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Working In These Times

Thursday, Nov 5, 2009, 10:53 am

Steelworkers Partner With World’s Largest Worker-Owned Co-Op

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

Big news from last week largely overlooked by the mainstream media: The United Steelworkers will join forces with MONDRAGON Internacional, S.A., the largest worker-owned cooperative in the world, to start worker-owned factories in Canada and the United States.

“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,” USW International President Leo W. Gerard said. "We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”

Under the historic agreement, signed October 27, USW and Mondragon will try to integrate collective bargaining with Mondragon's collective practices. The two sides have also pledged to explore new approaches to bargaining in order to encourage worker participation and labor/management cooperation.

Finally, USW and Mondragon will investigate co-investment strategies for integrating the cooperatives into the larger community. Worker-owned cooperatives just might offer a solution to the conundrum of manufacturing in North America.

Steelworkers, of course, tend to be found in your typical capital-intensive private corporations, many of which provide good union jobs that support entire communities. And proposed policies to make the North American manufacturing more competitive often involve large-scale corporate subsidies.

So, a progressive trade unionist is apt to feel conflicted. If the goal is to help workers, is it smart to bail out for-profit companies that are ultimately accountable to their shareholders, rather than their employees?

The USW/Mondragon alliance might represent a third alternative. While Mondragon coops are for-profit enterprises, they are committed to principles beyond the bottom line.

They are accountable to their workers and the communities in which they operate, not just to the dictates of the market. Mondragon has a financing wing and, like many major U.S. unions, the USW has considerable capital reserves. To the extent that they can bankroll their own projects, they can free themselves from Wall Street and its total focus on profit.

The Mondragon collective was began in 1955 when five workers from the Basque town of Mondragon bought a stove-making company and established it as a collective modeled on the teachings of Don José María Arizmendiarrieta, a local Catholic priest.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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