Because we vote every few years in elections we say we live in a democratic country. Yet every day, the economically active among us walk into work and check their democratic rights at the door.
To some extent, the lack of decision-making power in the workplace is ameliorated by union membership and labour legislation. But the fundamental decisions remain with managers, shareholders and owners. HR department-led “respectful workplace” training programs may foster more harmonious human relationships and raise productivity but they do not alter the fundamentally unequal distribution of power.
Undemocratic workplaces are so ubiquitous we rarely stop to question the concept, but we should. The decisions made by unelected, unaccountable employers about investment, production and employment, to name only three important areas, impact directly and often negatively on workers, their families and their communities. While all eyes are on governments and the machinations of politicians, the bosses quietly go about their business, making decisions that shape our lives.
An antidote to the authoritarian workplace is the worker-owned and directed co-operative, but such enterprises are relatively rare. According to the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, there are only 250 to 300 in the country, most of which are located in Quebec. According to the federal government’s Co-operatives Secretariat, there are 358 worker co-ops with revenues of $474 billion, assets of $325 million and 10,792 employees
Canada should be fertile ground for worker co-ops because our co-op tradition is well established. According to the Co-operatives Secretariat, 8,400 Canadian co-ops employ 152,000 people; four of every ten Canadians (5.9 million) are members of co-operatives that provide financial, retail, or marketing services.
The worker co-op part of the movement got a major boost with the recent announcement that the United Steelworkers and Mondragon will work together to establish manufacturing co-ops in Canada and the US. (see below).
Democracy is too precious to be surrendered to our bosses. The USW-Mondragon accord is an encouraging development.
Steelworkers Form Collaboration with MONDRAGON, the World’s Largest Worker-Owned Cooperative
PITTSBURGH, October 27, 2009 – The United Steelworkers (USW) and MONDRAGON Internacional, S.A. today announced a framework agreement for collaboration in establishing MONDRAGON cooperatives in the manufacturing sector within the United States and Canada. The USW and MONDRAGON will work to establish manufacturing cooperatives that adapt collective bargaining principles to the MONDRAGON worker ownership model of “one worker, one vote.”
“We see today’s agreement as a historic first step towards making union co-ops a viable business model that can create good jobs, empower workers, and support communities in the United States and Canada,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. “Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants. We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”
Josu Ugarte, President of MONDGRAGON Internacional added: “What we are announcing today represents a historic first – combining the world’s largest industrial worker cooperative with one of the world’s most progressive and forward-thinking manufacturing unions to work together so that our combined know-how and complimentary visions can transform manufacturing practices in North America.”