Protesters flood the street, chants and song punctuated by drumming and the low, steady honk of a tuba. Sign after sign decries the attack against nurses, teachers and sanitation workers; others demand a living wage in bold letters. A man stands before a podium addressing the masses, crying, "Those who need the increases least get most, and those that need them most get least!" The crowd erupts in response. Sound familiar?
But this isn't Madison in February 2011. This is grainy footage of 1980s Britain in the throes of worker unrest, from the opening scenes of a BBC documentary on the Mondragon Corporation in Spain.
In the 1940s, the civil-war-ravaged Basque region of Spain had 40% to 50% unemployment. Today, a transformed Mondragon is a federation of worker-owned cooperatives, responsible for some 80,000 jobs across more than 250 finance, industrial, retail and knowledge-based companies. It is also the model upon which an increasing number of Madison-area worker co-ops are based, and some say it's the solution to our current capitalist-fueled quagmire.
"The nature of the local economy and the creation of jobs seems to be the most important issue on everyone's mind," says Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. "It seems to me that if we're talking about a robust economy, we need to discuss the role of co-ops in that economy."
This might sound like the start of a lusty, utopian love letter for hippie socialist Madisonians, but it's not. Worker cooperatives are a viable, valuable economic tool used worldwide to create jobs and sustainable communities, and despite the existence of several successful worker co-ops here in Madison, they still fly well below the radar. The good news: Although the United States is behind the curve, Madison is actually ahead of it.
It's not that we don't get cooperatives. Many of us have a membership to a consumer cooperative like Willy Street Co-op or REI, and the tapestry of Wisconsin is thickly threaded with agricultural and utility cooperatives. There are housing and marketing cooperatives throughout the state, and according to the UW Center for Cooperatives, Wisconsin boasts about 844 co-ops representing 2.7 million members, contributing $5.6 billion in gross sales to the state economy.
Inspired by Mondragón’s example, Isthmus Engineering was founded 25 years ago. The cooperative designs and builds state of the art automation systems for a broad range of industries. With 50 employees, the majority worker owners, Isthmus is highly project oriented. Self-directed teams of mechanical and controls engineers, plus highly skilled electricians and machinists, collaborate to design, build, and test equipment that meets their customers’ needs. “The core principle is one worker one vote, not each dollar one vote,” says founder John Kessler. “We’re not giving up anything by being a worker cooperative. It’s an excellent way to run a business.”