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

September 24, 2015

We do not live alone, but in co-operation


There is something in the depths of the human spirit that is firm and eternal. And there is also something that needs to be moving towards a new and superior expansion, in consonance with the interior and social regeneration of human beings. It is for this reason that their social achievements must reflect this transformation.


I missed yesterday, but also took the time to read the transcript of Pope Francis’ speech to the American people through their elected representatives in Congress this morning.

In his praise of the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis said, quoting Laudato Si which he published this Spring:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation an distribution of wealth. The right of natural resources, the proper allocation of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of the enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. ‘Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.’ . . . Now  is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and an ‘integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Co-operation does seek to build financial wealth among its members, but it also strives for community wealth and social wealth. It operates within the values of solidarity and mutual self-help to build sustainable economic systems that bring all of the members of the community up together without destroying the physical environment upon which our collective economic and human lives depend.

I have seen many in the co-op world (especially in the worker co-op community) see the model as just another form of capitalism and that the only metrics that matter on the financial bottom line. However, co-operation is perhaps the most inefficient at maximizing personal wealth. Its aim, from the beginning, is to have a social bottom line.

The co-operative movement cannot stop at creating financial wealth, it must also reach the human and help them connect with their community to see that the financial wealth is, in our socio-economic model, a benevolent side-effect of the main effect of creating a community based on dignity for the human and respect for the world that provides its resources so that we can flourish.

September 21, 2015

Pope Francis and Co-operatives

Tomorrow, Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to the United States. This pope, hailing from Argentina, brings with him a message for all of us in terms of building our economies–the quest for wealth needs to be more than monetary. In this, the Bishop of Rome has found the co-operative economic model to be one that can go beyond materialism and help lift people up.

In March, as reported by  The Cooperative News, he spoke directly about the co-operative model:

“‘The leader of the Catholic Church also argued that co-operatives could enable people to achieve all their potential. He said: ‘A member of a co-operative must not be merely … a worker … but must instead always be a protagonist, and must grow, through the co-operative, as a person, socially and professionally, in responsibility … an enterprise managed by a co-operative must grow in a truly co-operative way, involving all’.”

This language resonates with those of us who have studied Mondragon and the teachings of Don José María Arizmendiarietta. It is the 100th anniversary of the Basque priest’s birth. In celebration of this centennial, I engaged his writings in my classroom. Each class, students were asked to bring a quotation from this collected musings Reflections” available on-line.

In the coming days and weeks, I wish to bring that experience on-line. The following is a quote from Reflections. I will add my comments below, but I encourage you, dear readers, to add your own reflections or to find quotes from the web site that resonate with you and share them here.

Let’s honor the visit of Pope Francis by honoring the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Mondragon’s spiritual founder and engage in a discussion about co-operation, values and the development of the human.



This experience corresponds to a new spirit of trust in human beings and in their capacity. It revives in this case the sense of freedom, dignity and justice, evidently accepted in the traditional and democratic institutions in our land, this acceptance being manifested in the idiosyncrasy of our people. One of our characteristics has been our practical sense, knowing how to act in the milieu of possibilities, without renouncing or being indifferent to our ideals. We have known how to muster and not waste our opportunities to improve the common good. Our processes of association are not viable without moderation and the consenting of all of our people, who usually have to sacrifice personal positions. Radicalizations are contrary to the human and social virtues as well as to the most constant qualities of our people.

I decided to start with a rather chunky quote and one that some might find a bit controversial. The first part that struck we was Arizmendiarrieta’s faith in the method (or experience) of worker ownership through co-operation. It is more than simply creating a job with slightly better pay or a retirement plan. Although those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, the current dogma or “getting to scale” with a focus on size and ESOPs rather than on worker control and teaching workers how to manage seems short-sighted to me and lacking the key thing that makes worker co-operation so exciting.

Co-operation must also be about creating new human relationships in which we learn to value each other as human beings, as individuals, even while engaging each other for our co-operative ends. It is about embracing the idiosyncrasies, being able to see disagreements as a pathway to development and consensus. Falling into the money chase and big is better camp seems counter-productive to me in that even if the organization succeeds as a business, it ends up looking and feeling just like any other large business. Co-operatives need to break up this isomorphism.

The second part of this quote counters calls for radicalization. I imagine many (regardless of political affiliation) will question the Don of Mondragon as the political environment in the US and many countries seem to have become polarized with calls for dramatic action (and even military action) to deal with political and economic frustrations. Yet, too often, the goals of these movements get co-opted by their leaders (see Greece for the most recent example) as the trappings of power for the leaders become more important than the cause of the followers. Is this because radicalism focuses on people frustration and anger instead of the human and social virtues? I think that is the message in this statement. Co-operation, especially that espoused by Arizmendiarrieta tends to avoid the limelight of the political debate and alignment with political factions by focusing on education, information, and communication among its membership. By focusing on humans, not as pawns for larger political moves, but as the central raison d’etre, co-operatives can keep plugging along even as the countries bounce from one ism to another (See Italy and Spain). A revolution of spirit is needed that sees all of us as connected–I guess to some that may be radical, but to me it is a key part of co-operation.


November 16, 2009

#11 Caring for Others

Filed under: Human Relations,Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 12:55 pm

This is the last of the ethical values and the last part of the identity statement that was added to the set of familiar “Rochdale Principles” in 1995. As such, it wraps up the concepts that have gone before. It acts as a bookend with the first value of self-help.

We can’t help others if we can’t help ourselves. We can’t be only about ourselves. In thinking about this entry, I couldn’t help but remember the scene from Hair in which a women confronts the father of her child who is otherwise a hip cat trying to change the world:

Cooperatives are a social movement, an economic movement, and an educational movement. As a result, caring for others takes us beyond the social responsibility so easily co-opted by caring capitalist and benevolent dictators. We have to be about caring for each other. This value of caring likely attracted the likes of Don José Arizmendiaretta and Moses Coady and other Christians in Italy and throughout the co-operative world. This sense of community service and support finds itself in the religious movements of  the Abrahamic religions. For more on this topic, check out Andrew McLeod’s book, Holy Coooperation!

For those of us in the secular world, caring for others is just as essential a value as it is for the religiously inclined. It is a human value, after all. The human species can survive on its own, but it flourishes as a community. As such, the need to cooperate is necessary to our survival.

Tom Webb presented the value of Caring for others in this manner:

“Caring implies not just charity but active concern about how to act and create structures so as to enable others to realize their potential and live full and satisfying lives.”

Worker Co-ops have a special mission under this value. We need to create structures in our co-operatives that develop us as human beings and even world citizens. We need to help our members break away from the bad habits of other workplaces that only value the labor of the worker. The “move them up or move them out” aspect of Human Resources (whose very name suggests that the human is simply another asset to be managed) must be replaced with Human Development.

Many workers (at least in the larger worker coops) come to co-operatives without a lot of knowledge about co-ops. They may be seeking a good job in the industry more than a commitment to co-op development. I’ve heard one co-op organizer describe them as post-traumatic stress syndrome victims. A lot of workers have learned the wrong lessons from other workplaces and they need to see that the workplace can be healthy for human  beings. Caring for others means that our policies and work places place the worker’s well being (physical and emotional) at the center of their purpose. This means creating strong resolution process that go beyond simply ending conflict, but transforming the individuals to make them stronger people.

Loyal and happy workers lead to loyal and happy customers. By creating a supportive and nurturing community inside our cooperatives, we create a strong and vibrant business model. Caring for others creates the basis for the co-operative difference in a worker co-operative. Creating strong relationships and human development among our work force allows us to develop life-long relationships with our customers.

Of course, not everyone is able or willing to participate in this sort of environment. It may be that the wrong lessons of how humans treat each other have become so ingrained that the individual can’t overcome them and prosper in a co-operative community. It may be that some people see the co-operative community as “easy to get over” and manipulate others for their personal ends. The value of caring should not imply that co-operators are emotional doormats. The value of caring for others should empower ourselves to step up and confront members who don’t act co-operatively. Mostly, these issues will be resolved through education and development programs. In some cases, however, the only way for the co-op to exhibit “caring for others” will result in asking unco-operative members to leave the community. We can’t pretend that co-operatives can fix everyone—especially in the United States where the co-operative option is such a minor part of the overall economy and workplaces. In this extreme case, caring for others means protecting for the larger community. Of course, even in this sad situation, the people involved should be treated with dignity and respect.

Caring for Others gives guidance to co-operatives on how to create thriving, human based businesses. This ethical value moves co-operatives beyond the concept of social responsibility. By expressing caring for others, co-operatives create a healthy workplace that helps people realize their full potential as human beings.

Next: We start on the familiar principles and will make a few detours along the way to learn about the Mondragon principles as well.

October 7, 2009

Capitalism: A Review

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:12 pm


In the spirit of openness, please consider the following as you read this post. My name appears in Capitalism: A Love Story’s credits under the heading “Special Thanks”. I provided significant information to DogEatDog Productions regarding worker co-operatives, Mondragon, and the St. Mary’s University program, Masters of Management: Co-operative and Credit Union. I also assisted the production company in coordinating interviews and filming of my co-operative, Union Cab of Madison, which ultimately did not make the theatrical release (although I hope that it will be included in the dvd release).I attended a special screening provided at no cost to the membership of Isthmus Engineering and Union Cab on October 1, 2009.

The following comments are my own and should be read in light of the above disclaimer.


For a true “review” of capitalism, one should consult what remains the definitive work on the subject (regardless of your political views). That is the work Das Kapital by Karl Marx. In his expansive three volume treatise, one can find such poignant pearls as this comment from volume 1:

“Owners of capital will stimulate working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks which will have to be nationalized and State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.”**

Capitalism: A Love Story provides the highest public profile for worker cooperatives in the United States that they have ever received. While it falls far short of the economic analysis of Marx, Moore correctly taps into the basic lack of fairness within the economic system and puts human faces on the statistical failure experienced during the last year.

The film is a great example of Michael Moore’s sense of humor and fair play. As with Sicko, Moore takes on the complexity of Capitalism and brings it down to earth with personal accounts of its effects, the disclosure that even the people who created derivatives can’t define them, and offers a real-life alternative to running a market economy based on the value democracy instead of greed.

One could probably write volumes on what Moore left out. As mentioned, Marx already has. However, in about 120 minutes, C:aLS tries to remove the social support that Capitalism receives from those that don’t benefit from it without making us feel too foolish for being suckers. Moore also correctly avoids the conspiracy theories of who runs the government by focusing on what Wall Street and our elected officials did in the light of day in front of the C-SPAN cameras.

For a large part, the movie preaches to the converted and for those of you who already identify as being “on the left” the movie is a fun, affirming event rather than the call for action with which it seems to end. For others, I am not sure that the film will resonate that much and may also be affirming to those who don’t really trust Moore or like his style. It was this latter group that seemed to be Moore’s primary focus and I think that may have hurt the overall ability of the film to get a coherent message out.

As with many reviewers, including The Economist, I was a bit shocked that Moore’s choice for economic advice was Wallace Shawn especially when I know that he spoke with people that had much more veritas in the area of economics, but the ones that I know about aren’t from the United States. Still, Moore has never shied away from foreign ideas and, one could argue, that Capitalism was an import for which our founding fathers saw as a threat to the republic. I think that the choice of Shawn suggests that the focus of the movie wasn’t to create a viable alternative as much details just how much capitalism sucks.

My biggest critique of C:aLS was the inclusion of the lengthy discussion about theology and WWJD. One that Moore continued on his blog the Sunday of the first weekend after the movie opened. This segment, to me, exposed a trait among the American Left that is almost as obnoxious as their unwillingness to understand market economics. The Republican Party may have risen to power on the basis of Gods, Gays, and Guns as Wisconsin lawmaker Mark Pocan has proclaimed; however, those social issues have absolutely nothing to do with capitalism. Too often, however, the Left assumes that religious people are reactionary because they elect republicans. However, the republicans have never run on deregulating the economy, closing plants and shipping jobs overseas–they win by getting social conservatives to the polls to vote against gay marriage, abortion, and immigration.

Attacking capitalism and what happened on Wall Street by pointing out the teachings of Jesus seems a meaningless gesture and assumes a lot about people who go to Church. In my travels, I find that the christian movement types tend to see Wall Street as much a den of iniquity as Las Vegas–with the same rules. They already see the sin of greed at work. In the more extreme cases, the conspiratorialists even see the combination of non-christian forces at work controlling the economy and the government. They already agree that Jesus would disapprove of the type of capitalism (cheating capitalism) at play with the Banks. Using this imagery might have the unintended consequences of reinforcing beliefs about the role that non-Christians play in the economy.

I think that this time would have been better spent explaining why co-operatives are a better market economy. He could have made it a nice transition by asking the question, WWJD and then focusing on to incredible works to come out of the energy of Jesuit Priests: Moses Coady with Co-op Atlantic and Don José María Arrizmendiarietta with Mondragon. Instead of the discussion with the priest and bishop, he could have talked to Andrew McCleod a co-op developer and author of the book, Holy Co-operation which details how the teachings of the bible (Old and New testaments) promote the idea of a co-operative economy (had I known this was part of the focus, I would have let the production company know).

I argue this not just to see my co-op in the film, but to make the case that we can have a market economy based on democracy. Moore gives us the false choice between and economic model and a philosophical value (capitalism or democracy). This is the other short-coming of the film–it doesn’t seem to know what it wants or to understand the subject. We are taught that capitalism replaced feudalism. To me, capitalism did not replace feudalism it simply replaced the human at the top with currency. Instead of owing service to the lord for a piece of land and the ability to work, people now serve the dollar. As the barter/trade/service system became replaced by a market economy, we kept the basic anti-democratic structure of feudalist practice known as “The Golden Rule” (those who have the gold, make the rules). Capitalism, keep in mind, came of age when slavery was a constitutional right in the United States of America and the right of kings was only beginning to be successfully challenged. As our communities became more democratic, we started to resist the excesses of capitalism to make it fit to our collective world view. This led to government regulation and the constant push and pull between the masses and the wealthy elite.

So, Moore is correct. Capitalism is not something that we can fix. It isn’t evil, though, it is just an economic system using the market place for a society that no longer easily exists with the majority view of the governed populace. The idea of democratic capitalism is an oxymoron. Co-operation on the other hand, is a democratic method of market economy that has stood the test of time. I wish that Mondragon has allowed Moore to film (the rumor is that they were worried about the response by General Motors, one of the major customers). I would love to see Moore follow this movie with one about Co-operation. He could tour the co-operative societies and movements of the United Kingdom, Canada (Maritimes, BC), Spain, Italy, Argentina, Japan, and countless other countries. This is a market economy that began in earnest in 1844 with 24 pioneers in Rochdale, England and now numbers over 800 million people world-wide. Even in the United States, the co-operative movement provide wages of around 75 billion dollars a year, 2,143,256 jobs and revenue of 652 billion dollars (source: UW Center for Co-operatives)

In summary, go see the film. It is fun and will be worth your time and money (especially if you like hiss-the-villain movies). The version of The Internationale at the end is worth the price of admission. Moore does make us realize how basically unfair capitalism has become especially when the top 1% make the rules for the rest of the 99% to play by (and how willingly they will destroy each other proving that the is no honor among thieves).  In interviews, Moore uses the analogy of a pie served to ten children. If one child takes 9 of the pieces for himself, the other kids will immediately know that act is unfair, yet we accept it everyday in our economy. You will cheer for Marcy Kaptur*** and wish that we had more elected representatives like her. You will leave, I hope, feeling inspired to change the world.

If you also leave the theater completely unsure of how to change the world, I would suggest going down to join your local consumer co-operative, moving all of your banking to the credit union that serves your area, switching your insurance to a mutual insurance company such as Nationwide and, if you feel really into changing the world, discussing with co-workers the idea of collectively going into business as a worker co-op and putting your boss out of work.

As Ghandi and others have said: Be the change you want to see.

**I want to thank Rob Rowlands (University of Birmingham, UK) who presented this quote as part of his paper on a Mutual Neighborhood. Please watch Breathing Lessons for a future post on that intriguing subject.

***Having grown up in Toledo, OH, the movie made me feel proud of that my history (not only because of Kaptur, but the Cleveland: We Not Detroit video as well).

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