I’m about to embark upon a month of travel in Spain and the Rust Belt.
In Spain’s Basque Country, I’ll be spending ten days studying Mondragon, which is the world’s largest and most complex system of worker ownership. It has grown into an industrial group that is among the largest in Europe. It includes a bank, medical and educational systems, social security, and much more. It employs more than 100,000 people, and has consistently outperformed the rest of the Spanish economy. It weathered Spain’s severe recession in the 1980s without resorting to layoffs. It is based on shared ownership and democratic control. Mondragon is not perfect, but it seems to work and provides an extremely useful model.
When I get back from Spain, I’ll be visiting the Rust Belt. This is the United States’ old manufacturing heartland and the region that has been most severely struck by the continuing collapse of our manufacturing sector. I’ll be spending time in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit.
I will also be visiting other places, but those three are the big ones. These cities have seen better days, and they have also seen worse days. Each has experienced some form of economic collapse, and in varying ways they have all clawed their ways back from the brink.
I’m looking for what lessons these cities, synonymous with urban grit and struggle, might have for my hometown.
Sacramento is facing its own economic train wreck. Our main industries (agriculture, government, real estate) are under increasing downward pressure. It’s too early to tell if this is a permanent collapse like that of the Rust Belt, but there are a lot of empty and half-built buildings; fallow fields, dry canals, and dead orchards; and a state fiscal crisis that seems to have no end in sight, and which affects this capital city like nowhere else.
I want to find out what Pittsburgh did to hasten its recovery. I want to learn from Cleveland how the community’s leadership has begun to mobilize around the cooperative model. I want to see what is coming from the grassroots in Detroit.
Cleveland is an especially interesting case for me, because it is the first example of a major city trying to reproduce Mondragon. Last October, the Cleveland Foundation sponsored a study trip to Mondragon, and then led an initiative that has already opened Evergreen Cooperative Laundry as the first of a planned network of worker-owned businesses linked by cooperative financing.
I hope we can learn from the Rust Belt, and proceed more rapidly toward community-based solutions that have taken a generation to gather steam in the Rust Belt.
We are all now reeling from the nationwide economic calamity caused by last year’s banking crisis, so there is a greater need than ever to find new ways of doing business beside the way that got us into this mess. Cooperative economics may not be the only solution to Sacramento’s economic problems, but it seems like a key part of it.