3 Ways To Have Economic Success Without Greedy Corporations and Huge Wealth Disparities
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The numbers prove that worker-owned models aren't merely a wishful possibility, they are enduring and sustainable realities for workers and consumers.
Lessons from European Models
In Europe, Italy's Legacoop, Spain's Mondragon and the UK's Co-operative Group multi-sector cooperatives have been able to both reach significant scale and demonstrate long-term sustainability.
Legacoop, founded in 1886 in Milan, now has over 15,000 member cooperatives and employs 485,000 people, and represents businesses in every industry from banking and insurance to retailing, construction, agriculture, travel and manufacturing. Legacoop's role is to advocate, represent, protect cooperative values, build the movement by developing new businesses, and work for laws that provide preference to cooperatives, nationally and internationally.
Italian co-ops have engaged in a decentralized strategy, creating "flexible manufacturing networks" comprised of the highly skilled work forces of small and mid-sized manufacturers. This approach has helped Italian cooperatives take advantage of labor flexibility and, as Tim Huet pinpoints, "leverage niche markets created by the volatility of the global market." Huet is director of the Center for Democratic Solutions, a nonprofit in San Francisco that advises co-ops. He explains, "Cooperatives are particularly adept at fostering the critical relationships because of their collaborative cultures. The small size of the productive plants in flexible manufacturing networks facilitates robust democracy for cooperatives involved."
Legacoop's accomplishments, particularly the strength the movement has exhibited in the face of the impending European economic meltdown, and its deep commitment to values that seem vibrant despite a century of extraordinary growth, are to be deeply admired.
The Co-operative Group
Based in the UK for more than 150 years, the Co-operative Group is owned and democratically controlled by its members and is now the largest consumer cooperative in the world, with over six million members.
The Co-operative Group has 117,000 employees and operations that include 4,500 U.K. retail outlets serving around 21 million customers per week. In 2009, gross sales at the Co-operative Group grew 31 percent from £10.4 billion to £13.7 billion. (See Johnston Birchall's 2011 book, People Centered Business; Co-operatives, Mutuals and the Idea of Membership, to understand the history, impact and global scope of this movement.)
Mondragon, founded in 1956, now holds 33.3 million euros in assets and employs over 85,000 people internationally.
Solidarity is at the heart of the Mondragon model. Without it they would not survive as businesses, or as a community. Solidarity is an expression of commitment to the common good. It is given the highest priority. Solidarity insists upon democratic methods in all aspects of business and management and in the process of dialogue that precedes every major decision.
Solidarity is specifically expressed in compensation where the maximum salary differential from the lowest to the highest paid worker is now 7-to-1. Never in Mondragon's history has any worker ever been laid off for financial reasons.
Mondragon's values follow those of the cooperative movement in general. Business in America would benefit greatly by following them. Some of these values include:
- Democratic Organization. Every important decision is made through a democratic process. Sometimes this is slow and painful, but the principle is never violated.
- Sovereignty of Labor. Mondragon ensures that capital never drives decisions that are detrimental to workers.
- Participatory Management. You are expected to participate. While no one is forced to, increased responsibility and promotion are based on participation.
- Social Transformation. This is a global aspiration to transform the relationship between business and society into one that makes capital subservient to humanity, the environment and the well-being of all.
- Education. Second to mission and values, education emerges as the second most amazing aspect of the Mondragon community. They understand the transformative power that lies within education.
Economic Democracy as a New Foundation for Civic Life