By Sena Christian
During Andrew McLeod’s 10-day visit to the Basque Country of northern Spain, he met a 34-year-old man named Aitor Garro, who makes aluminum car components. For the last 13 years, this man has worked at Fagor Ederlan, a division of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, which is the world’s largest system of worker-owned businesses. Mondragon’s 100 global businesses employ 120,000 people and produce sales exceeding $20 billion annually. Garro grew up knowing only this system, as both his parents also worked in co-ops. “It was interesting to watch his perception of co-ops,” McLeod said. “He took them for granted. It was like water to a fish.”
McLeod, a California-based cooperative development specialist, spent the past year and a half traveling around the world and throughout the United States to learn about the valuable role cooperative systems can play during economic hard times. His travels took him to the Trentino region of northern Italy, the Pacific Northwest, the U.S. Rust Belt and Spain.
Worldwide, roughly 750,000 cooperatives serve 730 million members, according to the National Cooperative Business Association. Here in this country, some 72,000 co-op establishments operate, providing more than 2 million jobs and serving 120 million members–that’s four in 10 Americans. These establishments exist in energy, childcare, food distribution, health care, insurance, agriculture, telecommunications and other industries. But co-op advocates want growth, and they say the time is now, as wealth concentration has reached dangerous levels, large investment banks have crumbled and unemployment affects 10 percent of the American population.