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.


  1. This is a great piece to get some dialog rolling. It is an interesting challenge that I think is made worse by the conception of co-ops in our society as vehicles for charity and/or being closely identified with non-profits, which then encourages volunteer or undervalued labor. I think there is also a problem with non-profits (and some co-ops) that don’t quantify their volunteer labor, creating an illusion of efficiency and an expectation that labor need not be valued (or even doesn’t have value) – the giving of free labor a virtue, the expectation of just compensation becomes greedy. Rather than viewing the just compensation of labor and the building of worker co-op enterprise as a goal and something to be quantified, seeking out unpaid labor and services becomes a priority and the organization (or even a local economy) becomes dependent on this conception.

    Comment by Erbin — September 20, 2010 @ 9:51 am

  2. Ineresting, Erbin. One tool the Madison Worker Cooperative Association is considering using to quantify and value volunteer labor between them (and within them) is TimeBanking. We are lucky to have the largest grassroots TimeBank (Dane County TimeBank) in the world with over 1,700 individual and organizational members. This is a tool for us to engage in the exchange of real services that have actual meaning and value outside of the monetary system. TimeBanking principles are very similar to Cooperative ones, based as they are on the value of human beings and their creativity, and the instrumental nature of capital and money. Criticisms of TimeBanking that purport that it coopts the gift economy into the transaction economy and therefore destroy it are disproved by the actual experience of those of us who use it. We find that it actually expands relationships and solidarity beyond the TimeBank transaction, and serves as an important trust-building tool, while adding value to each others’ lives and organizations.

    Comment by Rebecca Kemble — September 21, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  3. Time-banking offers a lot of promise. In my post, I really tried to avoid the term “wage theft” because the idea of a “wage” is more about the commodification of labor into a free market dynamic. The syndicalists saw wage slavery as little better than chattel slavery for a reason. Their slogan was “Abolish the Wage System.” At the time, they didn’t really have a means to replace it. The “anticipos” of Mondragon do some of that, flattened pay strucutures in our coops can work as well, and creating a time-bank system can fill in a lot of the gaps. I would even take a few steps further along the lines of Daniel Quinn’s ideas–not that we can really re-create a hunter/gather society on a grand scale, but we could learn from how large civilizations such as the First Nations managed without a lot of hierarchy or wages. Avoiding “capitalism lite” is the key concept. I’ve generally rejected the idea of “fixing” capitalism because it isn’t broken. It has also done exactly what it is supposed to do: concentrate wealth into as few hands as possible and replace the feudalistic power structure based on heredity and nationhood with one based on capital and the ability to hold onto it.

    Comment by John McNamara — September 21, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  4. I think it’s an interesting challenge to consider. Ultimately, I recognize in myself a basis for my personal attitudes built on interests other than economics. I think the process will involve marshalling diverse resources. Marxism, for example, values workers to a large extent, but has a narrow political economic framework. For myself, I find that Marxism informs the diverse basis of my views which includes for example holistic workshops, an interest in psychology such as Carl Jung’s, and an interest in non-profit group activism like Greenpeace and Amnesty International. That reference reminds me that NGO activism seems to me to be a powerful resource in creating a basis for a view which values workers.
    Certainly NGO activity and accomplishments have built a significant body since, for example, the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and Amnesty was founded in 1961.

    Comment by Mark Rego-Monteiro — October 15, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

  5. If the intern or the college athlete feels like they are getting an outstanding deal, is it your job to convince them otherwise?

    Comment by pete — January 10, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

  6. […] a post from last fall on the Theft of Labor, brought this […]

    Pingback by A Quick Review of “Solidarity” « The Workers' Paradise — January 26, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

  7. […] I don’t want to suggest that this post is a “response” to Bob in the sense that I am providing a counter argument. I, too, see the disparity. I think that it is a good place to have a discussion because too often I see that the idea of worker ownership is a tool that may community organizers want to use, but they don’t seem to see worker control as being part of the deal. This allows social structures that might improve job and working conditions, but don’t teach workers how to engage in a democracy. There are some reasons for that, and ultimately, it is what separates the Latin/Anglo-Saxon views of work and humanity. These differences create limitations and I offered a discussion on this topic a couple of years ago in a post-entitled Roadblocks on the Path to Mondragon. […]

    Pingback by Be the Change You Want to See « The Workers' Paradise — October 7, 2013 @ 7:01 am

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