That fabulous remote hotel wrecked my email access, so I have been behind on everything. I had hoped to provide an account of each day’s adventures in Co-op Land, but for now, it appears that I’ll just have to offer a brief feeble summary and some photos to make up for the lack of detail. I’ll be coming back to the detail in future posts, especially as I start visiting the U.S. Rust Belt next week.
We’ve now had four days of nonstop workshops and tours (punctuated by long lunches – with wine). I’ve got about 14 double-sided pages of notes, two annual reports and a wad of other miscellaneous handouts. We’ve received an absolutely stunning amount of information, and my list of questions keeps growing. It seems like everyone in the group is exhausted, and I’m not sure how or why I’m still up at 1am.
The Mondragon cooperatives are an amazingly complex system, and it is extraordinarily difficult to get even a general grasp of what is going on here. Each presenter has had a different perspective, and some of them seem to conflict at times. But they somehow add up to a cohesive whole. This system of democratic enterprises is a microcosm of Basque society, which is in turn a microcosm of Spain and the world. In any group of high complexity, different people have different perspectives.
I’ve been impressed by these perspectives. We’ve heard from directors and managers of their top institutions, of course. But we’ve heard from more than just them.
On Wednesday, we got a couple of hours with a blue collar worker in his mid-30s, who grew up with parents who worked for the co-ops. Cooperatives to him are like water to a fish. He was only somewhat aware of the principles, and although he didn’t see himself moving into leadership or elected positions, he also didn’t see any obstacles to that. At the same time, someone asked if he would work for a capitalist firm for 5000 Euros more, and he was visibly tempted, even with MCC’s head of education sitting right there.
Yesterday, we visited Alecop, a student-run cooperative that provides valuable work experience to students.
Alecoop also has provided financial assistance, but that function is less important now; there is relatively little poverty in this valley, where 60% of jobs are with the cooperatives, and many more are with other types of employee-owned firms. This is a genuine manufacturing firm, which provides key components to other cooperatives. They also design and build some of their own complex machines.
Later that day, we got a visit to Mondragon Assembly, which is essentially a factory factory. A young sales manager gave us an account of the advanced production they are doing, then took us on a tour of their production floor. About a dozen workers were about six months from finishing a 2.5 million Euro assembly line that will crank out electronic interruptors (little plastic and metal gizmos about one inch cubed) by the million every 1.2 seconds. It was about 50 feet long and it took me a long time to even figure out what they were doing. It felt like the start of the movie 2001.
They are increasingly focused on solar cell production. That doesn’t mean they make solar cells themselves – rather, they make machines that make solar cells, and you can buy your own system for 1.5 to 10 million Euros. One of the best part of the whole place is that nobody has a private office. Even the CEO has a desk in one of two large rooms in which they must do some pretty amazing computer work. They were predictably wary about people taking photos (especially since someone might post them on a blog or something), so you’ll just have to imagine it. They have some pictures on their web site, though
This morning, we visited Mondragon University (also a cooperative) and then the Saiolan Incubation Centre that is closely tied to it. There, we got a presentation from a business coach who was filling at the last minute. Despite being a little new and insecure about her English (which was fine, and certainly better than our Basque), she stepped up and gave an excellent account of this fascinating place. They have an extremely elaborate system in which they work with one or more entrepreneurs to develop a business model and product prototype, then guide them through the startup process over two years. They do this for all sorts of businesses, and not just cooperatives.
That’s only about half of our presentations. I’ll try to cover the others over the rest of my visit, but we’ve got a pretty merciless schedule, so I’m not making any promises.
Now we’re in the city of Mondragon, now more commonly known by its Basque name, Arrasate. It is good to finally walk the streets here, and it is a strange place. There are many people crammed into this valley, and a lot of land taken up by large factories. So the density is fairly high. It has a strange quality to it, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. The architecture is unusual, sometimes reminding me a little of Eastern Europe (which I’ve never visited. There are slogans painted on many walls. Nothing is very fancy, but nothing is very decrepit, either. I look forward to exploring this place where the Mondragon Experience began.