US Steelworkers team up with Spanish/Basque cooperative Mondragon

We missed this announcement a month ago, but it is still significant.

Carl Davidson:

“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.”

4 Comments US Steelworkers team up with Spanish/Basque cooperative Mondragon

  1. AvatarWhoahaha

    Mondragon is exactly what the article explains: a cooperative “based in the Basque region of Spain” (and founded by, ehem, you know, that horrid Catholic Church…). In Guip├║zcoa (Gipuzkoa), to be precise, which is the Historic Territory where Mondragon is placed. I don’t know what’s exactly the meaning of that curious “Spanish/Basque” syntactic structure, like if those were two opposite, exclusive concepts. Well, it can be some lip service paid to certain extreme-left, bloodthirsty, basque-killer terrorist groups. And I know what I mean cause I’m myself half guipuzcoano, gipuzkerako euskaldunberria and, of course, absolutely loyal to my centuries-old fatherland: Spain.

    Thank you very much for publishing this comment.

  2. Avatarelizabeth shipley

    This is very exciting to see the steelworkers exploring ideas on how to be owners of idle plants. I just wish this news would have been on every tv channel and newspaper in the country. I just read about it on “Common Dream” in an article by John Buell who writes for the Bangor Daily News.
    This is positive news that we all need to hear rather than hearing about wars, etc.
    Thank you
    elizabeth shipley

  3. AvatarHoward Christofersen

    It is so good to find something that is good for the common people.

    Thom Hartmann, of Berrett-Koehler Publishers asks:” is the economy here to serve workers, or are workers here to serve those who own the economy?[Here in the USA] The answer of old-fashioned capitalism …. is that workers are here to serve the economy and its owners.” How distressing! Are there no better answers? Yes, there are and one comes from an unusual site.
    Any of you who listen to foreign news, know that the Basque are a thorn sticking in the top of Spain with frequent acts of violence in their desire for freedom, yet it is out of them that a true cooperative, the Mondragon Corporation, appeared in 1956 which has evolved into a federation of worker cooperatives involving “85,066 people working in 256 companies in four areas of activity: Finance, Industry, Retail and Knowledge. The MONDRAGON Co-operatives operate in accordance with a business model based on People and the Sovereignty of Labour, which has made it possible to develop highly participative companies rooted in solidarity, with a strong social dimension but without neglecting business excellence. The Co-operatives are owned by their worker-members and power is based on the principle of one person, one vote.(from Wikipedia).
    I am sure that the steady employment and the involvement of the workers in the control of their companies, in this the seventh largest Spanish company, will contribute greatly to the stability of the Basque section of Spain and Spain will become a better democracy. Can someone follow their lead here in the States? Turn to Google and see what the US Steelworkers are planing–You have to read that!! and I did, great effort!!

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