What does Common Decency look like in practice, and how can co-operatives help to deliver it?

A good place to look is Mondragon, a town in the Basque region of northern Spain, and home of the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation, a family of 257 co-operatively-owned businesses. Together they form the largest co-operative in the world, employing 74,000 people globally.

It’s perhaps the closest you can get to seeing a complete co-operative economy in action. Mondragon’s businesses include everything from factories which manufacture bicycles to refrigeration equipment and telecoms. These, as with all its businesses, are worker and/or consumer-owned. Wages are 13% higher than the regional average, while pay ratios ensure that typically, no manager earns more than five times the wage of the lowest-paid worker.

They and the wider local economy are financed via Mondragon’s banking business, itself a credit union. This sits alongside insurance and an optional welfare scheme which supplements Spanish state benefits with retirement, bereavement and incapacity benefits. In retail, holdings include some of Spain’s best-known chains of supermarkets, petrol stations and travel agencies.

But while the colossal size and breadth of Mondragon’s business holdings is impressive in its own right, it’s only when you step back and look at how it all fits together that the genius of the system becomes clear.

Mondragon is key to understanding why the average GDP per capita in the Basque region is 30% higher than the rest of Spain. It’s an industrial region where median income outpaces even the country’s capital, Madrid. While the European debt crisis in 2009 hit the rest of Spain’s’ tourism and property-dependent economy hard, in the Basque region’s manufacturing and export-focussed economy, unemployment has consistently been almost half the Spanish average.

One reason for this is at its core, Mondragon isn’t just a family of businesses, it’s an economic system. Its not-for-profit co-operative banks provide finance to support the growth of its industries and contribute to their impressive resilience in good times and bad. Its co-operative shops sell products people need at fair prices, while good wages, social insurance and low levels of income inequality ensure people have money to spend in them.

And the whole system is supported by Mondragon university, also a co-operative, which develops the knowledge and skills of local people. The university works closely with Mondragon’s businesses, supporting innovation and R&D, while providing skilled graduates who understand the co-operative and its values.

So, when we talk about doubling the size of the UK’s co-operative sector, or building a more co-operative economy, remember Mondragon. Our vision of Common Decency isn’t just a dream or an idea; it’s a model that already exists. And it works.