Collective Justice: Watching Economic Solidarity Take Shape in Mondragon

It’s time to talk about women’s economics with attitude. It’s time to laugh at what is often absurd and call out what is dangerous. By focusing on voices not typically part of mainstream man-to-man economic discourse, Women Unscrewing Screwnomics will bring you news of hopeful and practical changes and celebrate an economy waged as life—not as war. 



Georgia Kelly isn’t a practicing Catholic anymore, but her interest in economic justice began at an all-girls Catholic high school in Belmont, California. “It’s why so many of us followed our dreams,” Kelly explained to Ms.. “We were the class presidents, the play producers; the heads of things. We got used to it, expected it.”

Her self-directed ambitions in the years since have been eclectic: Kelly became a classical harpist, developed her own label and charted Billboard’s top ten for Classical Crossover. But the music industry, like many others, would soon be hollowed out by digital disruptions. 

While the dot-com bubble was bouncing and bursting on Wall Street, Kelly learned about a corporation in Spain that was owned and governed by its workers. Founded in the 1930s in the poorest Basque region, when Franco was still in power, the cooperative corporation founded in the town of Mondragon had grown to a global federation of 98 cooperative businesses—employing more than 80,000 people in seven countries in interconnected ventures that spanned manufacturing, retail and service provision.

Mondragon viewed capital as the servant of people, not the other way around. Guided by its own sense of catholic social justice, it had created its own colleges, cooperative bank, mutual insurance and universal healthcare and pension program. By the late nineties, the once-poor Basque region had been transformed into Spain’s wealthiest one.

Kelly had visited relatives in Yugoslavia during this time, in search of the region’s music, and found herself near the front lines of a terrible civil war. When she got back to California, she felt moved to study conflict resolution. She gave workshops and organized educational conferences redefining wealth and connecting the dots between economics and peace. In 2000, she founded the Praxis Peace Institute—an educational non-profit aimed at manifesting social justice, sustainability, non-violence and gender balance.

“I’d begun to think about systems,” she explains, “and the cultural stories we tell ourselves.”

But despite her background as a researcher and a networker, Kelly had been unable to find an American economist who knew more about Mondragon or how it worked—until she phoned its corporate offices directly. “I didn’t speak Spanish,” she recalls, “but eventually I found an English speaker, Mikel Lezamiz, in charge of education.” She invited him to participate in a 2007 conference she was organizing in Dubrovnik, Croatia; while he was on-site, she asked if Mondragon would partner with Praxis on a seminar.

“We planned it for October of 2008,” she explains. “We were there when the global economic meltdown happened. Everything was hitting the fan.” Her next seminar visits revealed that while American companies eliminated 2.6 million jobs in the Great Recession, the Mondragon Cooperative Group practiced economic solidarity.

Kelly and a cohort of Praxis seminar participants in Mondragon.

Mondragon’s decision-makers—worker-owners—moved people to other co-ops or cut hours instead of cutting pay. The agreed-upon wage ratios between executives and the lowest paid workers in the collective—their highest pay ratio is 9:1—make it far more flexible than corporate America. While a lot of U.S. jobs were sacrificed to maintain the salaries of CEOs, who in 2018 made 361 times more than the average U.S. employee, Mondragon’s stasis had, in many ways, remained in place despite economic turbulence. 

Even when the European appliance manufacturer Fagor, its largest cooperative, eliminated 1800 jobs when it was forced to declare bankruptcy and reorganize in 2013, Mondragon transferred most workers to interconnected cooperatives. Some chose early pensions or retrained—but even while in transition, workers got 80 percent of their pay. By Kelly’s 2017 seminar trip, only 60 workers weren’t yet placed. 

The economic policies in place shaped Mondragon’s culture at-large. “I noticed there weren’t any slums or ghettos,” she remembers of the area then, “but there weren’t any huge mansions either.”

Mondragon is not utopia, however. One of Kelly’s 2017 seminar participants, Jill Bamburg, wrote as much on Medium. Grown large and global, not all of Mondragon’s workers are worker-owners now—creating a second-class within.

“It takes a tremendous re-educational effort to bring people into a culture that carries the responsibilities of running a business and sharing in a democratic process,” Kelly presents as a corollary, “and not everyone wants to be an owner.” For those deemed ready for such responsibility, though, Mondragon does have a low-interest loan program.

Gender also remains a hurdle for the collective’s mission of economic equity. Only about 25 percent of Mondragon’s Governing Council seats are held by women—though one serves as General Secretary, and another as Mondragon’s CFO. But Kelly has observed a growing number of women managers over the span of her visits. The cooperative is evolving, actively recruiting women for their engineering college and management training. Mondragon households generally require two worker paychecks, but cooperative childcare services are widely available and affordable—and “equal pay for equal work is a given.” 


Ongoing education is central to Mondragon; by now, more than 150 people, most of them from the U.S., have studied with her to see what’s possible. You can read about their experiences in Kelly’s thought-provoking anthology, The Mondragon Report, available on the Praxis website, or register for the Praxis-Mondragon seminar yourself.

About

Rickey Gard Diamond’s latest book, Screwnomics, is prompting EconoGirlfriend Conversations around the country, many sponsored by The Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom—US, and the non-profit An Economy of Our Own. Learn more at www.screwnomics.org and www.WILPFUS.org.