“The fact that we are here visiting Mondragón says something more about the state of the world than it says about Mondragón. It is a signal to us all – on both ends of the spectrum. People of the Tea Party ilk are pushing hard. People of other ilk are pushing hard, and there is an ever-shrinking group of people in the middle that’s not thinking about anything. At this point, the wax is melting in the ears. People are hearing. The question is: What is being said? And that’s our role – we have to fashion something worthy of being heard.”
– Reverend Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, North Carolina
Over the course of the last five or so years it has become socially acceptable in American culture to question and even criticize capitalism. The nation that has invented a special disinfectant for every kind of dirt it might find in its homes, and in all the crevices of its bodies, appears to be embarking on a search to clean its capital.
Meanwhile, a small town in the Basque Region of Spain is drawing 7,000 visitors per year, all coming to comprehend an alternate little universe where money runs circles around human life, as opposed to the converse that most of us live every day: the young professional striving for a pay raise, the young mom trying to figure out how to pay for daycare, the family moving into a motel because its house was foreclosed upon.
The Mondragón Corporation is a collection of about 120 worker-owned cooperatives employing about 100,000 people. A Catholic priest, Father José María Arizmendiarrieta, founded a polytechnic school there in 1943, shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The education focused on values and engineering. Thirteen years later the students of his school formed the first worker-owned cooperative.
Our eclectic group – comprised of faith leaders, business leaders, community leaders and professors; ranging in age from 22 to 68; and representing 9 states – spent one 40-hour work week trying to wrap our heads around Mondragon. We left our hotel at 9:30 each morning for a full day of tours and classes that included:
• A visit to the FAGOR washing machine factory
• A visit to ALECOP, a cooperative where we met two college students who were paying their tuition and rent by working part-time at, and having an ownership stake in, the business
• A lecture from Mondragón Corporation’s Director of New Member Training
• A lecture from CAJA LABORAL, a cooperative bank whose small business lending program boasts a 70% success rate for small business start-ups
Visitors come from various countries in South America, Asia, Europe, and all over the United States to see the model. We learned that a group from San Diego, representatives from a Chicago labor union, and filmmakers from Detroit had all been there recently. In the early 1990s, the Community Party of China visited Mondragón to explore the model.
These are the facts about Mondragón that the people in our group found most astounding:
• 70% of the local population is employed by a cooperative. Coops are responsible for stabilizing the region.
• College students can pay their tuition in full by working part time at the student cooperative.
• The corporation hasn’t laid-off a worker member in over 50 years. (Our group asked this question in about ten different ways, finally extracting that 4 or 5 people have been fired for theft in the entire history of the Coops.)
• The New Member Training Director said, about the founding of the coops: “There was no democracy around us, so the only place we could learn democracy was in the work place.”
• The business incubator, SAIOLAN, has developed a successful pre-incubation business training program that starts with children as young as 12 years old.
Our group experienced an emotional arc over the course of the week. We started with wonder, then moved to dismay at how difficult it would be to replicate at home, and on to a search for holes in the model (the most significant among them: they do very little to be ‘green’, and the workers in their factories abroad don’t enjoy the same lifestyle as their workers at home in Basque Counry), and finally a realization that we had to extract the pieces that best fit in our various regions of the United States.
Their visitor program was stronger before the 2008 economic crisis, and is just now recovering to pre-crisis levels. The Mondragón Corporation brought us their best people last week and served us their best food. They developed this program because a natural demand for access to their model emerged.
The details of the Mondragón model matter less. The fact that the corporation has been able to develop its own tourism industry – that people come from all over the world to see that there is another way to live – matters more. And what matters most: how that natural drive to find a better way to live our lives could manifest itself at this particular moment in time.
Post and movie by Alexa Mills.
This post in one in a series by a group of American community and business leaders visiting Mondragón, Spain from July 17th to 23rd.