The Basque cooperative movement: a model of solidarity |

by Joseba Azkarraga Rodero

These are not the best of times for either the economy or employment. The economic crisis that has assailed our country has had its impact on each and every sector, as well as on each and every company, regardless of its organisational structure. This also means that cooperativism in general, and in the Basque Country in particular, is being affected by this situation.

Yet regarding the somewhat tsunami-like scenario involving the Fagor Group, I consider it necessary to emphasise the strength of the actual MCC Cooperative Group in particular and of the Social Economy in general.

The Social Economy in the Basque Country consists largely of enterprises that embrace, organises themselves and operate according to criteria of democratic governance and the supportive distribution of profits, or also, if the case arises, the joint shouldering of any losses there might be.

This conceptual definition applies, a priori, to a wide range of different enterprises, such as those in the Solidarity Economy, the Voluntary Sector, and the Non-Profit Sector, amongst others, but what seems to be unquestionable, nevertheless, is that the cooperatives lie at the very heart of the Social Economy. That is, at least, the case in the Basque Country.

Basque cooperativism is a value in itself. It is the standard-bearer of a culture and values that are socially advantageous, and I believe it represents a form of value creation that lends cohesion to Basque society.

It is no coincidence that the greater concentration of cooperativism in our country coincides with areas where income is more evenly distributed, where there is lower unemployment and where the average standard of living is higher.

Yet there is another factor that needs to be taken into account. Cooperativism brings plurality to the usual –most common- way of doing business. And this is more important in a society and in an age in which individualism is the norm.

I do not share the view of those who want to present this economy as an almost marginal experience. In the autonomous community of the Basque Country more than anywhere else, the bulk of the social economy corresponds to the type that can be referred to as “ordinary economies”. This is shown by, among other things, the fact the Mondragon Group is the leading business group in the Basque Country.

If the difficulties encountered by a cooperative such as Fagor are used by some to talk about a “failed model”, should we not instead, and by the same logic, be talking about the failure of the capitalist model?

I believe we can single out cooperativism as a clear factor of stability, as it may contribute, and is indeed providing at this very time, operational and organisational solutions to the needs arising in each specific case.

Above all, it is a basic building-block for creating a fairer society in which priority is given to people and their values, amongst which are the principles of work and community interest.

Even during my time as the regional minister for Labour in the Basque government, I have always understood that from the public administration’s perspective, investing in the social economy provides a greater return in social terms because it contributes not only to social cohesion, but also to a healthier democracy and a redistribution of wealth.

Nevertheless, I am not, of course, referring solely to the commitment of the public administrations, because the success of the social economy depends on all of us, and most especially on civil society. Hence the reason that now more ever there is a need to coordinate actions and galvanise public and private collaboration in pursuit of common goals.

Numerous sociological and economic studies have been, and continue to be, forthcoming that have sought to explain the emergence, development and success of Mondragón’s cooperative experience. We should not forget that we are talking about a group that consists of over 100 cooperatives, with a major presence abroad, and grouped into three key sectors: financial, industrial and retail. What’s more, it has its own cooperative university.

No one doubts today that a key factor has been the link between work, financing, training and welfare that has existed since the very origins of the Mondragón cooperative experience. This is clear proof of the need to collaborate as the only way of ensuring the long-term consolidation of the grassroots cooperatives.

The crisis that has affected Fagor has given some people the excuse to attack the cooperative model and even generate alarmism in society, questioning not only the model’s very viability, but also such sensitive aspects as Lagun Aro’s ability to continue providing social welfare coverage. Those who have mishandled this information have done so, moreover, seeking to link Basque nationalism with the failure of the cooperative model. Faced with this dangerous tactic, it needs to be clearly stated that Basque cooperativism is precisely that, cooperativism; and in any case, the fact it includes some people with greater or lesser ties with the world of politics is simply a reflection of our country’s socio-political make-up and, more specifically, of the area where the cooperatives are more densely located.

But I would like to add something else. If the difficulties affecting a cooperative such as Fagor, with all the importance it has within the group as a whole, can be used by some to talk about the “failure of the model”, we might well ask how we should describe the economic situation affecting myriad firms that are not cooperatives. According to that logic, should we not be referring to the failure of the capitalist model?

When we refer to Basque cooperativism, we are dealing with 12.5% simply in terms of jobs in industry, 12.4% of exports and 5.25% of the overall Basque GDP. These figures carry enough weight to make some wish to see an end to this model.

Yet there is still one further aspect I should like to mention; one that defines the model’s unique nature, and even more so at times like these. I am referring to internal solidarity. As has sometimes been the case in the past, this solidarity means that people who have lost their jobs due to the difficulties experienced by the cooperative they belong to may be relocated into other cooperatives in the group. This is one of the characteristic traits of cooperativism: solidarity.

I should like to end by quoting Don José María de Arizmendiarrieta, the true father of Basque cooperativism, who always insisted that he wanted “men (and women) with a capacity to develop, with a sense of community, with the ability to think, to create and to serve “. I don’t think anyone has ever provided a better definition of the essence of the cooperative movement.

Translated and reposted from

By Joseba Azkarraga Rodero, * Former regional minister of Labour in the Basque government

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