promotes and accommodates the theft of labor in a way that simply didn’t exist in Euskera (The Basque Country). Really, it is a problem for all of North and South America, but for this discussion, I will limit to North America; however, the effects of slavery culture and US imperialism have certainly caused its share of problems in worker development in the south as well.

The most obvious example of this theft was the slave trade and US slavery that was ended with the Civil War. The United States economy and society was built on slavery and the white form of it: indentured servitude. All of English society benefited from this theft of labor). In fact, this can be said for the entire Americas as all of its modern nations were based on the slave trade. In Paraguay, they even call their currency the Guarni (the name of the indigenous peoples who served as slaves).

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, has an excellent blog post on this subject called The Big Machine. Go read it and then come back. . I’ll wait. While Coates comments on race relatons, my focus is one economic class.

With the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, the theft of labor became a matter of principle. David Ricardo, an 18th century economist, even argued for The Iron Law of Wages which suggested that it was part of a natural economic order that workers only earn enough to sustain them to continue to labor. It was this point when the value of work was divorced from humanity and made to be simply another marketplace. Of course, as in most of the propaganda regarding “free markets”, it was a rigged system in favor of those who held capital. In the UK, workers who attempted to unionize or organize for better wages were deported or jailed. In the United States, they were murdered and blacklisted. Even Canada has its history of shooting and jailing workers.  Capital, in the English speaking north, has always trumped labor.

It would be nice to think that our culture of subsidizing our society through free labor was a quaint artifice of the past. However, it isn’t. Every summer, college students are expected to work for free (to better their future prospects). In the taxi industry workers are deemed “independent contractors” and expected to pay for the ability to work (NYC cab drivers often average only about $30 a day through this system). Of course, in college and professional sports, millions are made off of the labor of the athletes. Only a small percentage (the superstars) ever sees a share of that profit and in the college, the system takes extreme steps to ensure that the player doesn’t see a dime. A friend of mine who did legal work for migrant farm workers has dozens of tales of wage theft and outright chattel slavery in Ohio during the 80’s and 90’s.

This idea is so embedded in our culture that even the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives uses the apprentice/internship model for its Democracy at Work Network of peer advisors.

I don’t want to say that all volunteerism is wrong. Don José famously refused any compensation for his role as “advisor” to the Mondragon co-opeative. The workers even had to steal his bicycle so that they could justify buying him a new one that was motorized! Volunteerism has its place in truly fair and cooperative society, but in our society, we need to understand the fine line between volunteerism and exploitation. (Dr. Laurie Mook has a great book–What Counts? Social Accounting for Non-Profits and Cooperatives–on how to quantify volunteer hours with an expanded value statement that every coop should use).

The key point: The devaluation of labor in the US makes it a lot harder for the distributist model to take hold. Our culture establishes a base of distrust between the worker and the organization that uses their labor. It creates an environment where workers express solidarity with each other by enabling them to “get one over” on the machine. We can create worker cooperatives, but to change the culture of the workers from the asymmetrical survival strategies that they have spent a lifetime learning requires more than simply writing some by-laws.

We need accountability structures because we have a society based on theft. The original theft is from the worker who can then justify behavior as a means of fighting for their rights. We can’t really divorce ourselves from that culture without taking some extraordinary steps or developing our cooperatives from a different paradigm and working to only accept workers who have achieved that level of understanding (this might be why Cheeseboard and Rainbow Grocery can operate as they do). In the US, we had a strong labor movement until the neo-liberals under Reagan went on the attack. While they destroyed private sector unions, what replaced it was an Intifada of assymetrical class war that involves slacking, cigarette breaks, and Facebook. I’ve read some estimates where close to 25% to 30% of the work week (or white collar workers) is spent doing non-work things (chatting, smoking, web surfing, etc). On the other hand, blue collar workers at the lowest end are expected to wear diapers to work so as to keep the line moving. It is really a messed up work culture.

A Long Term View

As I will be writing over this week, we need to take a long-term view. We need to keep in mind that Mondragon was not created overnight. It started with the creation of a poorly funded school. Arizmendiaretta spent a dozen years educating students who then went to University. They then took jobs with the large employers and finally returned to Mondragon to establish their own company based on the values that they learned at their Priest’s school. Arizmendiaretta famously argued that theirs was an educational movement with an economic structure, not the other way around.

If we want to create something that looks like Mondragon and makes us feel good, we need to do more that simply try to model Mondragon. We need to first develop a legitamate belief in the value of humans and the value of work—not the false Work Ethic along the lines of Ragged Dick and the myth perpetrated by Horatio Alger that lures people into supporting capital with false promises of becoming rich themselves. We need a humanist ethic—one that has already been written down by the International Co-operative Alliance and Mondragon. We might even need to create a different pathway to a Distributist society. While the Spanish (and even the Maritimes) had their common religion and inspired priests to guide the people, we don’t. To create a culture that honors work, we need to create a means of honoring the human doing the work. Fortunately, there is already a model for that as well: syndicalism.

September 19, 2010

Mondragon in America?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:48 am

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.

September 13, 2010

Is It Time for Neo-Distributism?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 3:01 pm

One of the joys of not actually being enrolled in a graduate program arises in the ability to actually read the assigned books from some of the classes! It isn’t that I didn’t complete my assisgnments, but often only a chapter or two were intended for the class. For instance, No Logo by Naomi Klein is a must read for anyone interested in how globalization really changed US manufacturing (and marketing).

The most recent book that I finished Jobs of Our Own by Race Matthews. This 1999 treatise (re-released in 2009 with a new forward) discusses the ignored ideas of G.K. Chesterton and his distrubists allies providing a nice history of the discourse between this group and the Fabian Society of George Bernard Shaw. Ultimately, the Fabians won the hearts and minds of the people and ushered in a remarkable 30 year period of economic stability under the prodding of Prime Minister Clement Atlee that saw the creation of the National Health Service, the Breton Woods Accord, and the dominance of Keynesian Economics.

It is a bit hard to argue that the Fabians had it wrong. The idea that the three legs of the stool (Trade Unions for Workers, Co-ops for consumers, and the Labour Party for citizen control of the commanding heights of the economy) still has a certain appeal. **  However, the Distributists had more far reaching ideas. They didn’t trust the State to control the economy. Led by their religious dogma and the Pope Leo XIII’s ecclesiastical, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour), they sought a society of small owners in which power could not be concentrated into the hands of few, but distributed throughout the society. They never really go much further than this general idea largely because of their egos, untimely deaths, and an appalling antisemitism and racism that would eventually cause their movement to be disregarded.

Outside of England, however, this idea did take hold. Matthews work takes off when he discusses the work of the Maritime Canadian priests Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady. Together, these community organizers helped build a strong and powerful cooperative movement as well as a culture of adult education. Although, the movement did crash in the mid 1960’s due to systemic structural problems and was re-born as Co-op Atlantic.

One of Coady’s goals which he never lived to see was the idea of delivering education to working men and women in their homes. He saw that it was impossible to expect people to leave their jobs to attend classes. I am sure that he would be quite proud that Tom Webb, one of his successors as Director of the Extension Department at the University of St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia would create exactly such a program at the sister school of St. Mary’s University–the MMCCU. (I was surprised to see this footnote in the book as I consider Tom a mentor to me and never knew that held Coady’s position prior to St. Mary’s).

The book then turns to its true focus. The Antigonish Movement discovered what has come to be known at the rochdale cul-de-sac. Essentially, that co-operatives grow to a point where the membership must give up control to hired management. The co-op then begins to behave and act like any other store and the uniqueness of the co-opertive model becomes lost. It is Matthews argument that distributists can overcome the problems brought about through Agency Theory by engaging in a slightly different model of co-operation, namely the worker co-operative.

So it is, that Matthews ties the work of our favorite priest Don José María Arizmendiaretta to the distributist movement of Chesterton and Coady. The rise of Mondragon and its redefining the relations between capital and labor fit nicely into the edict of Rerum Novarum without creating the tyranny of the the worker over the consumer that the Fabians so feared. By giving workers a voice and participation in the management of the co-operative, the problems of the cul-de-sac get eliminated. In some of the Mondragon coops, there are mutli-stakeholder modes that provide space for several voices in the discussion. At a few years past 50, Mondragon has outlived the Antigonish Movement and remains a strong and fervent co-operative model.

Distributism, according to Matthews, works. It works exceptionally well provided that the workers enjoy a strong voice as workers in the organizations. Mondragon distributes the wealth throughout the basque region of Spain to its 180,000 members (I think that is the correct number). By creating a true ownership society, they created a sustainable marketplace that focuses on the value of the human being.

Is it time for us to take a second look at distributism? I’m still not quite sure. I think that Mondragon could also be considered an excellent example of syndicalism even if there isn’t a labor union involved. The point, however, is that capitalism displaced a workerable social contract without establishing a new social contract. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand replaced the Noblesse Oblige. Keynes sought to soften the hand. The Fabian sought to re-invent the social contract through government ownership. Distributists and Syndicalists, in my opinion, seek to rewrite the social contract based on the individual civil and human rights. Perhaps the ideas of the Distributists could be folded into a Neo-Syndicalism creating a movement that uses both worker ownership and industrial unionism to meet the needs of the community and society by creating an ownership society of small owners, and recognizing when the scale of a project is too big for worker co-operative alone and requires an industrial union presence. Such a linking with Mondragon and the US Steelworkers may be the beginning of this new ideal.

But this time, we really need to document what it is!

**Thanks to Bob Cannell for that imagery.

September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day!

Filed under: Movement,Worker Rights — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 12:06 pm

Well, in most of the world, Labor Day  is on May 1st. In the United States, Grover Cleveland made it the first Monday in September specifically to avoid the connection of May 1 and the Haymarket Square Tragedy. The struggle that day for the 8 Hour Day was destroyed by government agents, but the long-term vision of those martyrs was eventually realized. In fact, if you happen to enjoy a weekend or a day off, thank the labor movement.

As we celebrate the rich labor history in the United States, we also need to think about ways to reinvigorate it. While the traditional labor movement has had a rough couple of decades, other parts of the labor movement have grown. Worker Cooperatives increase in size and number every year and the Industrial Workers of the World also seem to be growing. In the last year, the announcement of Mondragon and the United Steeelworkers stunned our world, but since then nothing has seemed to happen.

We need to find a way to get things moving again. We need to create a vision like the leaders of the bygone era had. Maybe not the “Eight Hour Day” or even “Abolish the Wage System”, but we need to create a common anthem and goal for the labor movement. It needs to be something that workers in worker coops and workers in labor unions can get behind and rally towards.

Health Care for All?

Free Education?

Free immigration (If Capital can move across borders, why can’t workers)?

Even a hundred years ago, workers were willing to fight and die for an 8 hour work day and the right to join a labor union. What is going to give this generation of laborers the passion needed to change the world?

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