Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Leire Mugerza Garate, President of the Mondragon Congress and Eroski's Governing Council President, Basque Country, Spain

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with co-operators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). On this occasion, the ILO interviewedLeire Mugerza Garate, President of the Mondragon Congress and Eroski's Governing Council President, Basque Country, Spain.

Article | 12 December 2023

Could you tell us about yourself?

I am Leire Mugerza, the President of the Mondragon Congress and also Eroski's Governing Council President. Eroski is a supermarket chain with nearly 1,542 outlets across Spain run as a worker-consumer hybrid co-operative within Mondragon. I have worked for Mondragon cooperatives throughout my career, starting in industry (EIKA) , then education (Lea Artibai) and then retail (Eroski).

In addition to this I am also the Vice-President of CEPES, the Social Economy Spanish organization, and member of the Spanish Economic and Social Council. All these different roles I play on behalf of MONDRAGON are important, as both institutions and society expect us to play a social leadership role in business.

How did you get involved with cooperatives?

I have a degree in engineering from the Mondragon University. I participated in the Dual Programme in the university, that allowed for dual training, work-study, and end-of-course and masters projects ranging from 10 months to three years allowing students to learn about cooperatives through practical experiences in the enterprises. I then worked for EIKA, an industrial cooperative that produces glass-ceramic light bulbs and kitchen appliances. Started in 1973, EIKA now has 1,000 workers around the world, with 5 plants and more than 20 commercial offices in different countries. Four out of every 10 glass-ceramic light bulbs in the world are from EIKA and more than 100 million kitchens have EIKA components. The experience with EIKA’s people and culture, that was when I totally became committed to the way cooperatives work, manage people, take decisions and so on. It is now for 25 years that I have been working with cooperatives and their support institutions.

What is the Mondragon corporation and federation of worker cooperatives about?

Mondragon is a socioeconomic business project deeply rooted in Basque culture, created by and for people working in finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. It is the outcome of a cooperative business project launched by Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta in 1956. Mondragon is a federation of cooperatives with strong links through common funds and solidarity mechanisms. It consists of 95 separate, self-governing cooperatives, around 80,000 people and 14 research and development centers, occupying first place in the Basque business ranking and tenth in Spain. Cooperation in investigation, knowledge, governance, or any other interesting issues, in which we can work together, it is very important for us. We operate throughout the world, with 104 production plants in 37 countries, commercial business in 53, and sales in more than 150. EXPLORE MONDRAGON includes of materials on the MONDRAGON cooperative model.

What makes the Mondragon model so unique? And do you think it is replicable in other contexts?

Mondragon is the biggest industrial cooperative in the world. Our cooperatives are based in a community or territory. Mondragon has international presence in more than 150 countries, but the headquarters are in the territory where they were created. All our cooperatives belong to the workers who are the owners of the cooperatives. We are present across banking, retail, research, and development, primary, secondary and tertiary education, and industry. They always operate under a worker cooperative model with the unique goal of social transformation.

Another important difference in our operations is solidarity in salaries with a ratio of one to six. In other words, if the cooperative's lowest salary is one, the maximum will be, at most, six. This may be difficult to understand from a profit-maximizing approach, but it works. This complex cooperative ecosystem was set up after years of work with multiple public-private projects and agreements. It has elements of good legislation, financing, advancing the cooperative culture, education and building a cooperative network.

The 2023 United Nations GA resolution on cooperatives notes the key characteristics of a cooperative ecosystem highlighting MONDRAGON as a good practice. We share with more than 3,000 visitors that come to MONDRAGON every year how we can replicate this model in different contexts. Key is to focus on education and new business creation. Toward that end we are working to establish a Social Economy Hub in collaboration with the Spanish government and Basque institutions. Inequalities are growing around the world. And if we really want to leave no one behind then we need more experiences like MONDRAGON. This is not only my personal opinion. As noted in this New Yorker article there are more people around the world that suggest the worker cooperative model, in the way of MONDRAGON, could be an alternative to current capitalism.

What do you think is the relevance of cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy for a better future?

In my opinion, the social and solidarity economy movement worldwide can be led by the experiences of the cooperative movement with its strong history. Cooperative movement can also be led by worker cooperatives because this is the most integral and consequential one with regard to the embodiment of cooperative values. In worker cooperatives labour, and workers, come first and the capital is a tool. This is our main difference from profit-maximizing companies. I strongly believe that cooperatives, despite their challenges, are a different and better way of doing business because we prioritize care for our communities. So, in my opinion, a more cooperative future means a better future.