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The Latest from United Steelworkers

By Andrew McLeod  Posted by David Kendall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Originally published November 2, 2009 at "Cooperate and No One Gets Hurt"

On Friday [October 30, 2009], my friend/colleague Lisa Stolarski and I sat down with Rob Witherell, who is coordinating the United Steelworkers' freshly-announced plan to create worker cooperatives in North America. This will be modeled after, and in partnership with, the Mondragon cooperatives of the Basque Country (in Spain).

Here are some excerpts from our chat:

Q: How did this agreement unfold? Who initiated it? How did it develop?

Witherell: Well, we had a lot of interest in worker ownership in the past. We've done a lot of work with ESOPs. We thought of doing some type of coops, both here and in Canada. Our ESOP experience soured us a little bit because essentially it was short-lived. By the time we were offered the opportunity to buy the shares the company was so financially strapped that it had a very small chance of success. Those that did succeed were usually bought out by some other investor, and even earning those shares didn't actually translate to any accountability to the workers or worker input. It really didn't change the nature of work in a lot of cases...

We saved Algoma Steel up in Ontario through an ESOP which was good initially but didn't work out as we'd hoped although we did save the plant by doing so. So yeah there has been a lot of interest going over the last couple of decades and Lynn Williams, one of our International Presidents, has been very interested and active working on this in Canada. I think they had a little more interested with the coop-stuff in Canada, and being a truly international union, we have lots of members in Canada so it opens us up to another experience.

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So Mondragon specifically was somewhat happenstance as these things work out, because of where they are located in the Basque region. They are near where another company called Gamesa are located in that area as well. One of the people we had connected with through Gamesa also happens to be the Mondragon North American delegate" So that's how the connection was initially made, just having conversations over the past year about the things that we are interested in doing, and what was important to us what was important to them" And they have interest in a North American presence and we have interest in developing a union worker-owner coop model that works, because we are in situations where that's going to be more beneficial in the long run for our existing members, or a way to build our membership.

Q: When did it really get rolling? When did the serious negotiations for the statement that came out start?

Witherell: It's hard to say. It has been a series of conversations and e-mails and some drafts of what we wanted to do. Ultimately our agreement was pretty basic and broad. But we figured it was better to start with something that was broad and fairly simple and figure out where to go from there, rather than try to figure out all the details at first and figure out how to make that work. I think one of the key pieces in making this happen is to build the alliances and networks and making these connections. So I think Mondragon and the Steelworkers Union both acknowledge that if we are going to make this work, we probably need help doing that...

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It's one thing for us to have some common goals and say hey, let's work together, and then it's another thing to actually get it done. That's really the hard stuff for us, so we've got to figure our situation and target and figure out how to make it work...

I think the figures I saw said there are about 14,000 people outside of Spain that work for Mondragon, but only about 10% are also owners. That concerns them because they want to grow more of the ownership piece. They have gone in and taken over a place and set up without finding out what the culture and ideas are from the beginning, they have a hard time getting people to buy into being an owner. Because (the attitude is) "I'm a worker, I show up, I get paid, and that's all I have to do."

So, that's really important to them, to make that work. They understand that's not something you can carbon copy it's going to have to be something a little bit different you have to make some adjustments, but you want to keep the spirit of the workers having a vested interest, so that's why, for them, it made sense to work with us because we have a lot of those relationships and can help steer them in the direction that we can really help implement that model. Our members are not making minimum wage and going from one job to another every six months. These are folks that are making, hopefully, a living wage at least and are more vested in what they are doing than the population in general. And so, that's important to (Mondragon). They are looking for somebody that is really going to be committed to the work that they are doing and that plans on staying for the rest of their working lives, essentially. They create their own insurance for lifetime jobs...

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