Co-op councils head to Mondragon for lessons in economic revival

LONDON-The Co-operative Councils Innovation Network [CCIN] took a two-day study visit to the world-leading worker co-op federation to see if any of its successes can be replicated in the United Kingdom.

With economic headwinds threatening recession and recent upheavals in national government throwing the leveling-up agenda into uncertainty, communities around the UK are increasingly making their own regeneration plans. It is a daunting task, but all around the world, there are examples of regions which have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps using cooperative ideas.

High on that list is Arrasate-Mondragón, a provincial Spanish town with a population of just 20,000 which has been punching above its weight for several decades. Nestled in the mountains of the Basque Country, it is home to the Mondragón Corporation, a federation of worker co-ops which has grown into a major global player with an income of €12 billion a year and 80,000 employees.

It’s an enviable feat which has already drawn the attention of co-op organisers in US cities Jackson, Cincinnati and Cleveland, and now the Co-operative Councils Innovation has followed suit, sending a group of council representatives on a two-day visit in September.

There is a lot to learn, and Mondragón’s success story has taken decades, which means it cannot be replicated overnight. Along with a formidable work ethic, the region is immersed in co-operative ideals, which, says the federation’s outreach officer Ander Etxeberria-Otadui, fill the local air like ‘zirimiri’ – the delightful Basque word for drizzle. “Basque weather is like British weather,” he said cheerfully on the damp first morning of the visit; but cooperation in the UK has a long way to go before it is as ubiquitous as the rain.

For all that, the UK would be foolish to ignore this case study of a successful, autonomous, entrepreneurial, local economy. Like many co-ops, it was born in response to crisis: its story begins in the 1940s when the region was struggling in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.

The co-op’s founder – Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrieta – wanted to give the town a rebirth based around “the dignity of the human person”, using the values of solidarity, work and education.

After organising youth social activities and founding a local school, he headed to Madrid and managed to persuade the Franco government to green-light a worker-led business. The need to seek permission from a hostile regime left lasting lesson for the co-op, which still has no political affiliations.

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