Co-operatives are made up of people, not shareholders. I don’t even like the term “stake holders”, but use it to describe the various groups that have an interest in the success of the co-operative. However, the core unit of society in the co-operative model is the person. This is true regardless of the sector, but has an prominent role in a worker co-operative.
“Justice cannot be practiced where human dignity is ignored.”–Don José María Arizmendiaretta (Reflections, 1.1.003)
Worker co-operatives need to keep this idea front and center. It is not enough to provide ownership to workers. The organization must also promote dignity in the workplace. This might be seen as a natural outcome of worker ownership, but it isn’t. How many of our co-ops have a “rumor mill”? At mine, we refer to it as “the parking lot” (it is literally a parking lot) where the gossip and rumors fly. Are the subjects of rumor and gossip ever truly treated with “dignity”?
It is our duty, Arizmendi suggests, as co-operative members to do more than simply create a new ownership structure, we must also create a new management method that is based on, among other things, human dignity.
While I will avoid getting into a larger discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I will say that I don’t believe that it needs to be a hierarchy. We don’t need to sacrifice dignity for basic survival.
“Human being not only have stomachs or some material needs, but have an ever growing awareness of their dignity” (1.1.002)
While Arizmendi wrote these words under a fascist dictatorship, they resonate today. Even as I type, the Wisconsin legislature seems bent on chipping away at the dignity of the citizenry of Wisconsin, not just at the public sector workers and their families, but the students and the working poor as well. The economics of the Phalange Party (and von Hayek) failed miserably. They had no excuses, Spain was a perfect environment for what would become the Chicago School neo-liberal ideals and it failed. Mondragon grew because of the failure of the dominant paradigm of fascism (or corporatism). Mondragon grew because it offered something more than full stomachs, it offered dignity to the workers and their families. It also offered hope and joy.
Like the Phalangists, the US Republican Party seems to forget that. They have come to believe their own corporatist theories that the modern worker is a conformist who will abide the legitimacy of the corporation, but they will be wrong. The idea that workers can be expected to put aside their humanity for a paycheck is a short-term strategy. It will eventually crumble because its foundations have no strength as they are based only on the promise of wealth, but no true wealth (either financial or social equity).
This leads me to the third quote from Reflections today:
“People die not only from hunger and physical exhaustion, but also from tedium and sadness, and from the lack of hope and joy of life.” (1.1.003)
As worker co-operatives, organizations of people, we have an obligation to ourselves, our membership and our “stakeholders” to offer more than decent pay. We also have an obligation to create a workplace of hope and joy. We have an obligation to create a place where workers, and by extension, their customers, feel dignified as human beings and have the ability to express that humanity, nurture it, express it, and use that energy to create an even better community in the workplace and at home.
This is what the co-operative difference looks like.