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“Shift Change”: Creating Economic Democracy Through Workplace Cooperatives

(Image: Bullfrog Films)

Shift Change brings you behind the scenes of some of the most exciting cooperative successes in Europe and the United States. This is a movement that’s creating jobs, strengthening communities and showing that another economy is possible. It’s a movement that’s taking off – and Shift Change is the way to understand what’s happening.
– Sarah Van Gelder, YES! Magazine

Shift Change is a timely documentary about the growing cooperative movement. In the last two years, Truthout has posted many articles on the efforts to achieve economic democracy through worker ownership. Shift Change offers an energizing look at the workings of the giant cooperative model, Mondragon, in Basque, Spain. The film also covers strong US-based worker-owned enterprises that prove the investor Wall Street model of business is not necessary to a successful company.

You can order Shift Change from Bullfrog Films by clicking here.

Mark Karlin: You and your documentary partner, Melissa Young, have completed more than 20 documentaries covering progressive issues, like the threat to unions, the dangers of biotechnology ill-applied, international grassroots environmental activism, and more. What, at this time, brought you to the topic of cooperatives as featured in Shift Change?

Mark Dworkin: In our documentary work together we look at political and social issues not only to rehash what is wrong, but also to offer realistic ideas about what might be done about it. In 2002 we were in Argentina at the height of their economic crisis, and in hundreds of workplaces which had closed, workers took over the company, went back to work, and made a go of it. These examples made quite an impression on us, and we featured their stories in two films – Argentina – Hope in Hard Times and Argentina Turning Around. In 2010 at the US Social Forum, a friend suggested it was time for a new film about Mondragon – and that we ought to make it, since our Argentina films show we understand the potential for worker co-ops, and we have a lot of experience filming in Spanish-speaking countries. He was able to help us find start-up money, and we went for it. We quickly realized we should include the stories of several co-ops in the US, so our audience would not get the mistaken idea that worker co-ops cannot succeed here.

Mark Karlin: A good chunk of Shift Change explores the mother of all cooperatives, Mondragon, in Basque Spain. Can you explain the history and current structure of Mondragon, as well as its size?

Mark Dworkin: The Mondragon cooperatives began in the difficult years following the Spanish Civil War. Spain had a dictator who had a grudge against Basque country, because the Basques had opposed his violent rise to power. Left to themselves to rebuild from the war and create a viable economic future, people in Basque country were willing to try something new. Inspired by a visionary priest, they started a technical school that emphasized Christian principles of cooperation. Five graduates of that school who went on to get engineering degrees, set up the first industrial cooperative, soon followed by others, always with an eye to the future development of their region. Now, more than a half-century later, there are 85,000 workers in 120 independent cooperatives, working together for the common good. They do $25 billion worth of business a year. They have their own bank and one of Spain’s largest supermarket chains. They make appliances, machine tools, computer equipment, and compete successfully in the global economy.

Mark Karlin: Spain is one of the southern European Community countries struggling with unemployment. How does Mondragon strategically deal with a global economic downturn in terms of unemployment at the cooperative?

Mark Dworkin: One of the challenges faced by all cooperative business is that they have to survive in the larger economic system, over which they have little control. Nonetheless, cooperatives in Mondragon and in the US are faring better in the current crisis than other, similar sized businesses. When sales and profits are down, they don’t just close the doors. People take a hard look and try to figure out what they can do to make things better. Generally some of the co-ops are doing better than others, depending on the industry in which they operate. So each year Mondragon co-ops that are profitable pay into a “rainy day fund,” and co-ops that are going through hard times are able to withdraw funds to help them out. In co-ops where business is slow, the members can often find temporary work in co-ops that are doing better. And since workers own and manage the company, they may agree to reduce their pay on a temporary basis until business picks up again. That way nobody has to lose their job.

Mark Karlin: Tell us a bit about the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. How would Evergreen play out as a model for other cities?

Mark Dworkin: The Evergreen Cooperatives take much of their inspiration from Mondragon. They are a wonderful example of business, labor, local government and civic foundations working together to re-develop their region. Rather than offer large sums of government and foundation money to private companies to move to Cleveland – only to have them move somewhere else a few years later – they decided to use those funds to start new businesses, based in the inner city, which are owned and managed by their employees. And they made strategic partnerships with major local institutions, such as Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic to buy the products and services that these cooperative businesses would offer. Many other cities are sending delegations to Cleveland to study the Evergreen model with an eye to adopting the idea – though in each case the best products and services will depend on the needs of each city and the resources it can leverage. Local anchor institution partners would depend on local conditions, but the idea of business, labor, community, and government working together for the common good can take hold anywhere.

Mark Karlin: The United Steel Workers (USW) launched a relationship with Mondragon not too long ago. How is that working out? Has anything come of it at this point? Does the USW plan to challenge the traditional capitalist management and profit model?

Mark Dworkin: The USW/Mondragon collaboration has a number of pilot ventures just getting off the ground in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And other unions are interested too. It is a relatively new idea for organized labor to begin building businesses, and they have a lot of people watching, so they are taking care to make their first ventures a shining success. Unlike in the Mondragon Cooperatives, which are not unionized, the worker owners of these new union co-ops will be union members. And while the companies will be professionally managed, the managers will be under democratic supervision by the workers, where the union helps represent the needs and desires of the rank and file. Like Mondragon, these companies will emphasize not just short-term profit but also long-term job creation and sustainability.

Mark Karlin: Cynics argue that American workers have been conditioned to the managerial profit-making system and are resistant to the cooperative concept. How do your respond to that perception?

Mark Dworkin: I agree that we learn from an early age to navigate hierarchical social structures, and we have lots of practice competing, though little practice cooperating. So we have a lot to learn in order to make cooperatives a success. But I think many people are willing to make the effort. We have participatory instincts that are stifled in the dominant economy. I remember one friend who lit up when I told him that in worker cooperatives, people are encouraged to put forward their ideas about how to make the company better. That’s sure different, he said; everywhere I have ever worked you’re best off if you keep your head down and your mouth shut. So I wouldn’t say that workers are resistant to cooperation, but rather our cooperative instincts are suppressed and trained out of us. To help overcome this, all of the co-ops we visited place a high priority on initial training and ongoing leadership development of their members.

Mark Karlin: Truthout has been excerpting Gar Alperovitz’s book, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy. How are cooperatives representative of economic models of democracy?

Mark Dworkin: Gar Alperovitz and The Democracy Collaborative that he helped to found are key designers of the Evergreen Cooperatives, and I have enormous respect for Gar’s thinking and his work. One thing that the Democracy Collaborative talks about is how we are proud to live in a democracy, yet when we go to work, most people in the US have to check their democracy at the door. Cooperative companies are run democratically in terms of their day-to-day operations, and economic democracy in their home region is enhanced, because strategic decisions with long-term consequences for the region are made democratically by people who live and work there, and share a commitment to future sustainability.

Mark Karlin: Do you see evidence that the cooperative movement is gaining momentum in the United States?

Mark Dworkin: Cooperatives are taking off, especially in the last few years when economic conditions have been desperate and more people have been willing to think outside of the box. But it doesn’t mean they will all succeed. Such change doesn’t happen overnight. New cooperatives like other new businesses need a sound business strategy and plan, and they need the commitment and capital to keep going for the first few years as the business gets off the ground. But with the enthusiasm we have seen, we are optimistic. We’ve even heard reports that after viewing Shift Change people decided to try to form new co-ops or convert existing businesses to cooperatives.

Mark Karlin: How does democracy in the workplace, through worker ownership, have an impact on political democracy?

Mark Dworkin: Millions of people have become disenchanted with our political democracy, because they don’t see how to get involved constructively and it is so hard to get things done. But when given the experience of running a business democratically, people develop their ideas and abilities and feel energized. We’ve heard numerous stories of co-op worker/owners gaining confidence in their thinking and becoming more involved in social movements and civic affairs. Worker cooperatives are living laboratories of democracy, and democracy is contagious – it cannot help but spill over from the job to life outside of work.

Mark Karlin: In 2012, You and Melissa Young also completed a documentary, We Are Not Ghosts, on the community-based effort to revitalize Detroit. Do you see hope for the development of cooperatives in a city such as Detroit, left in ruins by the flight of manufacturing jobs?

Mark Dworkin: The grass-roots efforts we profile in Detroit involve a lot of community-based cooperation. For the most part it has not yet taken a business form, although Ghosts does visit a very successful bakery that has helped revitalize a run-down neighborhood and a small bicycle repair shop that is a worker co-op. Detroiters are rethinking what a post-industrial city should be like, grounding their efforts in neighborhoods and addressing immediate needs – such as growing food in empty lots, creating spoken word and visual art, organizing neighborhood efforts to reduce violence, etc. So in We Are Not Ghosts we were more interested in the content of what is happening in Detroit – in spite of reports from the major media that focus on shuttered factories, abandoned houses and white flight – rather than its organizational form: non-profit, small business or co-op business. Having said that, the spirit of cooperation is strong. People remaining in Detroit love their city and are committed to working hard and helping it to survive. As Detroit spoken-word poet Jessica Care Moore says in the film, “Somebody’s got to tell them. We are not ghosts! We are in this city, and we are alive!”

Mark Dworkin and his partner Melissa Young founded Moving Images. They have produced and directed more than 20 progressive social documentaries. Many of these programs have aired across North America on PBS, and they are widely distributed to schools, libraries and community organizations.

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