In post-civil war Spain’s Basque country, a group of young, working class graduates with few job prospects founded a small co-operative to build paraffin stoves. They then began to set up other co-operative business ventures. When they needed capital for expansion, they started their own co-operative bank.
These young people had been taught the ways of the Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrieta, whose beliefs were rooted in solidarity. In 1943 he began a training college in the small Basque town of Mondragón, which became the seed for the many co-operatives that have come to dominate the Basque economy.
By the end of 1990 the now-merged co-operatives of Mondragón and its surrounds employed about 23,000 workers. Over the following two decades this number grew to more than 85,000 worldwide, and more than 85 per cent are members of the Mondragon co-opertives in Spain’s Basque country.
Today the same difficulties that inspired the co-operatives of Mondragón in the 1940s are affecting the lives of workers in the United States lack of jobs, creeping poverty and distrust of the economic and political system. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the United Steelworkers Union has set up a partnership with Mondragón, aimed at setting up workers co-operatives in the US.