Reflections on the Union Co-op Symposium

Photo by Paul Davis.

Photo by Paul Davis.

At this time when wealth inequality and divisive politics threaten the fabric of the US, over 200 people from across the US (and as far away as the UK, Argentina, and Australia,) gathered together for the third biennial Union Co-op Symposium in Cincinnati in December, an event characterized by hope, solidarity, and practical ways of responding to this challenge. The theme was Stand up to Inequality and Build Worker-Owned Co-ops .

Our keynote speaker, Isabel Uribe, who worked in Mondragon’s premier co-op incubator Saiolan, challenged us to tackle the challenge of combating wealth inequality by stepping up our efforts and strategies to broaden the cooperative movement as we combine forces with other movements. She discussed how hard it is, how immense the challenge, how important commitment and solidarity are. She offered Fr. Arizmendiarrieta’s powerful words of wisdom to reflect on:

Photo by Paul Davis.

Photo by Paul Davis.

  • Ideas divide us, needs unite us
  • In order to advance, one needs to transform oneself
  • To get  off the narrow path, open your heart
  • To have abundance build community

She reminded us of Leonard Cohen’s words, “There is a crack in everything. . . that’s how the light gets in.” She encouraged us to be that light. This deeply unequal society can’t continue this way forever. How can we create more cracks? Let more light in?  

The Mondragon Cooperative network, which today employs more than 70,000 people in over 100 co-ops, came to life in a particular moment when the Basque country of Spain was cut off from the outside world by Spain’s fascist dictator Franco. The transformative Mondragon experience, begun at a time of overwhelming devastation and poverty, has led to thriving communities that enjoy levels of equality higher than the majority of the world as measured by the GINI coefficient (a measure of inequality).  We are living in our own moment. Isabel underscored the importance of adapting and evolving the lessons of the Mondragon experience to our cultural context.

The 2-day conference explored some ways the resilient Mondragon model is being adapted within the US context. Four key features of the Mondragon experience that have helped them thrive: 1) Mondragon Co-op businesses are not isolated entities, they are part of a network, a family of co-ops that share resources. 2) As individual Mondragon co-ops grow in size, they add a social council to their co-ops, a defined space where disputes are resolved,workers offer input,  information flows freely. 3) Education is at the foundation. Mondragon has its own university which developed from a polytechnic school founded by Fr. Arizmendiarietta. 4) The ten Mondragon principles form an important anchor and guide.

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In the U.S. we are experimenting with these key features, developing networks of co-ops as well as bringing the Social Committee into being in co-ops through the mechanism of the Union Committee. Currently, a community college Co-op Development Curriculum is being piloted and the Worker Owner Workbook developed by Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative is used weekly at team meetings and will soon be widely available.  

The largest union worker-owned co-op in the United States, Cooperative Homecare Associates in the Bronx, preceded the historic agreement in 2009 by Mondragon International and the United Steelworkers to launch union co-ops in the United States. At the symposium, the former CEO for 16 years Michael Elsas and Keith Joseph from SEIU 1199 described the slightly challenging process of originally organizing the co-op with a union, the power of the labor-co-op combo, and how their labor management committee works and strengthens their effectiveness as a co-op (very similar to Social Council or Union Committee).   

Photo by Paul Davis.

Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative was the first to bring to life a Mondragon-style Union Co-op, but excitingly the LA Union Co-op Initiative, the Greater Dayton Union Co-op Initiative, and Vital Brooklyn all are bringing this model into being in their areas. Individual union co-ops have come into being in many regions. From the Maine lobsterman to the Denver taxi drivers, people and unions are experimenting. Following the symposium, new areas of the country are asking for support in forming union co-op networks. The symposium kicked off a year-long process to create a more formalized membership structure for the national organization 1worker1vote.org  (which, that), together with Mondragon International North America, is building a national network of unionized worker-owned cooperative businesses to overcome inequality of opportunity, mobility, and income.

The symposium was an embodiment of hope with a diverse group of people from over 60 cities and towns, and representation from over 20 labor unions. Solidarity was the name of the game as people connected with one another, sharing their resources, wisdom, support, and advice in practical sessions geared to helping projects move forward. (Phil Amadon, a co-founder of CUCI, commented on the spirit of solidarity throughout the event, noting in particular the respect he was shown as he dealt with Parkinson’s attacks.)

The event showcased innovations that union co-op groups are experimenting with including:  

  • an adaptation of a Search Fund model to tap new talent pools, capital pools, and to increase worker ownership through a Worker Owned Leveraged Buy Out model  tailored to manufacturing and industrial service companies with around 5 million in revenues
  • an innovative approach to rental housing created by Renting Partnerships which promotes community  and builds wealth ; residents participate in managing their housing, and build financial credits as well as relationships as they meet operating goals.  The housing is kept permanently affordable through a social investment vehicle that enables investment in communities without leading to gentrification.
  • The Financial Cooperative anchored by the CDFI, the Working World, that leverages their financial infrastructure to allow local groups to develop local loan funds and wrap-around technical support to co-ops.

It was a special two days filled with energy, hope, and new possibilities. During the closing, small groups made concrete commitments to advance the union co-op movement. According to an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, “This conference marked a watershed of sorts, as the union co-op idea is increasingly seen by both union and co-op activists as a vehicle for community transformation."