Business
8:54 am
Wed December 5, 2012

Would you work harder if you owned a slice of the company?

Disputes between workers and management have dominated headlines lately – the Hostess bakery shutdown, protests at Walmart, engineers pitted against Boeing.

But there is another business model that promises greater harmony – worker-owned cooperatives. A team of filmmakers from Whidbey Island, Melissa  Young and Mark Dworkin, has just released a documentary about worker-owned businesses called Shift Change. It screens Thursday night in Seattle at Pacific Place Theater. Young spoke with KPLU about the film.

A big part of the documentary is devoted to a group of worker-owned cooperatives in Mondragon, Spain that date back 60 years. The Mondragon cooperatives make everything from airplane parts to home appliances, and even have their own bank and research university.

"For the most part, these coops in the Basque region have not seen the kinds of layoffs, unemployment that they've seen in the rest of Spain," Young said.

The workers buy into the businesses and then share in the profits. They all have a voice in the decision making. When the Great Recession hit in 2008 and demand for their products slumped, the cooperatives moved workers to other businesses that were doing better, and some of the coops voted to reduce their salaries.

U.S. worker coops

U.S. worker-owned cooperatives are also featured in the film - including an automation equipment maker in Madison, Wisconsin, called Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing, a chain of worker-owned bakeries in the San Francisco Bay Area called Arizmendi (named after the founder of the Mondragon cooperatives), and the Equal Exchange fair trade coffee company, which runs an espresso bar in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.

Workers say they like having a say in decisions and that there's not a huge gap in pay between workers and top management. They say owning a slice of the company motivates them to work harder.

As one man who works for Isthmus in Wisconsin explained, "I worked for a big company up in Fond du Lac. There it didn't seem to matter how hard I worked or how little I did - it made no difference. I wanted to go to a place where I could make a difference."

Young says there's a steep learning curve for people who go to work for cooperatives in the U.S. because the concept isn't well-known.

"It's not always easy," Young said. "People sometimes come into these work situations and they're just so unused to really having a say."