President's Perspective

The Mondragon Experience - Part One

Posted | by Denise Fairchild
Denise Fairchild

It’s not about GDP. Nor jobs. To me, it’s even beyond the quest for economic democracy. Freshly minted from a two-week journey to Basque Country in northern Spain, I am ever more fervent about our sustainability work addressing core quality of life issues. Our relationship to capital and work is only a part of the clean economy agenda. Green jobs and concerns about how to share its economic outputs must entail a broader set of outcome measures. It also is about our relationship to one another, family, community and nature. As we build out our clean economy program, when do we start that conversation and how do we begin to measure it to take action?

As an MIT Mel King Fellow, I was part of a 20-person labor-community delegation that completed a 40 hour learning journey on the Mondragon Cooperative Experience. A week in Arrasate-Mondragon in Basque County, Spain opened us all to new ideas and challenges. We learned about the origin and evolution of the Mondragon cooperatives, the organizational structure and management model for their 120 (and growing) cooperative empire, the culture and value of cooperatives as well as the financing, education and market strategy for the cooperative movement. We went to the factories. Met with the workers. Talked to the Cooperatives bankers, trainers, university faculty, and officials from numerous cooperative units. And, even among a delegation rooted in economic justice and equitable development work, the experience was a frontal assault on our sensibilities and approach to economic development. Clearly, they face the challenges of the global economy, but with over 85,000 employees, an unemployment rate 6% below Spain’s, and a growing international operation, the cooperative model offers a lot to learn.

For me, there were several mind-thumping concepts: inter-cooperation being the most profound. Business units (n=120) share each other’s profits and losses to ensure the integrity of the entire movement. My! My! Imagine how that might redefine our Third Sector Economy or even our labor-community partnerships. The other prevailing principles, expressed again and again by many voices included: wage solidarity (between labor and management), confidence/trust among members, the collective over the individual, the role of information in advancing equity, and of course collective ownership. Clearly, my colleagues and I have a lot of downloading and sorting to do before our fellowship journey is over. Can we get close to building a new economic framework of jobs and justice that even comes close?

But as profound as all that was, it was only the beginning of the experiential learning. I observed so many more mind altering conditions… To be continued next month.

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