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Solidarity at Work: The Case of Mondragon

18 Jul 2013

Solidarity at Work: The Case of Mondragon
This is part of a series of think pieces by scholars and practitioners working on a broad range of issues within the field of Social and Solidarity Economy. The series is being published in conjunction with the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference took place on 6-8 May 2013 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

This think piece aims to reflect on the shared moral feelings and motivations on which to base and orientate cooperative action. In this paper, when considering the question about the reproduction of cooperative culture it is important to address the field of values. One of these values is the principle of solidarity. We highlight the fact that values are not merely normative, rational principles but have an experienced and embodied dimension. We briefly analyze the experience of the long-standing Mondragon Cooperative Movement as a relevant case study to illustrate how the value of solidarity plays out.

Larraitz Altuna-Gabilondo is a lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities and Educational Sciences and researcher at LANKI, the Institute of Cooperative Research, at the Mondragon University, Basque Country. Her PhD research focuses on sustainability and cooperative culture.

The cultural basis of economic performance

One of the defining features of the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) is the prominence of solidarity. In the field of work, the practice of solidarity is expressed through cooperative relations. However, cooperation is not a formula but a culture (Sarasua, 2009). Cooperative action, whether in the field of work or in any other, means talking about the imaginary, beliefs, behaviours and cultural patterns.

SSE organizations need an enabling environment, just as a tree needs a healthy ecosystem to grow vigorously. It is well known that creating and sustaining SSE organizations is much more complex than merely creating capital-based companies. Cooperative culture requires that demanding and complex conditions be reproduced, because the global business culture is anything but cooperative (Sarasua, 2009).

A view of Mondragon and the neighborhood of Garagartza, behind Anboto mountain.
Photograph courtesy of Edurne Balzategi.

Social and Solidarity Economy and the marketplace

There is a common assumption that while the organizations subsumed under the category of the SSE are expanding into the market, they are losing those elements of their identity that distinguish them from conventional, for-profit private companies. As a result there is an implicit belief that SSE should naturally grow on the fringes of the market economy, where private companies do not find sufficient profit incentives. In such cases, value-oriented enterprise performance seems to act as a restriction on purposive rational business.

However, there are many socio-entrepreneurial experiences within SSE that from the very beginning perform in a market environment. The market is the battleground in which they perform. They are cooperative, self-managed and/or mutualist enterprises that produce for the market and not merely to satisfy their members’ needs. SSE experiences of this type show us that what best characterizes them is the idea of penetration more than the idea of restriction.

In these cases, the key point is not to build a retaining wall, which the market and its structures cannot permeate, but to penetrate the marketplace with its own logic and different way of performing. Therefore, the aim is to open up a space for deploying democratic and community logic that provides a personal and collective sense, so necessary to humans in economic affairs (Sarasua, 2009). Market cooperativism in general, and the Mondragon cooperative movement in particular, can be seen as one example of this.

These organizations perform by interacting with companies of a different nature in a given terrain—the market—whose morphology is much better suited to a non-cooperative business model, key features of which are financial structures and institutions, business regulatory frameworks, market regulations, economics and commerce, legislation, competitive pressures, educational institutions and individualistic values.

It is in this habitat that SSE organizations emerge as a minority and deploy their own logic. The defining characteristic is their minority status rather than the link with the market per se. This minority status is a source of multiple tensions and pressures in terms of economic, social, cultural and symbolic performance. Therefore, the cooperative culture needs to be lubricated constantly to counteract the mainstream individualistic and competitive values (Sarasua, 2009). This is even more true since capitalist companies have begun to pay attention to social aspects, through the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda,1 for instance.

Values at work

In the mid and long term, SSE organizations will be capable of continuing to be SSE organizations only if they can reproduce strong elements of their identity: namely, a value-oriented collective identity under conditions of high contingency.

We assume, together with Hans Joas, that “commitment to values is not the result of rational-argumentative justifications, but of experiences of self-formation and self-transcendence. Experiences in which we transcend the boundaries of ourselves and in which something appears to us as good in an emotionally intense way” (Joas, 2004: 397). A value statement is little more than a statement of intent. One cannot have the factual reality on one side, and values on the other. In this sense, we should note that moral motivation is not about pure rational action since it implies emotional involvement. When compared with instrumental rationality, value rationality is confusing to say the least, because the commitment to values is firstly experiential, something that is primarily experienced and felt. Therefore, something becomes valuable (for example, solidarity) not because it emanates from hard normative postulates but because it provides a certain social identification with such an intensity that it leads to a creative experience through which the value commitment arises.

Mondragon: the path of solidarity

Cooperative relations are based on certain values, among which we would like to highlight the value of solidarity. Solidarity as a value reference emerges as an intersubjective category that bonds the enterprise to its environment. To put it another way, solidarity would be a way to broadening the sense of us. Introducing solidarity at work means to be in permanent dialogue with others. Those others are identified depending on how we see ourselves and the social interpretation we make. The content moves. For instance, it applies not only to those with whom we have joined forces in order to undertake a socio-economic adventure, it also includes those who have nothing to put in their mouths. Of course, in between the two, there are many intermediate levels of action to express solidarity. Put another way, solidarity is about a particular balance of collective and individual interests.

Workers resting outside of Fagor Ederlan iron foundry production plant.
Photograph courtesy of Edurne Balzategi.

According to Jose María Arizmendiarrieta (1915-1976), the founder and ideological leader of the Mondragon Cooperative Movement, solidarity is characterized as a common good. A moral virtue, something on a par with equality and freedom. Solidarity is a human responsibility. The commitment to solidarity is something expansive, it has no limit and it has to proceed from the nearest to the farthest: among workers, from producers to consumers, from savers to investors, from one economic sector to another, from industry to the countryside, from one generation to another, and so on. In his view, solidarity has a strong link with its peer fraternity or brotherhood, which appeals to those who are close by and somehow connected. So, the different others are neither in conflict nor separated. They appear integrated into the same framework of understanding.

However, the Mondragon cooperative movement’s lengthy experience illustrates how the very idea of integration is not free of tension. In its early days, Mondragon’s commitment to solidarity was very strong and took various forms: pay policy, distribution of surplus policy, transfer of resources, employment assistance services, community-based development initiatives, inter-cooperation initiatives among different cooperatives, and so on. In every sense, all those items were understood in terms of performance based on solidarity values. The cooperative company had to be organized within a sort of solidarity regime.

Over time, the general value of solidarity has been institutionalized via procedures, codes, and regulations such as: various shared funds for promoting social, educational and cultural activities; mechanisms for support and aid among cooperatives; pay ceilings that promote greater economic equality, and a better distribution of wealth.

However, in recent years, as the cooperative movement has become more and more complex, active solidarity has been giving way to a sort of bureaucratically administered solidarity (Azkarraga 2007). According to Arizmendiarrieta, the spirit of cooperative solidarity should appeal to a feeling that goes deeper than merely exercising forms of institutional solidarity. The latter is useful as the last resort, but the moral feeling should be the real driver, not only in moments of crisis where solidarity is activated, but also as part of a day-to-day dynamic. At the same time, the meaning of the term solidarity is becoming more restrictive: less binding in relation to internal affairs and more projected towards society. The value of solidarity is mainly projected beyond the company. As a result, solidarity is increasingly being identified with the concept of corporate social responsibility.


There is much more to say and to refine, but this snapshot of how the value of solidarity plays out in Mondragon shows us that while solidarity is one of the core ideas of this cooperative movement, paradoxically, it is the focus of many tensions, which need to be examined and debated. It is clear that it is time to revive its potential for creating vision, meaning and strategy in the social action of cooperatives. Much of Arizmendiarrieta´s concept of solidarity could be rescued and relaunched on the basis of the current context. Certainly, sustaining cooperative identity depends to a large extent on maximizing the concept of solidarity. This comment about Mondragon could also apply to other SSE organizations.


Altuna, L. 2011. Responsabilidad social cooperativa y sostenibilidad a comienzos del siglo XX.Informe de investigación, Universidad Pública de Navarra.

Azkarraga, J. 2007. Mondragón ante la globalización: la cultura cooperativa vasca ante el cambio de época. Cuadernos Lanki, Eskoriatza.

Azurmendi, J. 1988. El hombre cooperativo. Otalora, Aretxabaleta.

Joas, H. 2004. “Morality in an age of contingency”, Acta Sociológica, Vol. 47, No. 4.

Sarasua, J. 2009. Mondragón en un nuevo siglo. Síntesis reflexiva de la experiencia cooperativa. Cuadernos Lanki, Eskoriatza.


Both Mondragón ante la globalización: la cultura cooperativa vasca ante el cambio de época and Mondragón en un nuevo siglo. Síntesis reflexiva de la experiencia cooperativa have been translated into English and may be requested from LANKI's publication unit at the Institute of Co-operative Research at Mondragon Univertsitatea.

1The basic set-up of the CSR agenda, which has been increasingly gaining strength, is based on the capitalist business model. It is frequently said that SSE organizations are much better equipped to address social needs. But it is not enough to simply proclaim this; a cooperative theoretical basis is needed to effectively respond to corporate models of social responsibility.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.