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

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.

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