In Britain, indeed worldwide, we are on the brink of a recession akin to the Great Depression and beyond. Capitalism seems to lurch from crisis to crisis with frightening regularity, with ordinary workers taking the strain. Basque Country in Spain is well known around the world for its continued fight for recognition as an independent state, it is perhaps less well known to house the most successful workers’ cooperative in all world history: The Mondragon Corporation. Mondragon is THE great success story of worker and community cooperatives in world history. It is the 5th largest corporation in the Spanish economy, with an annual turnover of 12 billion euros. Beyond that, it is responsible for the now-global supermarket chain Eroski, with over 1000 branches throughout Spain alone. Mondragon also presides over Spain’s 3rd largest credit union- Laboral Kutxa, as well as a university (established in 1997) boasting an intake of 5000 students annually. All of this, whilst maintaining a strict measure that the highest paid employee should never earn more than 9 times the salary of the lowest paid.
The Mondragon corporation’s history is interwoven with the history of the town from which it gets its name. Traditionally, Mondragon is a working class town with a rich history of community cooperation, in line with the autonomy that Basque Country enjoyed until the 17th century. Democratic elections for town officials were standard and commonplace, as were workers’ guilds to protect labour rights for the various skilled workers that were present in the town. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution, traditional skilled labourers were undercut by an influx of labour from the countryside into urban factories, and the Spanish Crown revoked many Basque privileges, invoking a wealth requirement for voting rights. In these conditions, community cooperation became key, and various skilled labourers continued to band together to form producer cooperatives- not just in Mondragon, but across the whole of the Basque Country. It is in these traditions that the seeds of the Mondragon Corporation were established.
Fast forwarding several hundred years (else this article would quickly turn into a small book) to Franco’s Spain. The country was in the grip of a Fascist regime, and as such anything even resembling a trade union or labour collective was outlawed. Strike action was met with brutal and often deadly reprisal. Nevertheless in Mondragon and across the Basque Country, communities and labour unions found sanctuary within the relatively unsuppressed Catholic Church. Unions met in secret and concocted discreet ways to resist Fascist oppression and pressure the managerial class for better working conditions- often with great success. Mondragon (and indeed the Basque Country at large) was opposed to Franco from the get-go, in that the history of the region was that of Socialist politics as well as Basque Nationalism; a natural enemy of Franco’s fascism. From this sympathetic Basque Catholicism came Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta: the founder of the Mondragon Corporation.
As Franco’s policies gradually relaxed in the early 1950s, left-wing Catholic priests like Arizmendiarrieta were key in founding and maintaining social movements and co-ops: something Mondragon desperately needed. The town was plagued with high levels of unemployment, overcrowding, poor quality housing, and was rife with outbreaks of diseases such as TB. Taking all of this into account, Father Arizmendiarrieta along with 22 other residents founded the Mondragon worker cooperative in 1956. The coop mainly manufactured appliances such as oil-powered stoves, all by hand, with funding coming mainly from the town’s council and wider community. Alongside this, the coop offered technical training to men and women alike. The coop grew rapidly, soon expanding into mechanised factories which produced a broader range of appliances on an industrial scale, as well as forming its own credit union as a response to a government crackdown on worker coop funding. Mondragon weathered several worldwide economic crises, and outlived the fascist dictatorship in its country. Truly a testament to the power of community cooperation.
As I noted in the beginning, it would take an entire book to catalogue the full history of Mondragon, and a few have been written on the subject. The corporation’s official website also gives a year-by-year account of its history that is as fascinating as it is definitive. Above all, what Mondragon can teach us is just how far a collective of like-minded individuals can take their community, and how this can be done ethically, even under capitalism. Democracy does not have to be detached from enterprise: all decisions made by the corporation are subject to a vote. One worker, one vote, given all the necessary information to make an informed decision. It seems fitting to end this small history on the final message from Father Jose Maria Arizemdiarrieta before his death in 1976, “Looking back is an offence to God, you must always look forward”