One worker, one vote

In terms of innovation, my friend Pat Conaty is usually years ahead, so when he has been talking about something for a while, there is a fair bet, it will soon land somewhere in the UK in practice.

Pat is fascinated by new models of co-operative banking, ranging from loan funds such as the Aston Reinvestment Trust he set up years ago through to Nordic ‘free’ banking – the JAK movement – which has yet to arrive here but ought to be popular. The latest source of inspiration, he tells me, is from Cleveland, USA, where there are some remarkable examples of economic democracy and innovation.  And one of the blueprints for a potential new bank in Cleveland, in turn, is the Mondragon Co-operative.

Started in 1956 with five workers in a small shop in the Basque country making kerosene stoves, Mondragon now has over 100,000 worker-owners in some 260 enterprises across 40 countries. It has annual sales of more than 16 billion Euros with a wide range of products–high tech machine tools, motor buses, household appliances and a chain of supermarkets. Its new model supermarkets, Eroski, are spreading well across France, for example. Mondragon also runs its own banks, health clinics, welfare system, schools and the 4,000 student Mondragon University- all worker-owned coops.

‘This is not heaven and we are not angels’ is a common saying in Mondragon, but it remains nonetheless a source of energy and enduring inspiration.

A recent initiative has been to tie up with the United Steelworkers (USW) union in the USA to turn businesses facing closure in the recession into worker-owned cooperatives.

“We have lots of experience with Employee Share Ownership,” explains the USW International President Leo W. Gerard, “but we 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.”

I sense that we Brits tend to cling on to our hierarchies. Pat is a Californian, so he is different. But a little bit of Basque could do us good.


3 thoughts on “One worker, one vote

  1. It would be interesting to know why large scale, relicable models of worker ownership haven’t yet taken off in the UK (other than through the philanthropic / trust owned model.) Probably a combination of factors – the C19th conflict and split between the ‘consumer’ and ‘productive’ wings of the co-op movement (with the consumer societies setting up their own wholly-owned manufacturing subsidiaries without worker stakeholding); the hostility of British trade unions, which goes down to the present day; the antipathy of the Fabian wing of the Labour movement; and in the late C20th, the rise of managers as a professional caste. All wrapped up in a peculiarly British attachment to the state as the expression of social solidarity and provider of welfare.

  2. The truth is that governments committed to privatisation have been keen to push the idea of establishing co-operatives out of existing publicly-owned industries. Something of this nature is happening in the NHS.

    As to hostility to stakeholder-ownership, it no doubt comes from those who do quite nicely out of investor-ownership – the very wealthy, in other words. Or as I like to call them, old-fashioned young man that I am, the ruling class.

  3. Although there are historical/political contexts, I also believe it comes down to the fundamentals of how we interact with each other in Britain. Please accuse me of stereotyping if you don’t agree, but Northern Europeans are cast as more formal, uncomfortable with social interaction and personal relationship building, particularly in compared to our Spanish and Italian friends.

    This is something I see first hand when attending events in Europe. I watch in awe at their abilities to chat, cajole, and obviously make decisions without the formal procedures I’d expect.

    Yes we have individuals with these skills, but as a nation, is it bread into all of us from birth?

    Could it be argued that our our reliance on hierarchies is due to our lack of the right social skills?

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