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Richard D. Wolff: Can We Remake Our Workplaces To Be More Democratic?

Economist Richard D. Wolff is known as a critic of capitalism, but lately he's been arguing for an alternative: cooperatives.

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They include an immense supermarket chain, factories that make washing machines, the one we visited, and then co-ops as little as 10 people raising rabbits and everything in between, agriculture, industrial, service. On the other side of the hill they have this set of other buildings which are their labs, where they have scientists. They've hired I think 600 or 700 full-time scientists who do just research and development, new products. They are so good at it that General Motors has a team of researchers who work together with them. A variety of companies partner with them because they're so good at their R&D.

So what can I tell you about it? First, the growth. From six people in 1950 to more or less 100,000 workers is stunning. Very few capitalist enterprises have such a history over the last 50 years. That's a history which tells you that with all of the ups and downs, and there are plenty, they have managed to survive competitively and to grow. So the viability of a cooperative enterprise, in its competitive situation with non-co-op enterprises is stone-cold proof that it can be done and done effectively.

I'll give you an example. We take a tour of a washing machine factory, and first off, you and I could adjourn to the floor and have a picnic, that's how clean it is. And I say to our guide, 'How do you decide on machines when you need a technology? Do you always buy your parts from within the co-op?'

No! he says emphatically. Every co-op in the Mondragon system has the following order: you find the best equipment at the lowest price. If two pieces are identical and one of them is made by a co-op member, sure, you buy that. But short of that.

And then he takes me over to this—by the way, this factory is an immense building, think of the biggest Walmart you've ever been in, like that, these cavernous places—this big machine, and it's German, I read German, I can see that.

So then, what is the co-op? How does it work? He smiles and says "It would take me days to get it through to you but I'm going to give you a few examples. See those two women over there?" He points to these two women working on an assembly line. He says "They're about done, in about 15 minutes they will be done with two hours of work. In every factory, at the end of two hours, you do something else. No worker is kept on the same job for more than two hours."

I asked why, and he said because it's stultifying, it makes you a zombie. He used all kinds of colorful language to say that the workers don't want to do the same thing every day, it's not healthy, and it's not good for morale. So every two hours a little bell goes off, and they'll do similar work but it's a different machine, different action, different body movement, different workers to coordinate with, that's what a co-op does.

He said, "I'll give you another example. Once a month we have a meeting where we make a whole lot of decisions. The meeting is on company time; workers get paid their regular wage, because this is considered an essential part of the business." They're also paid to read the reports that they need to read to take part in the meeting. Financial decisions that have to be made, production decisions. Because, he said, if you do not provide pay you teach people that the running of the enterprise, your role in that, is not as important as your role making widgets on an assembly line. That would be counterproductive to the whole thing. They wouldn't then participate. A co-op requires that.

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