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Transcript: #05-01 Working Together: Cooperatives and Social Change
January 31, 2001

Program description, guest contact information and audio files at

Stephanie Welch: This week on Making Contact....

John Zippert: We help people to organize cooperatives, help people to know what their rights are, help people to understand how the legal system works so that they can hold on to their land.

Mary Abascal-Hildebrande: Work can be a major conduit for social change if work can be understood as our capacity to create and to develop a sense of commitment to the work place.

Stephanie Welch: Sunkist Oranges, Blue Diamond Almonds and Land 0'Lakes Butter are brand names that may be familiar to people in the United States, but many may not know that these are cooperative-run businesses.

On this program, we take a look at some cooperatives around the world, and how communities are pooling resources in Haiti, Spain and the southern United States to build community-based economic systems.

I'm Stephanie Welch -- your host this week on Making Contact, an international radio program seeking to create connections between people, vital ideas and important information.

In a traditional corporation in the United States, anyone willing to invest money can be a shareholder. No other involvement in the company is necessary. And the number of shares purchased determines the degree to which a shareholder can be involved in making decisions.

In a cooperative system, the business is owned and governed by the people who produce or buy its goods and services. But it's also much more than an alternative business model. In the United States and around the world people are forming co-ops to pool resources for housing, farming, lending, manufacturing and as a way to organize and empower local communities.

Pierre LaBossiere is a founding member of the Bay Area Haitian-American Council. During his most recent visit to Haiti, he observed a resurgence in the cooperative movements there, many of which had suffered repression under a thirty year military dictatorship.

Pierre LaBossiere: There has been a new opening in the country where those organizations about to come back again and regroup and reform themselves and really look at the second phase of the struggle. The first phase was for political democracy but as many people have told me in Haiti, what good is democracy if you can't eat? So it's got to be more than just being able to cast a ballot. It's got to be. . .it's got to lead to a better life materially. And when you talk to people there you see the linkage, how it's all linked together.

Because there is a little ruling elite in Haiti. Less than one percent of the population which controls over 44% of the wealth of the country. And their linkage with the Haitian military and the political establishment was so strong that the measures that were passed in parliament, or by the president in decrees and by the generals, were all in favor of that elite. For example they had monopoly concessions over imported items, over various many things that people needed to live--basic necessities. And I was even told that some of the blocks, in terms of the obstacles to building roads in the country is really secretly being encouraged or pushed by these fellows because that way that would impact negatively on their ability to control the internal market within the country.

Stephanie Welch: LaBossiere adds that the cooperative movement in Haiti is now flourishing. But during the years of the dictatorship, the military saw a potential threat in the creation of such an organized economic base for peasants in the countryside.

Pierre LaBossiere: The number of cooperatives in Haiti has mushroomed from about 300 in 1993 those were during the years of the coup. And now it's close to 1700. And it's something else. Before the coup d'etat this movement to create economic initiatives at the grass roots level was taking place but the coup d'etat totally destroyed a lot of those. For example the military used to go to peasant co-ops, the tool banks they had or agricultural tools that the people had and they used to confiscate them, claiming that these were weapons--they could be used as weapons. What the coup d'etat of 1991-1994 was, it was an effort to stop the popular movement and to take away their means of. . .the means they had to produce so that the peasant. . .the peasants could go back to becoming share croppers again, and dependent. And many of them, their livestock were. . .was confiscated. Their lands were taken away, many times in the form of bribes so they could be released from prison or they wouldn't be beaten or tortured while they were in prison. So this was an attempt to corporatize the people once again and make them go back to the way things were since the days of independence.

Stephanie Welch: Jen Bielman, a cooperative consultant, points out that although cooperative organizing has the potential to build a political and economic base of power for local communities, simply creating a co-op doesn't make that a reality. However, she says there has been a clear connection between some cooperative movements and shifts in local political power. The Mondragon system in the Basque region of Spain is one example.

Jen Bielman: They have a very strong cooperative economy, strong, cooperative housing economy, cooperative grocery stores. Very stable. Many, many people involved. And they have been a source of stability, I think, for the political aspirations of the Basque people in Spain. But the influence that the cooperatives have had in the Basque region is really strong. And they've managed to go from a few individual worker-owned industrial businesses producing stoves and large appliances, refrigerators, stuff like that, to a system that has cooperative education, cooperative businesses, a development bank, a larger banking system. So they've integrated their local economy along cooperative lines completely. And in so doing have become a model for everyone. And there are different schools of thought about why it happens in Spain. And one of them is that there is this national sentiment that binds people together in that place and that is more responsible for the development of cooperatives than cooperatives are responsible for the development of political power.

Stephanie Welch: It may be hard to believe that a cooperatively run business could rank in the Fortune 500. But that's the case for the Mondragon cooperatives. Some of its worker-members make brake pads for Toyota, and a few run a small-scale rabbit farm. After 45 years, this diverse network has earned praise from the Spanish government and has become the backbone of the Basque economy. Now it's serving as a model for cooperatives around the world. Making Contact's Krissy Clark has more:

Guillermo Perez: Salt, water, flour, yeast, or actually not yeast, like a sour dough starter kind of's not yeast. There's the sourdough that we make, sourdough dough...we make English muffins out of it with these little round cutters, and then we put them on the griddle.

Krissy Clark: On a foggy Saturday morning in San Francisco, bakers at a new neighborhood bakery roll out dough to make muffins and pizza, as they chat with customers.

Guillermo Perez: What we do here is we make sourdough breads, and sourdough breads is based on a culture, sourdough culture.

Krissy Clark: But for the members of the Arizmendi bakery cooperative, their work means more to them than the bread they bake. Tim Huet is an attorney with the Center for Democratic Solutions, which assists co-ops. He helped open Arizmendi in the fall of 2000--the third in a network of cooperative bakeries in the Bay Area that began in the 1960s with the "Cheese Board," a successful bakery and cheese shop in Berkeley. Over the din of a busy kitchen, Huet describes what drew him to worker-cooperatives:

Tim Huet: In our society we generally have what I call part-time democracy. You go every two years or so and vote for someone, but your daily life--work situations and school situation--are all very anti-democratic in many ways. So we need daily education in democratic skills--that's what a worker co-op is. And I think it's also training grounds for democratic activists. People come here and they learn skills that they're then able to bring into the larger community and apply.

Krissy Clark: Arizmendi takes it's name and inspiration from a Basque priest, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, nick-named "Arizmendi," who, after the Spanish Civil War, founded a legendary cooperative system called Mondragon, in the war-torn Basque region of Spain.

Tim Huet: He looked around and he saw incredible poverty among the people, and what he thought was that they need a school. So he started a school and out of that his students were doing very well, but then, where did they have to go? Just into conventional businesses that weren't really to their values. So he helped them create a cooperative business and it all grew from there. So he was just inspirational to us, what he was able to accomplish. He came into a place that was completely devastated. You would never think one of the most amazing economic development stories of the twentieth century would happen in this totally destitute, oppressed part of the world.

Mary Abascal-Hildebrande: The cooperatives developed from one small business in 1956. And the participators, as they say, built the road as they traveled it, mostly because of the way in which they interact as neighbors to one another.

Krissy Clark: Mary Abascal-Hildebrande is a professor at the University of San Francisco, in the Department of Organization and Leadership. She's been taking her students to Mondragon for the last six years to study what has become a thriving network of cooperatives. Mondragon's 101 co-ops support each other and their greater community, with their own banks, housing and schools. Collectively, they employ more than 50,000 people, operate the largest grocery store chain in Spain and rank sixth in the world in the manufacturing of home appliances. But, Abascal-Hildebrande says, Mondragon has tried not to let worker participation suffer in the shadow of its growth. Limiting any one cooperative unit to 500 people, Mondragon uses a non-hierarchical structure, where the workers elect the management from among themselves.

Mary Abascal-Hildebrande: Someone who works on the shop floor is just as welcome to knock on the door of the president of the cooperative as anyone else is and to share ideas and talk. The three councils that operate in each cooperative are the ones who take up issues formally, but people are easily approachable. Their meetings are very convivial and very lively. It's not that they agree, in fact they like disagreement. They like to say that they save a chair at the table for "the green dog." In other words, for the person who has a different idea. They also say that there are meetings and then there are meetings in Mondragon--to illustrate the way in which they communicate so readily across what might be called work divisions. In fact in the community that's one of the things that might be recognized once you're part of it, is that people who work in Mondragon have a much more egalitarian sense of who they are, and who their neighbors are, so that a judge or an accountant might easily be friends--close friends--with someone who works on the shop floor.

Krissy Clark: In fact, the shop floor in a Mondragon factory is far more than an assembly line. It's a stage for some of the most exciting worker collaboration. Abascal-Hildebrande says there, self-managed teams replace supervisors. Workers, who each own and ultimately run their business, feel a sense of personal responsibility for the work they do.

Mary Abascal-Hildebrande: Let's say a church organization or a group of friends who are aligned around some sort of particular interest, they're getting ready to put on a benefit or whatever, and everyone's working feverishly and at the same time cooperatively and happily and with the goal in mind of putting on whatever it is. In other words, there's a happy buzz, a much more energetic force at work.

Guillermo Perez: You literally own a little chunk of a big business. You own something. So, it makes you. . .when you own something, you don't work for a boss. It makes you feel useful, in a way, makes you feel like you're someone.

Krissy Clark: Guillermo Perez is a member of the Berkeley Cheese Board Pizza Cooperative, which recently sent him on a trip to Mondragon with Abascal-Hildebrande to do research. Perez talked to some people who worked on a Mondragon washing-machine assembly line.

Guillermo Perez: That's something that they loved, when I talked to them, is that, you know, everything's equal, you know. Everyone is equal here. And contrary to an assembly line in the United States, there's 15 bosses on top of you.

Krissy Clark: But members of Mondragon will admit themselves that their system is not without it's faults. Since Spain joined the European Union, the co-ops have struggled to survive and to maintain their participatory ideals in the face of international competitors who pay their workers poverty wages. Mondragon itself now has conventional factories, not cooperatives, in China and in Mexico. They say they have plans to turn them into cooperatives, but the process has been slow.

Still, while conventional corporations "downsize" their domestic work force and move their assembly plants to developing countries, Mondragon has never, in its 45 year history, laid off a single worker, even as Spain's unemployment rate hovers around 20%. Professor Abascal-Hildebrande says Mondragon sees its mission not in terms of profits, but economic development. She says with this in mind, the co-ops do whatever they can to create, rather than replace jobs.

Mary Abascal-Hildebrande: Members of cooperatives have developed an attention toward technology that enables them to make the work better for those who are worker members, and to add more jobs. They do not see technology as a way to eliminate jobs, but to make work better. So they embrace technology, are eager for its. . .the three R&D, Research and Development labs that they support, to provide ideas and development energy and so on, because they know that it's going to mean better work, and not pink slips.

Krissy Clark: Job security is a cornerstone of any business where workers are participating in the management. Guillermo Perez says it's true of the Cheese Board, where he works.

Guillermo Perez: Yeah, you come to work everyday like everyone else does but you don't have that headache of: "Am I going to get fired? Am I going to lose my job? Am I...?" You don't . . ."is our business going to be bought out?" You have control of where you want this place to go. So you have security. And especially if you have a family, you have, you need security. And if you have security, you sleep well at night and I sleep very well at night.

Krissy Clark: Perez says he only wishes more aspects of society would use a cooperative model.

Guillermo Perez: Sometimes I wonder when I'm serving pizza and I think, wow, you can make this place work. Why can't the White House run like this? You know, in other words, you just. . .you know, you're not really thinking about yourself, you're thinking of the group.

Krissy Clark: For Making Contact, I'm Krissy Clark.

Stephanie Welch: You're listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you want to know more about this topic or how to reach anyone you hear on this program please give us a call. We'll be giving out our toll-free number at the end of this broadcast...

In 1967 over twenty Black cooperatives came together to create the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, or FSC. This co-op formed in response to the most urgent needs of its majority members: family farmers. Like other organizations born out of the civil rights movement of the U.S. South, political and economic empowerment were its goals. And for Black farmers, in 1967 and today, the struggle for land ownership has been central to that goal. Making Contact's Monica Lopez has more.

Monica Lopez: A family farmer's greatest resource is land. On it, they grow food, build homes and raise their families. But farmers across the United States have, acre by acre, been steadily losing their grasp on not just a means of production but a way of life.

Anuradha Mittal: If you look at the latest census figures of this country, actually the category of farmer has been removed as a profession.

Monica Lopez: Anuradha Mittal is co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, and author of "The Last Plantation," an article on the history of land ownership by Black farmers.

Anuradha Mittal: When less than 1% of the population is engaging in a profession, it is not seen as a profession. So compared to the last century when agriculture was one of the main employers of all Americans, when most of the Americans were seen professionally as farmers, that category today has been removed. So, forget about being an endangered species, American farmer today is an extinct species, according to government records and census figures.

Monica Lopez: According to Mittal, the current rate of land loss from African-American farmers is best explained in the historical context of Southern Reconstruction, the years after slavery.

Anuradha Mittal: Well I think if you have to understand the land ownership of, you know, by African Americans, we have to go back to the period of Reconstruction. All freed men, refugees and freed men could lease land. And they had the option to buy it after a period of three years. And a couple of weeks before that, the Congress had passed the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution banning slavery in the country, declaring in their words that Negro was now to be a free man. And after having freed the slaves they wanted to put that slave on the path of economic independence. However, you know many of us would like to believe that "forty acres and a mule" and, you know, freedom to the slaves and everything was fine and dandy. What we actually find, that the bill that was presented before the House had no real teeth. First of all, soon after the Civil War was over, President Andrew Johnson forgave and pardoned these white aristocrats and returned the land to them. And very soon the old economic feudal order was back in place. So, instead of these freed men becoming possessors of land, what you had was them becoming share croppers or tenants on the fields of the Whites. Monica Lopez: As their most basic function, agricultural cooperatives operate by pooling the resources of all of its member farmers for the purposes of lowering production costs, sharing resources and generating greater profits.

FSC formed out of the civil rights movement of the 1960's with the goal of building economic and political resources and collective self-empowerment for its members to draw from. The Federation is made up of 22 agricultural, worker and credit cooperatives with over 20,000 members throughout the U.S. South.

Mittal says that Black farmers need an economic base and critical information to compete in the marketplace, and FSC rose out of that need.

Anuradha Mittal: It came out of the civil rights movement. In the South where it saw that in order to put African-American community at par with the other community, the Whites, they needed not only political independence, they needed economic independence as well. So though by the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, United States had abandoned slavery. It really had not. It had made sure that the so-called freed men remained slaves and surfs to the economic order. So in order to challenge that the Federation of Southern Cooperatives came into being to actually put the African-American community onto path of economic independence, make them possessors of the land to till the land, to provide them information what grows best. To provide information about crop rotation, so they're not just dependent on monocultures of cotton and other cash crops, given the destruction that it had cost in their lives in the early century. So given that, Federation of Southern Cooperative is not just a business enterprise. It is a political movement and has contributed to the civil rights movement.

Monica Lopez: According to the agricultural census released every five years, 80,000 black farmers lost their land from 1975-1985. In 1997, 400 lost their land. So although farmers are still losing land, John Zippert, Director of the FSC's Rural Training and Research Center, says the organization is helping farmers gain ground in counties where the Federation operates by providing technical assistance and loan brokering. John Zippert:

John Zippert: This whole issue of Black land ownership and the difficulties of it are a big part of the Federation's program. Now we can also kind of show cases where the Federation. . .those counties where the Federation has a cooperative and an active operation, we have stopped the loss of land in some cases. And in some cases even reversed the problem. But, you know, we're talking about a problem that's going on in every county in the South where Black people own land. So if we are working fifty or sixty counties and can show some stabilizing of this problem or even in some cases a reversal and an actual acquisition of land by black people, that's a great success. But overall the problem continues. And without significant resources to help people buy land or land bank their land or work out ways to transfer their land to other people of color, then we face a really serious problem that Black land ownership may not exist.

Monica Lopez: According to an April 1997 report from the Farmers Home Administration, over 90 percent of all farm loans went to White farmers, while 2.3 percent went to Black farmers. In Mittal's article, "The Last Plantation," she points out that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which studied the problem, said black farmers are "subjugated to disrespect, embarrassment and humiliation by USDA officials."

In February, 1997, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and then-Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed held civil rights hearings on these issues. Mittal says they heard a number of troubling testimonies from farmers.

Anuradha Mittal: One of the farmers that we had met, Winston Munk and his wife, they lost their businesses and they saw their farm being put up for auction. And Monk's farm was assessed at $237,000. But it was picked up for only $88,000 by Harry Vass, representing the USDA. So in order to meet up the loan requirements the lands have been auctioned. And most of the time they've been picked up by folks representing the USDA who then might sell it off to agri-businesses. But each day Black farmers lose about a thousand acres of land and they claim that 53% of USDA land holdings used to belong to the African-American farmers.

Monica Lopez: The need for these testimonies and the lawsuits that followed, arose from changes instituted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980's, says John Zippert.

John Zippert: President Reagan when he came into office in 1981 abolished the office within the Department of Agriculture that dealt with civil rights complaints. So even if you filed a complaint either in writing or verbally or otherwise, between 1981 and 1996, your complaint was never acted upon because the government had abolished the office and the staff and the procedures and so on, for dealing with your complaint.

So this case involves a class of people who were Black farmers who attempted to secure assistance during the fifteen-year period 1981 to '96 and who in some way or other made a complaint of discrimination during that period. And it didn't have to be a written complaint. It could have been a verbal complaint. It could have been going to meetings with other farmers to complain. And you basically have to document your claim to this effect. I think initially the government thought there might be three to five thousand people in the class. Over 20,000 people submitted a claim in the first go around, and I understand there's another group of 20,000 people who filed a late claim whose late claims have not yet been acted upon by the government.

Monica Lopez: The Federation of Southern Co-ops sued the USDA for the acquisition of complaints in the absence of a USDA department to oversee such cases, and won.

Subsequently, over one thousand African-American farmers sued the USDA for $3 billion in compensation as part of a class-action lawsuit. Both parties settled out of court for a single payment of $50,000 for each farmer. For John Zippert, some money is better than years upon years of litigation. But he says the settlement didn't go after the government officials who allegedly violated civil rights laws.

In the meantime, the Federation's objective of building community and bettering the quality of life for family farmers and low-income co-op community members will continue in spite of outside obstacles to fulfilling their mission.

John Zippert: Although many people say that poor people should help themselves, what I have found when you really organize people to help themselves, people consider that to be a threat economically, politically to the social system and every other way. So this is not an easy job. That shouldn't surprise us. But it's just an indication that often people are duplicitous when they say poor people should do things to help themselves. Because when they really do that, in many cases we encounter even greater opposition.

Monica Lopez: For Making Contact, I'm Monica Lopez.

Stephanie Welch: That's it for this edition of Making Contact: A look at cooperative movements around the world. Thanks for listening. Phillip Babich is our managing producer. Laura Livoti is managing director. Peggy Law, executive director. Associate producer, Shereen Meraji. Senior advisor, Norman Solomon. National producer, David Barsamian. Women's Desk coordinator, Lisa Rudman. Prison Desk coordinator, Eli Rosenblatt. And, I'm your host and associate producer, Stephanie Welch.

If you want more information about the topic of this week's program, or how to get in touch with any of our guests, call the National Radio Project at 1-800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tapes and transcripts. That's 800-529-5736. You can also go to our website at that's Making Contact is an independent production. We're committed to providing a forum for voices and opinions not often heard in the mass media. If you have suggestions for future programs, we'd like to hear from you. Our theme music is by the Charlie Hunter trio. Bye for now.