Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Worker Co-Ops Gaining Traction in Cleveland

As I have written before (here), worker-owned businesses are the wave of the future, because they are a superior economic organization. This has been noted in a recent CNN article (here) discussing the application of the Spanish model in Cleveland. The advantages noted in this article include: educated and supported workers, reinvestment of profits into capital and human development, limitation of executive salaries, supply chain integration, and avoidance of external debt leverage.

Some Rust Belt planners and union leaders are feeling optimistic: they're taking inspiration from the Basque region of Spain, where a network of worker-owned cooperatives launched amid the rubble of the Spanish Civil War has grown to become the country's seventh-largest corporation, and among its most profitable.

The Mondragon Corp. (MCC), based in northern Spain, is a multilayered business group with 256 independent companies (more than 100 of which are worker-owned cooperatives) that employs more than 100,000 people. It has long been legendary among scholars and activists seeking to bolster workers' rights.

The Mondragon story began in 1941, when a Catholic priest, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta (often shortened to Arizmendi), found in the Basque town war-torn devastation where there had been a thriving manufacturing base. He opened a polytechnic school, which in 1956 spawned its first cooperative, a stove factory. Half a century later, the Mondragon enterprise encompasses firms making everything from machine tools to electronics to bicycles, along with a retail division, a university and a significant financial sector, with the large cooperative bank Caja Laboral at its core.

While many think of cooperatives as a small-scale hippie mainstay, the Mondragon Corp. is huge, hard-nosed business-wise and successful; in 2008, with Spain's economy in the doldrums, MCC's income rose 6%, to 16.8 billion euros. The Mondragon Corp. maintains its commitment to one-worker, one-vote democratic governance through a complex, carefully honed organizational structure in which the corporation serves as a kind of metacooperative for the individual companies. Through representatives and resources drawn from the larger network, it provides support for planning, research and generation funding for new businesses.

Several nonprofit and medical institutions in Cleveland have turned to the Mondragon model for a consortium of businesses that will provide needed services and bolster an impoverished community.

"There's a value in dealing with an informed workplace," says Kiel. In terms of problems that can arise, including safety, production and theft concerns, "if people feel a part of it, that makes solving the problem a lot easier."

He adds that the spread between the high and low salaries is limited so that the CEO earns no more than five times the lowest-earning entry-level employee. This follows the Mondragon template, which keeps the ratio down to 1 to 4 or 5

One hallmark of the Mondragon model is its use of capital. Rather than flowing into the pockets of executives and outside investors, a company's profits are distributed in a precise, democratic way; set aside as seed money for new cooperatives; distributed to regional nonprofits; or pooled into shared institutions like the university and research center. In other words, each individual cooperative gains long-term benefits from the financial assets of the whole.

The companies plan to develop more businesses and are researching possibilities "along the supply chain": trucking, retail, health and wellness, as well as a funding vehicle like Caja Laboral.

Arizmendi now employs 125 workers and annually generates $12 million in sales. Despite the economic downturn, the businesses remain strong and poised for growth. This in part owes to the collective decision-making model, says Hoover. "Worker-owned cooperatives are an innately conservative form. We didn't overleverage ourselves."

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