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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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So all of these meetings are on paid time. And all of them are mandatory. Just like you say to a worker you can't decide not to show up for your shift at the factory, you can't decide not to come to the meeting. Your job description has these multiple dimensions, that's what the co-op is. If you don't want to do that, we understand, but then you don't belong in the co-op.

I thought it was a marvelously straightforward way of making clear to a worker when he or she begins the work that this is a different operation from anything you've been used to before. That got confirmed later when they explained to me the difficulties they're having when they open plants around the world—which, they explained, they have to for competitive reasons—he said we've always taken the steps necessary to secure this enterprise and the jobs we provide. So, he said we opened four plants in China, we tried to get the Chinese workers to come to the meetings. They won't. They have no idea what you're talking about. They get extremely uncomfortable, paying them makes no difference. Which is a comment on China, by the way. This “communist” country has workers who find the whole thing off-putting. There's something very poetic about that.

He says we rigidly apply the following rule, the gap between the highest-paid worker and the average worker cannot be more than six and a half times and our average is four times.

SJ: That's for the equivalent of the CEO?

RW: Right. Here, CEOs get paid like 300 or 400 times. And that you could see everywhere. There was a casual relationship. At every moment we could see—and I watched—the eyes of the men and women assembly line workers, when Miguel, who's taking us around, stopped and introduced them to us and us to them, and we would have a conversation.

The comfort and the relationship between them I had never seen in any place I've ever been. They were way too comfortable with this guy, in a way that I wouldn't have been. I don't shrink in fear, but I know who that is. You didn't have that there.

The other thing I think was so stunning was, in the community—we drove around, the community—the city of Mondragon is a small city. They obviously dominate this place. You can feel it, it's hard to describe—everybody looks like everybody else. You see it right away because you're used to people displaying their different incomes. In any American city you can see it right away, you know what neighborhood you're in. Here we drove around, and it looked very similar everywhere. I asked about it, and he said, yeah, the gap, it's not that big a difference. When you factor in the scale, one family's larger, one family's smaller, it cancels out.

So I found all of this stunning. They were very honest. I said between you and me, do the workers really participate in making all the decisions? And he said, it varies. Some co-ops they really do, some co-ops they don't. We try to figure it out, we try to adjust, we can succeed sometimes, others we don't. It's an ongoing struggle to maintain this kind of an enterprise.

He said, look around you and you tell me. It is an attempt, 50 years old, to build this kind of a structure, to struggle with it, to fight against the political system that doesn't really want this, the capitalists we compete with who don't have to pay anybody to sit around in a meeting, and look at this.

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