Analysts said it couldn’t happen and liberals said it was too early to come, but the Spanish cooperative of Mondragon has grown into a global powerhouse.
The Mondragon cooperative of 120 different companies was the focus of Carl Davidson, a writer and the national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, who talked on Thursday to a sparse audience in Lawson Hall. The speech was sponsored by the Committee on Peace Studies and the Latin American and Latino Studies Program.
Mondragon is the largest cooperative in the world. The cooperative has been successful in a wide array of businesses including industry, research, and education.
“Think about a platypus. When they discovered them (Mondragon), it wasn’t supposed to exist,” Davidson said.
An unusual aspect of the cooperative is all the workers are owners of the company. Every worker gets one vote and a paycheck based on the company’s profits rather than a wage.
“The workers in Mondragon are not normal workers. They are not wage laborers,” Davidson said.
Davidson spoke of how the cooperative has become the seventh-largest business group in Spain because of the core principles made by the founder, José María Arizmendiarrieta Madariaga. Arizmendiarrierta was a priest who first founded a small credit union that grew into Mondragon.
Davidson said Mondragon operates on several principles including application, pay solidarity, and the soverignty of labor. Davidson said Mondragon has its own bank to keep money within the cooperative.
“Capital is subservient to labor. That’s why the bank is owned by the cooperative,” Davidson said.
Davidson said the workers of Mondragon are paid well and the differences in pay between an executive and a janitor are not very broad.
“In Mondragon the average spread is one to nine from the guy who sweeps the floor to the head honcho. In the U.S. it would be one to 9,000,” Davidson said.
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One of the main principles of the cooperative is to take a three-in-one approach to business said Davidson. Davidson said the cooperative prides itself on its factory, school and credit unit aspects. He said it’s possible for companies to become a cooperative but that they need to accomplish a few goals.
“First, the workers have to want to do it. Second, the workers have to trust each other. Third, you need a decent business plan,” Davidson said.
Mondragon is working in other countries than Spain. Mondragon recently made an agreement to work with the United Steel Workers of the United States but things are moving slowly.
Davidson said several other cooperatives, such as the Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives, were influenced by Mondragon.
“The U.S. is a very easy place to start a co-op and a very easy place to fail,” Davidson said.
Audience members seemed very interested in the idea of a cooperative. Elena Benedicto, an associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts, said she thought it was an interesting idea for workers to own their positions and jobs.
“Those companies are household names and you would never expect that they are cooperatives,” Benedicto said.