We missed this announcement a month ago, but it is still significant.
“Oct. 27, 2009–The United Steel Workers Union, North America’s largest industrial trade union, announced a new collaboration with the world’s largest worker-owned cooperative, Mondragon International, based in the Basque region of Spain.
News of the announcement spread rapidly throughout the communities of global justice activists, trade union militants, economic democracy and socialist organizers, green entrepreneurs and cooperative practitioners of all sorts. More than a few raised an eyebrow, but the overwhelming response was, “Terrific! How can we help?”
The vision behind the agreement is job creation, but with a new twist. Since government efforts were being stifled by the greed of financial speculators and private capital was more interested in cheap labor abroad, unions will take matters into their own hands, find willing partners, and create jobs themselves, but in sustainable businesses owned by the workers.
“We see today’s agreement as a historic first step towards making union co-ops a viable business model that can create good jobs, empower workers, and support communities in the United States and Canada,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. “Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants. We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”
“This is a wonderful idea,” said Rick Kimbrough, a retired steelworker from Aliquippa, Pa, and a 37-year-veteran of Jones and Laughlin Steel. “Ever since they shut down our mill, I’ve always thought, ‘why shouldn’t we own them?’ If we did, they wouldn’t be running away.” J&L’s Aliquippa Works was once one of the largest steel mills in the world, but is now shutdown and largely dismantled. Much of the production moved to Brazil.
The USW partnership with Mondragon was a bold stroke. While hardly a household word in the U.S and little known in the mass media, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) has been the mother lode of fresh ideas on economic democracy and social entrepreneurship worldwide for 50 years. Started in 1956 with five workers in a small shop making kerosene stoves, MCC today has over 100,000 worker-owners in some 260 enterprises in 40 countries. Annual sales are pegged at more than 16 billion Euros with a wide range of products–high tech machine tools, motor buses, household appliances and a chain of supermarkets. MCC also maintains its own banks, health clinics, welfare system, schools and the 4000 student Mondragon University–all worker-owned coops.
Over the past decade, there have been a handful of efforts to apply the model and methods of MCC to projects in the United States. Almost all are on a small scale–several bakeries in the Bay Area, some bookstores, and most recently, an industrial laundry and solar panel enterprise in Cleveland. In Chicago, Austin Polytechnical Academy, a new public high school in a low-income neighborhood, was inspired, in part, by Mondragon, and a group of its students recently took part in a study tour of MCC in the Basque region.
But the USW initiative, and the potential clout behind it, puts the Mondragon vision on wider terrain. An integrated chain of worker-owned enterprises that might promote a green restructuring of the U.S. economy, for instance, would not only be a powerful force in its own right. It would also have a ripple effect, likely to spur other government and private efforts to both supplement and compete with it.
The USW is proceeding cautiously. “We’ve made a commitment here,” said Rob Witherell during a recent interview at his Organizing Department’s offices in the USW Pittsburgh headquarters. “But for that reason, we want to make sure we get it right, even if it means starting slowly and on a modest scale.”
What this means at the moment, Witherell explained is that the USW is looking for viable small businesses in appropriate sectors where the current owners are interested in cashing out. The union is also searching for financial institutions with a focus on productive investment, such as cooperative banks and credit unions.”