Posted 10 months ago on Feb. 5, 2013, 4:02 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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"Shift Change": Creating Economic Democracy Through Workplace Cooperatives
Tuesday, 05 February 2013 09:10 By Mark Karlin, Truthout | Interview
Shift Change brings you behind the scenes of some of the most exciting cooperative successes in Europe and the United States. This is a movement that's creating jobs, strengthening communities and showing that another economy is possible. It's a movement that's taking off - and Shift Change is the way to understand what's happening. - Sarah Van Gelder, YES! Magazine
Shift Change is a timely documentary about the growing cooperative movement. In the last two years, Truthout has posted many articles on the efforts to achieve economic democracy through worker ownership. Shift Change offers an energizing look at the workings of the giant cooperative model, Mondragon, in Basque, Spain. The film also covers strong US-based worker-owned enterprises that prove the investor Wall Street model of business is not necessary to a successful company.
Mark Karlin: You and your documentary partner, Melissa Young, have completed more than 20 documentaries covering progressive issues, like the threat to unions, the dangers of biotechnology ill-applied, international grassroots environmental activism, and more. What, at this time, brought you to the topic of cooperatives as featured in Shift Change?
Mark Dworkin: In our documentary work together we look at political and social issues not only to rehash what is wrong, but also to offer realistic ideas about what might be done about it. In 2002 we were in Argentina at the height of their economic crisis, and in hundreds of workplaces which had closed, workers took over the company, went back to work, and made a go of it. These examples made quite an impression on us, and we featured their stories in two films - Argentina - Hope in Hard Times and Argentina Turning Around. In 2010 at the US Social Forum, a friend suggested it was time for a new film about Mondragon - and that we ought to make it, since our Argentina films show we understand the potential for worker co-ops, and we have a lot of experience filming in Spanish-speaking countries. He was able to help us find start-up money, and we went for it. We quickly realized we should include the stories of several co-ops in the US, so our audience would not get the mistaken idea that worker co-ops cannot succeed here.
Mark Karlin: A good chunk of Shift Change explores the mother of all cooperatives, Mondragon, in Basque Spain. Can you explain the history and current structure of Mondragon, as well as its size?
Mark Dworkin: The Mondragon cooperatives began in the difficult years following the Spanish Civil War. Spain had a dictator who had a grudge against Basque country, because the Basques had opposed his violent rise to power. Left to themselves to rebuild from the war and create a viable economic future, people in Basque country were willing to try something new. Inspired by a visionary priest, they started a technical school that emphasized Christian principles of cooperation. Five graduates of that school who went on to get engineering degrees, set up the first industrial cooperative, soon followed by others, always with an eye to the future development of their region. Now, more than a half-century later, there are 85,000 workers in 120 independent cooperatives, working together for the common good. They do $25 billion worth of business a year. They have their own bank and one of Spain's largest supermarket chains. They make appliances, machine tools, computer equipment, and compete successfully in the global economy.
Mark Karlin: Spain is one of the southern European Community countries struggling with unemployment. How does Mondragon strategically deal with a global economic downturn in terms of unemployment at the cooperative?
Mark Dworkin: One of the challenges faced by all cooperative business is that they have to survive in the larger economic system, over which they have little control. Nonetheless, cooperatives in Mondragon and in the US are faring better in the current crisis than other, similar sized businesses. When sales and profits are down, they don't just close the doors. People take a hard look and try to figure out what they can do to make things better. Generally some of the co-ops are doing better than others, depending on the industry in which they operate. So each year Mondragon co-ops that are profitable pay into a "rainy day fund," and co-ops that are going through hard times are able to withdraw funds to help them out. In co-ops where business is slow, the members can often find temporary work in co-ops that are doing better. And since workers own and manage the company, they may agree to reduce their pay on a temporary basis until business picks up again. That way nobody has to lose their job.
Mark Karlin: Tell us a bit about the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. How would Evergreen play out as a model for other cities?
Mark Dworkin: The Evergreen Cooperatives take much of their inspiration from Mondragon. They are a wonderful example of business, labor, local government and civic foundations working together to re-develop their region. Rather than offer large sums of government and foundation money to private companies to move to Cleveland - only to have them move somewhere else a few years later - they decided to use those funds to start new businesses, based in the inner city, which are owned and managed by their employees. And they made strategic partnerships with major local institutions, such as Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic to buy the products and services that these cooperative businesses would offer. Many other cities are sending delegations to Cleveland to study the Evergreen model with an eye to adopting the idea - though in each case the best products and services will depend on the needs of each city and the resources it can leverage. Local anchor institution partners would depend on local conditions, but the idea of business, labor, community, and government working together for the common good can take hold anywhere.