Saturday, March 26, 2011

Workplace Reorganization Within Mondragón

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.[1]

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.


[1] 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.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Introduction to Work Changes Within Mondragón

[The Mondragón cooperatives in Spain's Basque region have been very interesting to me in the past (and a good number of other people I know, too). As a friend of mine once said: we in the US focus on creating little coops, like grocery stores, while the Mondragón are making industrial-scale stuff like refrigerators! Even given their many flaws (including ever-increasing corporatization and layers of internal-hierarchy), they are still an example of collective enterprise that flies in the face of neo-liberal arguments that "workers need bosses". Written [somewhat painfully] for a sociology of work class in Spring 2004.]

The Mondragón is a complex of worker cooperatives – primarily industrial in nature – located in the Basque region of Spain. It continues to be the largest federation of such cooperative corporations outside of the former Yugoslavia and China, and has, in many respects, been able to successfully compete with capitalist firms in a number of ways.

Due to the cooperative nature of these firms, the work relations are different than nearly any other capitalist company. Workers exercise not only ownership over the firms, but also a substantial level of governance over the firm’s macro-level decision making as well. In later decades, workers have taken on a greater role in work democracy for their day-to-day tasks. As members of the cooperative, they have an ownership share in the firm, and contribute to the governance of the firm directly on the job and through elected representatives of various councils.

Unlike some cooperatives where there is no delineation between management and worker[1], Mondragón firms typically have layers of management. Since there is a management structure, the Mondragón has not been immune from labor discontent and struggles. In the 1970s, workers and progressive managers spurred a number of work place reforms. But, this was not able to stop a strike at the Ulgor firm, one of the largest producers of refrigerators in Spain (Johnson and Whyte 1977).

The problem I wish to address is how work has changed within the Mondragón complex, both in terms of the organization of the workplace for members and the structural relationship within firms, such as that amongst worker and manager. A large part of this is how have democratic channels and the nature of self-determined work changed in the complex. Have some firms had easier times with democratic reforms than others? Which firms have had greater successes with work democracy and has this translated into greater success for these firms? How has recession and globalization affected how Mondragón operates? Has there been increasing worker discontent during the existence of Mondragón, or has it decreased since the 1970s? And how democratic has Mondragón as whole been evaluated? In answer the above questions, along with a brief history of Mondragón’s evolution, I hope to understand in what ways work and democracy has changed.

In Moye (1993), four distinct periods in Mondragón history are noted: expansion (1956-59), programmed development (1970-84), adaptation to the market (1985-90), and sectoralization (1991-present). These strategic periods describe the various changes that Mondragón has gone through as a group of cooperative companies and also in terms of work.

The early period of Mondragón (expansion) involves the initial formation and design of the complex, an idea that is commonly attributed to a Catholic priest named Fr. José Maria Arizmendi. He laid out the first draft of the constitution and by-laws for the first cooperative. These documents have formed the basis for every cooperative since. It was at this time (and under the influence of Arizmendi) that low wage ratios and the direct deposit of member shares into accounts were established as norm to keep both a low management hierarchy and a large pool of capital for a cooperative. With the establishment of a credit union to help the funding of additional cooperatives, the Caja Laboral Popular, and a cooperative educational system to help in job training, Mondragón began creating institutions to fulfill important needs that neither the marketplace nor the state would provide to cooperative organizations.

The period of “programmed development” saw both a rapid increase in the number of Mondragón firms and also the onslaught of a Spanish recession. As noted above and will be noted below, this period also saw an increase in labor struggles within Mondragón, including a strike (including retributive firing afterward), in addition to external union organizing throughout Spain. These efforts increased employment in Spain and the Basque region, and also led to much higher wage levels. Experiments and strategic changes in on-the-job work organization will be dealt with in the section titled “Workplace reorganization”. Bradley and Gelb (1986) write and analyze four responses typical of cooperatives in regards to recession, including 1) efficient adjustments by the more flexible wage labor, 2) cautious investments, 3) attempts to diversify, and 4) moral authority of a tight community and better information flows between members.

Adaptation to the market and sectoralization have both occurred in tandem with increased global integration (which is discussed in the section “Internationalization and globalization”) and corporatization following a multinational model whose essence is captured by the formation of the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC). Taylor (1994) remarks that by the late 1980s, the economic challenges faced by Mondragón were answered by “a more narrowly economic conception of efficiency” (p. 483). The preoccupation with “standard” capitalist concerns like “efficiency” continued to grow through out the 1990s.

Before looking at how work was reorganized in the 1970s, I would like to preface the discussion by looking at how workers have not behaved as theories have commonly predicted those in cooperatives to behave. Moye (1993) details four theoretical problems that besiege most cooperatives on a firm and societal level. First, theory suggests that members will restrict employment to increase the per member income. Second, it is thought that cooperative firms with collective capital funds will not offer sufficient incentives for its members to reinvest in the firm itself – and thus be driven to invest outside their firms. Third, new cooperatives will not have proper “external market discipline”. And fourth, there is allegedly a danger of a sale by cooperative members, since this is said to be the best way members can gain the full value of their investments. Moye concludes that, on all these accounts, Mondragón has overcome such issues by dealing with the related problems both directly and indirectly.


[1] See Rothschild-Whitt (1979) for more on cooperative alternatives to the rational-bureaucratic model, that eschews a separate management structure and hierarchy.


Bradley, Keith and Alan Gelb. 1986. “Cooperative Labour Relations: Mondragon’s Response to Recession”. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 25 (1), March: 77-97.

Johnson, Ana Gutierrez and William Foote Whyte. 1977. “The Mondragon System of Worker Production Cooperatives”. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 31 (1), October: 18-30.

Moye, A. Melissa. 1993. "Mondragon: Adapting Co-operative Structures to Meet the Demands of a Changing Environment". Economic and Industrial Democracy, 14: 251-276.

Rothschild-Whitt, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models”. American Sociological Review, 44, August: 509-527.

Taylor, Peter Leigh. 1994. “The Rhetorical Construction of Efficiency: Restructuring and Industrial Democracy in Mondragón, Spain”. Sociological Forum, 9 (3): 459-489.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Against the Mere Study of Domination

Anarchist-sociologists argue that domination and inequality should not just be studied, but also actively opposed. Study is (maybe) a good first step, but then domination must be reacted and responded to. Large numbers of sociologists share this position, too (e.g. so-called “public sociologists”). The world-renowned academic linguist (and anarchist) Noam Chomsky (2005) discusses how such a critique must be followed by action:
I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view), and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. But not only these. That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. (p. 178, emphasis added)

Thus, according to Chomsky, the task is to first understand domination and inequality and then do away with their manifestations. Anarchist-sociology is interested in the study and transformation of society.

But, what is problematic with pure study, which is the usual endpoint for most sociologists? Studying inequality (and those who are dominated) turns the phenomenon (and the people affected by it) into objects of inquiry, thus abstracting and fetishizing the dominated and their needs. The distance implicit in research (with the exception, maybe, of militant ethnographic research methods) creates a crucial disjunction, and further dominates the dominated and privileges the already privileged.

Scholarship feeds the career of academics and policy-makers—thus keeping hierarchical systems like universities and governmental agencies humming along without challenge. Research is conducted in such a fashion that it serves the interests of academics’ careers. The placement of articles in academic journals or presentation at conferences does little to reach those most immediately impacted by hierarchy and domination. In fact, most research exaggerates that social distance, not only in the forum chosen, but also the esoteric and jargon-laded delivery. Even if such research could have liberatory potential for the dominated, it cannot reach them (especially in an unfiltered form) as it is sequestered away in the archives of the Ivory Tower (Martin 1998).

Dominated people need ammunition in their hands to fight back against oppressive power and hierarchy. Research on inequality and injustice can provide this firepower, but who will wield the weapons? To the extent that research is used at all, the traditional scholarly peer-review process within the world of academic journals has tended to only further enable the agency of politicians, policy-makers, and bureaucrats. According to Saul Alinsky (1972), the father of modern community organizing (and a once-aspiring sociologist), speaks to this troubling and lop-sided disconnect:
As an undergraduate, I took a lot of courses in sociology, and I was astounded by all the horse manure they were handing out about poverty and slums, playing down the suffering and deprivation, glossing over the misery and despair. I mean, Christ, I'd lived in a slum, I could see through all their complacent academic jargon to the realities. It was at that time that I developed a deep suspicion of academicians in general and sociologists in particular, with a few notable exceptions.… So I realized how far removed the self-styled social sciences are from the realities of everyday existence, which is particularly unfortunate today, because that tribe of head-counters has an inordinate influence on our so-called antipoverty program. Asking a sociologist to solve a problem is like prescribing an enema for diarrhea. (n.p.)

Who determines what weapons should be available, and how useful or liberatory they should be? Presently, the isolated researcher, operating within the confines of academia and only influenced by peers, makes these decisions. The resources, intellectual toolkits, and expertise are generally not made available to dominated communities; when studied, the dominated usually find themselves to be research objects poked and probed in ways they do not necessarily control, value, or benefit from.

So, who should use research findings to oppose inequality and how should that opposition be manifested? Should non-dominated individuals (e.g. straight, White middle-class men) be advocates or spokespersons for dominated groups? How about academics who are themselves members of disadvantaged groups? How exactly should any academics contribute and in what ways? When academics attempt to answer this question—as we are presently trying to do—we exercise not only our privileged positions, but also impose our own preferences, world-views, and biases.

These issues are important since they inform the question of who ought to act to eliminate inequality. Anarchists strongly claim that people must be active agents in their own liberation. Consequently, the liberal claim that the welfare state will help the poor is not just troublesome, but incorrect. When the state acts it is taking away the important, empowering experience that the poor could—and should—be having. The state is not necessarily acting how the poor would choose to. There is also ample evidence (e.g. Piven & Cloward 1993) suggesting that social welfare policies—even if well-intended (itself debatable)—serve to squelch revolutionary action and social disorder that could overturn hierarchical institutions. Once rebellious disruption diminishes, the welfare state retracts its “generous” assistance, thrusting the disadvantaged back into a position of austerity and want.

While assistance to the disadvantaged from well-read and researched state, technocratic, and intellectual figures can be perhaps helpful in the immediacy, it has negative long-term consequences. According to anarchist theory, saviors should not be trusted (or at least entrusted with one’s future). One needs to save oneself. Even “altruistic” saviors—such as charismatic social movement leaders—are problematic as they rob people of their autonomy, confidence, experiences, and right to rebel. Instead, anarchism argues for the immediate and direct action of the disadvantaged to oppose domination and inequality, action that does not rely on authority to create a more equal and just society. Authority figures who can hierarchically grant assistance create new forms of inequality; according to anarchism, one form of authority should not replace another (even if they represent a more benign and “kind” form).


Alinsky, Saul. 1972. “Empowering People, Not Elites”. Playboy. Available:

Chomsky, Noam 2005. Chomsky on Anarchism. Oakland, AK Press.

Martin, Brian. 1998. Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education. Date accessed: July 28, 2006.

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. 1993. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Sociology of Decentralization

Even though many things have been centralized in modern societies during recent decades and centuries—tax-collecting, census-taking, customs and border patrolling, policing—other things remain decentralized. An anarchist-sociology would note these elements and raise-up their enduring importance. As Mildred Loomis (2005) explains:
Decentralization is not turning back the clock. Through decentralization, independence would replace dependency; honesty and justice would replace delinquency. Health would prevent disease and degeneracy; creative work and folk art would replace decadent and inhuman activities. For these desired ends, Decentralization would organize production, control, ownership, government, communication, education, and population in smaller, more human units. (pp. 23-24)

Thus, decentralization refers to the social relationships and organization lacking a a centralized mechanism, structure, or authority, while not precluding coordination, cooperation, or communication. In fact, many people like smaller things, such as being able to talk with individuals, and tend to identify with their local areas, immediate surroundings, and lived situations. The desire for an immediate connection to others—not one mediated by large, impersonal institutions—is a very real one. Decentralization is not simply a means of facilitating a more thoroughly lived life, but also an avenue to being more democratic and participatory. As Robert Michels (1958) argued, centralization and largesse causes problems of leadership consolidation and elitism within organizations, thus stunting the potential for rank-and-file democracy.

If humans live in scaled-back, local communities, trust is likely to develop in people living elsewhere. Others are apt act in ways roughly similar to one's own community. If larger structures of coordination seem to be required between locales, they can connect via horizontal federation. Thus, it is possible to create a complex society, based around direct democracy, local control, and larger-scale coordination, all without resorting to authoritarian leadership or bureaucracy.

These sorts of phenomena—decentralized groupings and federation structures—exist throughout society, from computer networks like the Internet to collections of friends and neighborhood groups. All sorts of organizations have chosen to federate with each other, as shown by the massive networking between individuals and organizations that compose modern social movements. The study of social networks has been exploding within sociology, hinting at the extraordinary ways in which most people interact with each other in largely—although not completely—horizontal patterns. Decentralization can be witnessed in the protest strategies regularly employed by anarchists at demonstrations: autonomous affinity groups that work separately within the larger protest event, all pursuing their own independent goals and objectives, but often coordinating actions between affinity groups through horizontally-organized spokesperson councils.

To practice a sociology of decentralization would require the placement of sociologists in all sorts of places in society—not just clustering them within universities and government agencies. Social movement organizations, community groups, and neighborhoods ought to have their own sociologists who help people to understand their social environments. Or, more radically, all could learn to think more sociologically and to exercise their anarchist imaginations. The means by which people share such sociological analysis ought to simulate a network-style approach modeled upon principles of horizontalism and decentralization—no one able to tell others what information they may or may not have. In other words, it is important to put knowledge and the power to use that knowledge in the hands of anyone and everyone, regardless of one's ability to pay for or monopolize it.


Loomis, Mildred J. 2005. Decentralization: Where It Came From, Where Is It Going? Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Michels, Robert. 1958. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.