Mondragon Corporation: A Lesson in Cooperation

There are alternatives to capitalism.

Much has been made of late about the income inequality in the United States. I hope that the clamor becomes ever louder, because, as one meme about Jeff Bezos states, “If a monkey hoarded more bananas than it could eat, while most of the other monkeys starved, scientists would study that monkey to figure out what the heck was wrong with it. When humans do the same thing, we put them on the cover of Forbes.”

Something definitely has to change. Nobody needs that many bananas. I find it difficult to understand why anyone would even want that many bananas. Eating too many bananas can only lead to bloating and constipation.

That’s the problem with this country. It is bloated on its own greed. It is constipated when it comes to compassion for the less fortunate. The system is not healthy.

We could learn a great deal from the Mondragon Corporation. I first heard about this organization by listening to a talk on income inequality by Noam Chomsky. He was discussing alternatives to capitalism, as he quite often does, and he held Mondragon up as the most advanced case of a worker-owned cooperative in the world. Naturally, I had to learn more about it.

According to its own website as well as Wikipedia and an article entitled, “Mondragon through a Critical Lens”, this corporation originates in the Basque region of Spain, and because of it, that region went from being the poorest in Spain 65 years ago, to being by far the richest region. Starting off as a small worker-owned company, it has expanded to more than 100 different cooperatives, employing more than 81,000 people.

We aren’t unfamiliar with cooperatives here in the U.S. Many of us bank at credit unions, shop at independent grocery stores, live in housing cooperatives, or obtain our food from agricultural cooperatives. Given the fact that cooperatives are responsible for more than 500 billion in revenue here, it surprises me that they aren’t given more press.

Well, it does and it doesn’t surprise me, actually. Given that unions are squelched in red states, and large companies, like Amazon, are terrified of them, people certainly don’t want workers to gain too much power in this country. Chaos could ensue. People might, like, start earning living wages rather than having that money go to stockholders. We can’t have that, now, can we?

Mondragon begs to differ. Its primary goal is to maximize employment and give employees the dignity of having a say in their own destiny, to further the well-being of the workers as a whole.

Their cooperatives are mostly industrial, but they also include the finance, retail and knowledge sectors. They have discovered that competing in technical niche markets make them competative on a global scale, and since their jobs require more than a basic education, they’re less apt to be competing with underpaid workers overseas.

Mondragon’s workers also own their own bank, university, social welfare agency, supermarket chain and several business incubators. They have their own pension and medical plans, and on the average, executives are only allowed to earn 5 times as much as the lowest paid employee. The ratio in question is voted on by the employees.

One employee, one vote is the rule. And that means that the CEO has no more power in the fate of the company than the guy who scrubs the toilets. In fact, the administrators work for the employees, not the other way around. How refreshing.

Mondragon is also a lot more adaptable than a typical bureaucracy. They are very dedicated to collaborative decision making, and because of that they can break free of old-guard, stuck-in-their-ways attitudes. Since the employees have an equal say, the decisions are made based on the current facts, not on old habits.

Mondragon employees get much better health care than the average American, and their pensions are 80 percent of their former salaries. They have extensive unemployment benefits. In addition, if one cooperative fails, the vast majority of the employees are absorbed by the other cooperatives, so there is a great deal of income security.

Is Mondragon perfect? Not by a long shot. It is still having to compete in an international, mostly capitalist market, so it has had to make some uncomfortable choices. For example, it does have international employees as well, and while they are employed by the cooperatives, they’re not owners as the other employees are. Therefore they don’t reap all the benefits and they don’t have a say in the decisions. Supposedly they are still treated well, but it’s a disturbing trend.

Another issue is that women are severely underrepresented in Mondragon. I suspect that has to do with it originating in a macho culture, and also the fact that for various reasons, women don’t seem to pursue engineering educations as often as men do, and Mondragon is an engineering-heavy employer. But when women do get jobs within this system, they get equal pay. That must be nice.

And while everyone at Mondragon has a vote, that doesn’t necessarily mean that each person is educating themselves on the issues in question. So not all votes are informed ones.

Another hurdle is that when you only pay your CEOs reasonable wages rather than obscenely high ones, it’s hard to get the best and brightest people to apply for the job. It could be argued, though, that those who do apply have their priorities intact. That counts for something. But it’s a rare bureaucrat who has his or her priorities intact.

It may be a flawed system, but it seems a lot less flawed than what the majority of us experience in America. I definitely believe it merits further study. And I think the Green energy movement in this country, as it is relatively young, could start out as a cooperative and thrive. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we, the people, actually created clean energy while benefiting from our endeavors?

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library!


More Wishes

When I was a child, I used to imagine that if a genie granted me three wishes, one of my wishes would be more wishes. As if I were the only person on earth to ever have thought of that. As if I’d never run out of ideas for wishes. As if I were a bottomless pit of need, greed, and desire.

Sure, I can think of a few monetary wishes. A paid off mortgage. The ability to retire. World travel.

But the older I get, the more my priorities change. My needs are quite simple. Now, if I were granted three wishes, I’d only need one, really. With that one wish, all other problems would take care of themselves.

What I’d wish for is boundless love. And that love would take on variety of forms. After all, that’s one of love’s strengths.

Naturally, I want someone to share my life with, who appreciates me for me, who understands me and loves me just the way I am. If I could wake up beside someone like that again, all other stressors could be handled. If I could just feel as if someone would always have my back, no matter what, I could face anything.

But I’d also want the love of mankind for one another. That would naturally lead to peace on earth. And love for the planet would mean that we’d take better care of it, and actually have a hope in hell of surviving. I’d like to have a government that loves its people, and actually works in our best interests. I’d like a love-centered employment model, in which the people we worked for actually gave a shit about our well-being, our morale, and our ability to earn a living wage without sacrificing our health or our dignity.

I’d like people to love to learn and to read and to vote. I’d like them to love diversity and curiosity and kindness. I’d like families to love one another in spite of, or perhaps because of, their differences. I’d like people to feel so much love that their generosity would know no bounds.

At the risk of becoming a cliché, I really do believe that love is all you need. So that’s what I’m putting out into the universe for 2018. Wish me luck.


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I overheard someone talking about a hashtag that was floating around in social media that encouraged people to talk about their first seven jobs. I was immediately intrigued. First of all, what an interesting world we live in now, where it’s a safe bet that most people have had seven jobs. In the past, you might apprentice in a certain job and then do that work until you dropped dead. I don’t know if that would be comforting or stultifying.

But I think you can learn a lot about a person by hearing what their first seven jobs were. How old were they when they started working? How long did they keep various types of jobs? I think it would be interesting to hear from older professionals in particular. Your pediatrician wasn’t always a doctor, you know. Maybe she washed cars in high school.

I’ve had 23 jobs in my life. I don’t know if that’s a lot, or about average. I just know that it was necessary. Some I liked, some I hated. Each one taught me a great deal. I’m glad to say that now that I’m a bridgetender, I’m doing something I truly love.

So, without further ado, here are my first seven jobs:

1.     At the age of 10, I was self-employed. I grew houseplants and sold them at the flea market. I did this for several years, and this allowed me to buy school clothes. I am also proud to say that I treated my mother and my sister to a trip to Disney World. We lived nearby, so it drove me crazy that we couldn’t afford to go. But this will give you an idea of how long ago that was: I only had to raise $20 to get the three of us in. I remember counting it all out in quarters.

2.     The summer I was 15, I worked in the Youth Conservation Corps, doing construction work. We paved pathways, built nature trails, rehabbed a swimming hole, and built a picnic shelter and a barn among other things. I came home brown as a berry for the first and only time in my life, with biceps that would make Michelle Obama proud, and I had a newfound confidence in my ability to work with my hands.

3.     The next summer I worked on an assembly line, making prepackaged school lunches. I’m pretty sure that was the last job I ever had that required I remain on my feet for 8 hours a day. I don’t know how people do it.  That’s where I learned that if you touch enough peaches in the course of a shift, the fuzz burrows under your skin and makes you bleed, and the foil wrappers on juice bottles make you bleed even more. (And yes, we were wearing gloves, but they didn’t protect our wrists.)

4.     Next I was a cook and a cashier at a short-lived game room and restaurant called Go Bananas. I’d go home and still hear the video games in my head, and I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but for a while there it made me sick of ice cream. (Scooping ice cream doesn’t do good things to your wrists, either.)

5.     Then I was a bilingual cashier at a hotel restaurant. I got by with my high school Spanish. But I had been hired when the manager was away, and when he got back, he called me into his office and quizzed me. I was so intimidated I couldn’t speak English, let alone Spanish, and he fired me on the spot. That was a new feeling. I didn’t like the polyester brown uniform they made me wear anyway, so I was a little relieved.

6.     Next I was a cashier at a campground. That was kind of fun. I liked meeting the people who would come in from all over the country. And believe it or not, I enjoyed stocking the grocery shelves. I love being organized. (Which kind of makes me wonder exactly when I lost all control of my living space, but that’s a subject for another blog entry.)

7.     Then I went away to college and worked in the cafeteria. I got sweaty and greasy every day, and then had a class to go to directly afterward, so people refused to sit next to me. But it helped pay for school. I had to transfer out of there when the 40 year old cook got angry because I refused to date him. He advanced on me in a rage and I threw an ice cream scoop at him and ran for my life. He remained employed, which made lunch and dinner time kind of awkward, but at least I then got to work in the secretary’s office, and people would sit next to me in class again.

So there you have it: The beginnings of a blogger. What were your first seven jobs?

child labor

Making Too Much Cents

People get all funny when it comes to money. It always seems to take me by surprise. Maybe because I would never pull these stunts myself. Three examples from my life:

I once dated a guy who was all about splitting bills right down the middle. Fine. I’m a big girl. The problem would come when the amount of our meal came down to an odd number. He’d actually mark down in a notebook which one of us had paid the additional penny last. Needless to say, the relationship with it’s-your-turn-to-pay-the-penny guy did not last long. Life is just too freakin’ short.

Another time I was writing my will, and I approached a longtime friend to ask her if she’d be willing to be the executor. Her immediate response was, “I would be getting money for that, right?” Actually, yes, executors can claim expenses and such from the estate (as meager as mine is). But do you want that to be your executor’s very first thought? That conversation made me have a change of heart, and I asked someone else.

Many years ago a friend of mine knew I was desperately seeking employment, and she called me up to say she heard about a job that would be absolutely perfect for me. I was so excited! But before she gave me the contact information she said, “If you get the job, I’ll only ask you for 5 percent of your pay for the first year.” And she was totally serious. Mind you, this was not someone who worked as an executive recruiter. She was a poet that I sometimes ate nachos with. That left a bad taste in my mouth. But it turned out to be a moot point because I didn’t get the job.

The way I look at it, money is just a symbol, and when it’s clutched at so greedily it’s also a symptom of a much larger spiritual disease. Just like your political beliefs, your obsession with the pennies in this world reveals more about you than you probably realize. And in the cases above it’s definitely not a good look.


Hell Hath its Benefits

When I listen to my coworkers complain about this job, I have to inwardly giggle. They think this job is bad. They think they’re being mistreated.

For 13 years I was in a horrible job situation. I worked graveyard shifts and got a one dollar raise every 6 years, and they tried to find ways to deny us even that. I had no health insurance to speak of. We got $3000 dollars a year to spend on our health, including prescriptions. After that, we were on our own. I was usually on my own by about the end of February. Forget about dental or vision or retirement. It was a right to work state, so we could be fired without cause. Racism and sexism were blatant and they made neither apologies nor excuses for them.

That’s what happens when you don’t have a union. Do you honestly believe that employers will treat you decently of their own free will? Trust me when I say that doesn’t happen. I’ve lived it.

So when I got this union job, which pays 2 ½ times as much for the same work, and has health insurance, vision, dental, retirement, deferred compensation, and more paid vacation time than I know what to do with, I felt as though l had died and gone to heaven. What’s to complain about?

That’s something you never think about when times are tough. Having lived in hell, you will always be grateful for and fully aware of those moments when you are no longer there. That’s something that my coworkers don’t have: the pure and bitter glory of perspective. What a gift. Seriously. What a gift.


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The Dreams I Have

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and indeed every day of the year, we should reflect on our progress and lack thereof with regard to human rights. How can we improve, and what can we as individuals do to bring about these improvements?

King had a dream. We should all have a dream. In fact, we should all dream big. So what follows are some of my dreams for humanity.

  • One man, one vote. No more of this outdated electoral college foolishness. And each person should be able to vote on each issue and feel confident that each vote will hold equal weight.
  • No more gerrymandered districts. Enough, already. Each voting district should only be allowed to have a maximum of four angles. If you can’t figure it out in the shape of a rectangle, a square, a triangle or a circle, then you are just being manipulative to a criminal degree.
  • An end to human trafficking.
  • Free education for all.
  • Free access to information for all.
  • Universal health care.
  • That the world finally accepts the overwhelming science of Global Climate Change and actually does something about it.
  • That all cars manufactured from now on must be hybrids.
  • Tax breaks for everyone who offsets their carbon footprint.
  • A ban on all automatic weapons, and strict tracking of all ammunition.
  • Unions should be encouraged, not demonized.
  • The scientific method should be stressed, comprehended, and taken seriously.
  • Children should be strongly encouraged to read more and play more and exercise more.
  • Clearly label all genetically modified foods.
  • Tax tobacco growers out of existence.
  • A dramatic increase in public transportation.
  • A part of every primary school education should include an element of giving back to the community. Children should learn to clean up their own playgrounds.
  • Television, movies and advertising should depict people with normal sized bodies.
  • There are enough humans on the planet. Give tax breaks and incentives to people who choose not to have children, instead of to those who have them.
  • Every adult should be allowed to marry whomever they choose, but the marriage process should be harder and divorce should be easier.
  • No more lobbyists.
  • A cap on campaign spending.
  • A ban on pharmaceutical advertising.
  • Reduce product packaging by 75 percent, do away with junk mail, and make recycling mandatory.
  • Equal pay for equal work.
  • More mental health facilities, fewer prisons.
  • Stricter penalties for polluters.
  • All students should have the opportunity to study abroad. Being immersed in another culture increases awareness and reduces fear.
  • Ban animal testing of cosmetics.

How could all these things be achieved? I haven’t a clue. That’s the nice thing about dreams. They don’t have to be realistic they just have to be idealistic. If your imagination can’t roam free, you can’t ever expect to be free.

Happy MLK Day. Dream big today and every day.


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Don’t Sail Out Farther Than You Can Row Back

That Danish proverb has pride of place as a magnet on my refrigerator door. My ancestors were very wise. The also liked to take risks, but their cultural longevity would lead one to believe that their risks were mostly calculated ones.

I’ve been thinking about this proverb quite a bit lately because I’ve definitely sailed into uncharted waters. I’ve moved 3000 miles across the country to a state where I know no one. Have I gone too far? The other day, after a bit of a kerfuffle at work, it suddenly occurred to me that I may have.

I’m on probation for a year. I have a little over 8 months to go. I spent 9k getting out here, and it will take me years to pay off that debt. If my employment boat starts taking on water now, I’m sunk. I can’t afford another 9k to get back to a more familiar job market, and I have no contacts out here. Who would hire me after I’d just been fired, other than someone who already knows me? As the ancient maps used to say, “Here there be dragons.” I suspect those dragons are going to keep me up at night for a while.

But on the other hand, without risk there’s no reward. I guess I could have stayed in Florida, rotting in my own miserable swamp, but I preferred to sail out where the air is fresh and clean. I think, I hope, it was worth the risk. I love where I am so far, and I will continue to do so unless someone fires a cannonball through my hull. God knows it’s happened before. But I really think I’m drifting very close to my happy place, and I just had to try to get there.

And hey, bailing and rowing does wonders for one’s upper body strength, right? So it’s all good.


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You are not Indispensable

Apologies in advance. I’m feeling rather cynical today.

Recently a dear friend told me he got into a very heated argument with his boss because he felt he was being underpaid and unappreciated. While I can understand how he feels, I have to say I inwardly cringed. It’s been my experience that nothing good comes of such conversations.

My friend seems to be of the impression that his employer will now see the error of his ways, appreciate the value he brings to the organization, and a raise will soon follow. Not bloody likely. If his boss were the type to recognize the value of his employees, he’d be properly compensating them already.

The fact is, as good as you are at your job, you’re never indispensable. Even Steve Jobs got fired from Apple. Look over your shoulder. There are at least 10 people standing behind you, eager to take your place. Especially in this economy. This means that the average employer can, and will, treat you like crap. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but if you want groceries and a roof over your head, that’s the way it is.

So before you start shouting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” consider this: we are all cogs in a massive wheel, and cogs can be replaced.


How “Little Mary Sunshine” Looks from the Darkside

A friend of mine recently posted a meme on her Facebook page that said “Slow progress is better than no progress.” My first thought was, “Great. That would be comforting if I were making slow progress.” The fact is, I have felt as though I haven’t moved forward in years. If anything, I’ve been sliding backward.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. Quit my job, sold my house, went back to school. Graduated with honors. Applied for hundreds and hundreds and HUNDREDS of jobs. Even got one. It lasted two whole days. Fortunately my old job was still waiting for me. Of course, now I have twice as many expenses, so this job isn’t sustaining me like it once did.

When someone tells me I need to get a positive attitude I want to punch him in the throat. If you get an electric shock every time you push a button, it’s SANE to not want to push that button anymore. So imagine what it feels like when someone tells you that you should push that button with enthusiasm. Yay team!

And then there are those who will criticize you for still being picky. Don’t want an emotionally abusive guy who constantly shouts at you in your life anymore? “Why not? He’s a guy. You’d be less lonely”. Or, “Oh, look! There are job openings for prison guards. You could do that.” Yes, because I want to be surrounded by people who want to kill me every day. “But you’d be making more money…”

The problem is, what’s the effing alternative? Doing nothing? Yeah, that’ll get you somewhere. Self-sabotage? I’m quite adept at that. I cover myself with fat to keep people at a distance. I’m sure my constant depression and exhaustion radiates out of me like the cry for help that it often is. I wouldn’t hire me or date me either. What a relief. No surprises this way.

A counselor recently told me that failure is a form of success, because you learn something from it. I looked at her and thought, “Does this woman sniff laughing gas or what? Can she really BE that deluded?” Yes, I bring failures on myself, but the economy, the fact that I’m aging, and the fact that employers and men can afford to be more discerning these days because they have plenty of prospects doesn’t help either. Failure isn’t success. Failure is just one more volt that that surges through the electric button that you’re expected to push.

Another friend says I need to figure out what’s holding me back. I KNOW what’s holding me back. Fear of rejection. I have been electrocuted by that button so many freakin’ times my hair is starting to smoke and I’m developing a nervous tick. If I don’t apply for that job, I don’t have to be reminded that they don’t think I’m good enough. If I eat enough cookies, when a guy isn’t interested I can blame it on the fat, not on me.

Self-sabotage may as well be self-mutilation. It’s the emotional equivalent of cutting my thighs with a razor blade. So now I guess the trick is to figure out how to keep pushing that button with a smile on my face. Because that will feel soooo much better.

But in the mean time, kindly stop telling me to let a smile be my umbrella, would you?


“I’ll have your job!”

The other day I walked into a pharmacy at the tail end of what sounded like a stormy customer service incident. The customer shouted “I’ll have your job!” to the clerk as she made her exit. The clerk looked down sadly and shook her head.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone make a threat of that type, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. People seem to like to make that broad sweeping statement when they feel they’ve been wronged.

And should I go there? Yes, I should. It’s been my experience that the type of person who is prone to this diatribe is generally the type of person who isn’t desperate for income themselves. People who have been close to losing everything generally don’t make such threats.

Granted, some people deserve to be fired. But I’d like to think that the vast majority of customer service issues can and should be resolved without destroying a person’s livelihood and/or reputation, especially in this economy.

You really have no idea what a person’s life is like. This may be their only income source to care for a disabled child or an elderly parent. Is it worth it to jeopardize that simply because you’ve been irritated?

Speak to the manager, yes. Suggest training or discipline, yes. But don’t go straight for the jugular. Don’t be the author of someone’s potential homelessness. Some day the tables could be turned and it might be your livelihood that’s on the line.


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