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Our First Visit to Basque Country

June 15, 20110 Comments

Sheep grazing in the hills of Spanish Basque Country

We recently returned from a research trip to the beautiful Basque Country in northern Spain where the Mondragon Corporation has its roots. While we won’t actually begin filming at the Mondragon factories until this fall, we had a wonderful time touring the area, making connections, and further honing our vision of the kinds of stories we want to feature in the film, Shift Change: Putting Democracy to Work.

Thoughts on our trip

Well, 9 hours of time zone change does take some adjustment….

GuesthouseWe booked a rural guesthouse for lodging near Mondragon, and found ourselves in a lovely area of small farms, close to town. Like many areas that we saw, there were small farms on the hillsides, with towns and cities tucked into valleys, often with a huge factory on the outskirts, a source of employment for people of that town.

Many of the towns, like Mondragon, have a long history, and the central part of the town, the “casco viejo,” has a stone plaza and narrow walking streets. In the summer season especially after work, these central areas are full of people who are out visiting with neighbors and enjoying the offerings of local cafes and bars, often “pintxos”, snacks of incredible variety, and small glasses of beer or wine. Children run rampant. People seem relaxed.

BoatsOn one such afternoon in Mondragon, we met some members of one of the Fagor Cooperatives, the oldest and largest of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. They shared some of their views, let us know that all were doing a re-training around cooperativism and the roots of the Mondragon system which was inspired by a Catholic priest, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta 55 years ago.

Basque country has a very long industrial history, and particularly around the town of Mondragon, we saw factories everywhere, factories that produce household appliances, auto parts, industrial machinery, etc. But in addition to that, many institutions are organized as coops, such as Mondragon University, a banking system, language training centers, social service agencies, research and development centers, and a major supermarket chain. Employees in the Mondragon coop system number around 85,000.

After a week or so in that part of Basque country, we traveled to the town of Gernika [commonly called Guernica]. This town is known from the Picasso painting “Guernica” of what was a devastating airstrike by German and Italian Nazi war planes during the Spanish civil war that leveled the city in 1937. It has been rebuilt, but retains a central plaza and walking streets.

Narrow Streets in Basque CountryMaier, a factory on the outskirts of Guernica affiliated with the Mondragon cooperatives, produces plastic auto parts and employs 1,000 residents. Passing by one afternoon we struck up a conversation with two men leaving the factory. They explained some of the benefits they saw of working in the cooperative. With the recent downturn in the economy, the coop members voted to reduce their own salaries rather than lay people off.

The economic downturn has had a major impact in Spain, where unemployment is 20%. This provoked massive demonstrations particularly in the Plaza Puerta del Sol in Madrid where thousands camped for weeks. We saw tents pitched in the plazas of Bilbao and Vitoria in Basque country, but unemployment is only at 8% there.

This visit was a great introduction to the beauty of Basque country, and the people who proudly speak the Basque language unrelated to any other in the world, [but fortunately for us, also Spanish]. We are eager to return in the fall to film for the segment of Shift Change about the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation to show the impact of an economy organized around cooperatives after several decades.

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