Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You know, if you live long enough and are patient enough, you will eventually see something really good start to take form. This is the way that I view the following item from the website of the United Steel Workers. It has been too long since labour actually had a vision , a social goal that went beyond the all-too-necessary everyday fighting over small details of work life, punctuated by dramatic strikes that end up more like a football game without passing ie a struggle over, at best, small gains in yards. The traditional vision of socialism ie state ownership has been discredited not just in its barbaric Marxist dictatorial forms but also in its more civilized forms of democratic social democracy. It didn't work. In many ways it didn't work, not least because whether by prison camps or by civilized methods (which proved to be the most enduring in the end) it became obvious that it was not a method for achieving equality and liberty but rather one whereby a new class of managers rose to power.
There was, however, always, an alternative view of socialism, held in its purest forms by the anarchists but also shared, in many ways, by other socialists the failures of the statist model. "Cooperative Socialism" whereby the decisions at work are made democratically by all workers in an enterprise has always been there as an alternative vision to the statist socialism that has failed. Nowadays this vision is becoming ever more popular. Whether they truly hold to the ideal or not modern socialists find it almost obligatory to cover themselves with at least the mantle of such a vision. In some cases, such as with communist sects or caudillos in power one can seriously doubt the sincerity of their commitment. In other cases such as, here in Canada, people such as Pierre Ducasse (see his Ecodema blog), once a contender for the NDP leadership, one cannot doubt the sincerity of these "semi-libertarian socialists" because they are fully committed to a non-dictatorial method of change.
This brings us to the following item from the USW website. It seems that the USW have entered into an agreement for collaboration with the Spanish/Basque Mondragon group of workers' cooperatives. The promote the idea of workers' cooperatives in Canada and the USA. Now, I have no doubt that one can have many doubts about both parties to this agreement. In the case of the USW one can certainly quibble about its internal democracy. This varies from area to area. Here in Canada one could also quibble about its almost religious devotion to the NDP, and in the USA the attachment to the Democratic Party is even more problematic (no kidding). If an union is to be an instrument of worker democracy it has to be an exemplar of democracy and involvement itself. No organization, however, is perfect, and the membership of the USW are certainly trying to live up to that democracy. Mondragon is also open to criticism, particularly as it sems to have a "two-tiered" system of membership whereby non-Spanish enterprises are subject to considerably more centralized control and have fewer rights than those in Spain. Like other cooperatives it is also a, perhaps eternal, battleground between those who defend the rights of the membership and those who wish to see more power vested in management.
This battle may be inevitable, but the workers' cooperative model at least allows for a field in which it is possible for this battle to be fought. Government owned enterprise, just like private corporations, are automatically manager controlled. The following is also interesting in that it shows the recognition, at least on the part of the USW, that the usual 'Employee Stock Ownership' programs that some companies have are not the same as actual worker cooperatives. Molly has discussed this question before, especially in regard to the airline industry here in Canada, but she perhaps didn't emphasize enough the limitations of these programs.
So, here's the item, one that I find to be a very hopeful sign. One can only hope that the idea is not going to be restricted to small enterprises, and that it will also become an alternative idea for dealing with larger industrial enterprises in the future.
Steelworkers Form Collaboration with MONDRAGON - World’s Largest Worker-Owned Cooperative:
PITTSBURGH--(ENEWSPF)--October 27, 2009.
The United Steelworkers (USW) and MONDRAGON Internacional, S.A. today announced a framework agreement for collaboration in establishing MONDRAGON cooperatives in the manufacturing sector within the United States and Canada. The USW and MONDRAGON will work to establish manufacturing cooperatives that adapt collective bargaining principles to the MONDRAGON worker ownership model of “one worker, one vote.”

“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.”

Josu Ugarte, President of MONDRAGON Internacional added: “What we are announcing today represents a historic first – combining the world’s largest industrial worker cooperative with one of the world’s most progressive and forward-thinking manufacturing unions to work together so that our combined know-how and complimentary visions can transform manufacturing practices in North America.”

Highlighting the differences between Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) and union co-ops, Gerard said, “We have lots of experience with ESOPs, but have found that it doesn’t take long for the Wall Street types to push workers aside and take back control. We see Mondragon’s cooperative model with ‘one worker, one vote’ ownership as a means to re-empower workers and make business accountable to Main Street instead of Wall Street.”

Both the USW and MONDRAGON emphasized the shared values that will drive this collaboration. Mr. Ugarte commented, “We feel inspired to take this step based on our common set of values with the Steelworkers who have proved time and again that the future belongs to those who connect vision and values to people and put all three first. We are excited about working with Mondragon because of our shared values, that work should empower workers and sustain families and communities,” Gerard added.

In the coming months, the USW and MONDRAGON will seek opportunities to implement this union co-op hybrid approach by sharing the common values put forward by the USW and MONDGRAGON and by operating in similar manufacturing segments in which both the USW and MONDRAGON already participate.
Click here for the full text of the Agreement.
The MONDRAGON Corporation mission is to produce and sell goods and provide services and distribution using democratic methods in its organizational structure and distributing the assets generated for the benefit of its members and the community, as a measure of solidarity.
MONDRAGON began its activities in 1956 in the Basque town of Mondragon by a rural village priest with a transformative vision who believed in the values of worker collaboration and working hard to reach for and realize the common good.

Today, with approximately 100,000 cooperative members in over 260 cooperative enterprises present in more than forty countries; MONDRAGON Corporation is committed to the creation of greater social wealth through customer satisfaction, job creation, technological and business development, continuous improvement, the promotion of education, and respect for the environment. In 2008, MONDRAGON Corporation reached annual sales of more than sixteen billion euros with its own cooperative university, cooperative bank, and cooperative social security mutual and is ranked as the top Basque business group, the seventh largest in Spain, and the world’s largest industrial workers cooperative.
About the USW:
The USW is North America’s largest industrial union representing 1.2 million active and retired members in a diverse range of industries.


BroadSnark said...

I think this is really good news. It isn't just that it is a sign of the increasing attention to cooperative workplaces, but also increasing coordination among workers between countries. And that is so great!

mollymew said...

I agree with you, and I further hope that this initiative doesn't become just another paper commitment. There are many examples of such, and a big issue up here in Canada, the Vale Inco strike, has one such story behind it. The Steelworkers have, for years, been a part of a pact of various unions across the world who were supposed to act in concert when dealing with Vale Inco.Until this recent strike, and the efforts of the Steelworkers to actively lobby for international support, this pact remained a dead letter. During recent weeks the Steelworkers have been taking their case across 4 continents. I recently read that they are to visit New Caledonia, a French possession in the South Pacific.
I do hope that they receive a proper welcome there, but their welcome "may" be coloured by the fact that one of the unions in that territory, the USTKE( have at least some anarcho-syndicalist sympathies and ties with the French CHT-F- have waged a long campaign for solidarity with comrades of theirs who have been imprisoned by the colonial authorities. The USTKE is part of this pact, but they have received no support from other members of the pact, including the Steelworkers. Their main support has come from the French CHT-F and the French CGT.
One hopes that what the Steelworkers are doing now will lead to such pacts becoming less of pro forma declarations of intent and more of actually active networks.

Larry Gambone said...

Given all the caveats we radicals could make, it still seems like a significant change of consciousness. When was the last time a major NA trade union endorsed worker coops as an alternative? The OBU? Or the Knights of Labor? Minimally, we have to go back at least 90 years...

mollymew said...

You're probably right Larry. I certainly cannot remember any such initiative, though, as I said, I hope it isn't just a paper promise. The comment that this item has received elsewhere is actually quite different. I thought that I was being rather fair and balanced in mentioning the limitiations of BOTH the United Steelworkers and the Spanish Mondragon. In comments elsewhere where this article has been published and where a similar article from. I believe, 'Dollars and Sense' was published later the venom has been mainly reserved for Mondragon, and the Steelworkers have more or less escaped comment.

I admit that I rather concentrated on the limitations of the USW( which I have done before in the past), and I have gone even further in a more recent article on their travelling solidarity show, most particularily as it relates to their trip to New Caledonia. Even there I have, to my lights, been rather restrained.

Perhaps this relates to personal experiences. I have never in my life been a member of a producers' coop, but I had extensive experience in union infighting when I was younger. I suspect that most of the critics of Mondragon who have pointed out far more faults in it than I did have little experience in union matters. Probably the vast majority have NONE.They speak to what they are most familiar with, even if it is less important than the other side of the partnership.

You can't win for losing. No doubt BOTH Mondragon and the USW have faults. I have tended to point out those of the union because I think that the union is more important than Mondragon. In the North American sense this is obviously true. Like you, however, I think that this development is overwhelmingly positive, and hence I reported it as I did. I am disturbed by the immediate "reach for the gun" of denunciation of many commentators on this matter that I have seen elsewhere. The major reason I am disturbed is that such actions show just how far the authors are from understanding the long and hard road that is ahead of infusing libertarian politics into normal political discourse today. What they cannot do is accept small victories and build on them. They have an "all or nothing" response that is not of much use once you realize that changing the definition of "socialism" is the work of generations, and that simply spouting a "correct line" is not the best way to proceed.