The classic work done by William Whyte (1977, 1988, 1999) has shown the greatest detail and attention towards the specific changes in workplace organization itself. Cooperative governance – through the general assembly, governing councils, and social councils – were the only ways that members usually participated in decision making in Mondragón until the early 1970s. Although is was democratic in the sense that workers voted for representatives for these councils and assemblies, they could not vote directly for those who had the greatest immediate impact upon their lives: managers.
As of that point, worker democracy was slowly and selectively extended to the workplace itself in certain Mondragón firms. Whyte and Whyte (1988) ascribe this change to progressive managers and the influx of information about worker democracy experiments in other places in Europe. Javier Mongelos, a new general manager at Fagor Electrontécnica, was originally a trained physicist who took Mondragón’s values to heart. He came to three main conclusions that helped spur change: 1) the personnel department should link economic and technical objectives to the social concerns of members, 2) growing discontent at work was the result of a fundamental conflict between worker democracy and Taylorist “scientific management”, and 3) new forms of work organization that are both economically efficient and “in harmony with the social values on which the cooperative movement [is] based” should be explored (p. 114).
Whyte and Whyte note that the Copreci firm was the first to attempt and had the greatest success in adapting production organization processes to benefit workplace democracy. The production technology it used was relatively easy to re-adapt and management was overall sympathetic to the changes Mongelos had devised. Copreci’s personnel department conducted a job satisfaction survey, from which they discovered “substantial dissatisfaction” with two specific work sections. The firm decided to target reorganization efforts at the section most easily changed. It formed a committee to study management changes to make, a committee that was made up of more than half by workers themselves. The committee “studied and discussed the productivity and quality problems in its operations, production requirements, and the relations among workers and between them and management” (p. 116).
From this committee, an experimental group formed that would try out the new scheme it had developed. A work table, where workers were seated around, replaced the standard conveyor belt where workers stood along. They set their own work rhythm and were able to exchange information and ideas about the work process itself. The workers rotated tasks and would switch what they were doing to pick up the slack when certain tasks needed more attention. This allowed the workers to learn all tasks and to manage their own labor requirements. Over time, they gained skill and confidence for the entire product, and began taking over supervisory and staff functions like requisitioning tools and materials and recording their own output. In effect, these Copreci workers began taking on the role of both worker and manager, as in many traditional cooperatives that lack a workplace hierarchy. Insofar as supervisors were retained, their responsibilities – especially previous disciplinary responsibilities – changed.
A review done over a decade later regarding the changes at Copreci found that workers could more easily visualize their own contributions to the product they made, workers and management concentrated efforts on total product (making themselves more flexible to consumer demands), and the “research and development” process was strengthened. Uniquely to Copreci, both workers and management spoke highly of the changes, and were glad to be relieved of the “terrible monotony” of assembly lines.
None of the following firms went as far as Copreci or were as successful in their work changes, but the successes and failures are both interesting and often noteworthy. A report from 1985 notes that ULARCO (a major component of the Mondragón complex) had 83 active workgroups from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. Whyte and Whyte (1988) conclude that new work changes had gone relatively dormant after this period.
Ederlan eliminated foreman positions as work groups took over supervisory responsibilities. The change did not last, and the firm reverted back to its original organization. Fagor Electrotécnica divided its large workforce into small work groups, and began rotating tasks, organizing their own work, doing quality control inspections, and requisitioning their own materials and tools. Ulgor attempted to change from an assembly line to smaller work groups, but there was a lack of physical space for this. In the end, “changes proved to be neither far-reaching nor enduring” (Whyte and Whyte 1988, p. 120). Lenniz’s re-organization was also a complete failure, with workers lacking the knowledge and skills to run newer machines without management coordination, which had been eliminated.
Arrasate started holding biweekly meetings to exchange information and plan its work. In doing so, workers began to take on greater responsibilities and eventually eliminated the position of quality inspector. Then, management switched the organization of production from function-based to product-based. In doing so, the workplace was greatly disrupted and the transition was very slow. While production languished, the recession in Arrasate’s main industry (machine tools) forced the cooperative to refocus on the old process.
In one unique case during this experimental period, a brand new factory was to be built, and it was designed with a work group organizational model in mind, not the traditional assembly line design. This plant was part of the firm called Vergara. In this plant there were no foreman, only a few people who were responsible for overseeing various work groups and helping out when problems arise and getting necessary tools and materials. The plant’s organization continues to be wildly popular with its workers, but it hasn’t been a financial success yet. Whyte attributes this to the recession and the glut of Vergara’s main product, dishwashers, on the market.
Changes seemed to be most successful when there was a sympathetic existing management, an empowering and enfranchising process that allowed workers to have a say in changes to be made, and supportive external factors like a good economic situation for the product being made.
 Greenberg (1986) elaborates more cynically: “the general assembly meets only once a year… At this meeting, moreover, the agenda is largely controlled by management… Opportunities for participation are few and far between at Mondragón amounting, in the end, to little more than plebiscite-style elections once a year to approve or disapprove the current leadership team.” (pp. 103-108)
Greenberg, Edward S. 1986. Workplace Democracy: The Political Effects of Participation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Whyte, William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte. 1988. Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of The Worker Cooperative Complex. Ithica, NY: ILR Press.
Whyte, William F. 1999. “The Mondragón Cooperatives in 1976 and 1998”. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 52 (3), April: 478-481.