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Worth a study might be the Mondragon Cooperative Networks of the Basque country.
The gradual expansion of the co-operatives is reflected in the growth of socios. Two years after its initiation, Mondragon boasted 143 worker-owners--nearly a 600 percent increase in membership. This is remarkable, considering that these socios initially had to invest one years' worth of salary to join, years before the CLP offered low-interest loans for the purpose. After the formation of the CLP, individuals were given investment accounts, which grew and shrank based upon the performance of their respective co-ops. Taken by itself, such an investment is a high-risk activity; should the enterprise fail, the worker-owner is left with nothing. Happily, this is a rare occurrence: out of the hundred co-operatives begun under the Mondragon umbrella between 1956 and 1982, only one suffered failure. Such a system of worker investment appears to carry more benefits than risks; rewarded by group profit more than the average, non-co-op employee, it is in the interest of each worker-owner to labor harder. This is reflected in economic studies of Mondragon, which state that the co-operatives are 7.5% more efficient than equivalent large businesses, and forty percent more effective than small and medium-sized businesses. Spanish business remains extremely sensitive to fluctuations in the economy, and Mondragon is no exception; nevertheless, in times of economic recession the Basque co-operatives tend to have lower unemployment figures than capitalist enterprises. Those unemployed in times of slow work still retain their status as owners, and all the dividends on their investment.

The Basque co-op concept has spread to the US in the form of Arizmendi Bakeries.

It's easy to see why Perez is a tireless proselytizer who has worked to establish three spin-off coops, the Arizmendi bakeries in Oakland, San Francisco and Emeryville. To anyone who has slogged through a wage-slave job or had a domineering boss, a collectively run cooperative sounds like a workers' paradise. It has no hierarchy and no supervisors because everyone is an owner. Everyone makes the same amount of money and everyone is responsible for making the business work. Everyone does all the jobs. No one gets summarily fired. Decisions are made by consensus. At the end of the year, some money goes to charity and some is invested back into the business. The rest of the profits, instead of enriching one or two individuals, are returned to all the worker-owners -- a rising tide lifting many boats.

This level of emotional and financial investment creates a radically different attitude toward work, Perez says, one emphasizing personal responsibility and flexibility. "If we don't have a boss and I tell you to turn out the lights when you leave, you're going to do it because it means more money for all of us," Perez says. "But if someone is breathing down your neck, you might not."

He says he used to work at a big-box retailer. "Corporate America, okay? They don't treat you like human beings. They treat you like robots. Your opinion is not appreciated."

Terry Baird, 59, a member of the Arizmendi Cooperative on Oakland's Lakeshore Drive since it opened in 1997, jokes (or not) about the effect of this. "If you work here and go somewhere else, you're kind of wrecked for the traditional work environment," he says. "The first time you say to your boss, `Let's vote on this,' they're gonna look at you funny."

There's something else about cooperatives. In an economy with a lot of coops, the number of well-paid, self-directed workers would mean a larger, wealthier middle class, and therefore a healthier community. The goal is a society in which all people, not only the fittest, enjoy economic security.

That last part sounds like a good talking point for a New Left economic proposal.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jul 26th, 2005 at 11:51:37 PM EST

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