Mondragón and Education

September 22, 2008 at 11:43 pm 2 comments

UPDATE: You can now read my report on the Mondragón Cooperative educational experience here.

On September 27th, I will fly from New York to Bilbao, Spain. The purpose of this trip will be to participate in a program run by the Praxis Peace institute to learn about the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation. Specifically, I will be looking at how Mondragón functions democratically and as a worker cooperative, its relation to and involvement with education, and how themes of Mondragón could be related back to the learning-place democracy movement here in the United States.

What is a Worker Cooperative? What is Mondragón?

According to the International Co-operative Alliance, a cooperative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” There are many different types of cooperatives, but in the United States two of the most common types are worker cooperatives and consumer cooperatives. Consumer cooperatives are businesses that are owned by the customers for the customers’ mutual benefit. Worker cooperatives, on the other hand, are cooperatives that are owned and democratically run completely by its employees. Thus, the workers are also the owners (worker-owners).

Mondragón is one of the largest and most successful worker cooperatives of all time. It has existed since roughly 1956, created in the Basque region of Spain during Fascist rule, and has only continued to grow since. While many other parts of Spain and its Basque region faced economic turmoil during and after Franco’s rule (1939-1975), Mondragón continued to prosper and exist as a democratic workplace in a fascist state. There are many reasons (while some are still being debated) for Mondragón’s success.

One particular aspect that the Mondragón experiment has been noted for is the fact that it is one large worker cooperative corporation that is made up of many smaller worker cooperatives. Each cooperative is its own individual entity while being connected through a cooperative bank (the Caja Laboral Popular), a Cooperative Congress, and other economic ties. This means that the worker-cooperatives that comprise Mondragón are both autonomous and cooperative: much like the individual worker-owners.

Education in Mondragón

Mondragón actively acknowledges the importance of education in a successful democratic workplace. A good education (one that is always continuing) is seen as the center of making workplace democracy a reality. From its origins, Mondragón has been linked with education and schools. The cooperative system was born out of a training school organized for industrial apprentices. José María Arizmendiarrieta, one of the main thinkers behind the origins of Mondragón (and the founder of the training school), wrote, “It has been said that cooperativism is an economic movement that uses education; we can also alter the definition, affirming that it is an educational movement that uses economic action.”

The Mondragón experiment already engages the education aspect of workplace democracy in many ways.  Mondragón contains cooperative schools and universities. On top of that, it employs programs that are designed to keep consumers and worker-owners educated. Additionally, some cooperatives are research cooperatives with the purpose of doing discovery work for other Mondragón co-ops. These are just to name a few.

What I Hope To Discover

The bold and thought-provoking history of Mondragón thoroughly ties together workplace democracy to the importance of education that prepares workers for cooperation and self-management. However, on this trip, I will hope to examine three things: 1) What connections can we draw between workplace democracy and learning-place democracy? 2) Is the education movement promoted by Mondragón also democratic? 3) How can the lessons of Mondragón, autonomy and cooperation, be tied together with the radical learning movement here in the United States?

1) If the Mondragón philosophy is that education is the central key to making workplace democracy successful, is it not true that learning and places of learning should also be democratic? What, then, are the connections between workplace democracy and learning-place democracy? In what ways are they dependent on one other?

2) We should not get lost in romanticizing Mondragón. While it is an impressive and important example in workplace democracy, it is true that it has existing problems and stains on its history. What I will attempt to find out on this trip is whether or not Mondragón promotes autonomy and cooperation in its school and educational philosophies as it does in its workplace. While the Mondragón educational programs are innovative in their own right, how do they tie together workplace democracy and learning-place democracy? How are they successful in this and how are they not?

3) Lastly, I hope to explore how the lessons of the Mondragón cooperative – the autonomy of individual worker co-ops with cooperation on a larger scale with other co-ops – could be implemented (and the importance of doing so) here in the United States with radical learning projects and centers. While there exist many experiments in radical education, they are for the most part autonomous without working cooperatively with other projects. Will they go the way of many worker cooperatives in the United States and disappear because there is no system of mutual support? Or can we take a lesson from Mondragón and find ways to be independent communities while working cooperatively for common goals?

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Entry filed under: Anti-Oppression and Free Schools, Related To Free Schooling. Tags: , , , , , .

Learning Activity: Underrepresented Peoples in U.S. History An Explanation, Apology, Question, and a Quote

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