Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Europe’s co-op boom

In some parts of Europe, workers' co-operatives are well-established parts of the economy

June 16, 2010
4 min read

More than 140 million people are members of co-ops of all kinds in Europe. Some 10 per cent of France’s employees work in the co-operative sector – consumer as well as workers’ co-ops – while the continent in general is having a worker co-op boom. There are now 83,000 such enterprises in 42 countries, employing 1.3 million people, well over double the number in 1982. There are some regions, however, that have a particularly strong history of co-operativism.

Emilia Romagna

In Emilia Romagna in northern Italy, networking by thousands of small co-operatives has produced a regional economy that is the 10th richest in Europe. Emilia Romagna has the lowest unemployment rate in Italy and the highest GDP per capita. Just under half of the region’s inhabitants are members of at least one co-operative. With more than a century of co-operative history, the region now boasts more than 8,000 co-operatives. But it hasn’t always been this good and building this vast network has been a real struggle.

In 1926 the fascist movement, through the National Fascist Board of Co-operation, took over all the co-operatives and removed their autonomy. For two decades they fought hard to retain any independence, with members killed or imprisoned for resisting fascist control.

When fascism was defeated the movement began to rebuild, forming three national co-operative movements. The ‘Lega’ group represents the political left, ‘Confco-op’ represents the Catholic centre-right, and the ‘Associazione’ represents the centre-left, with a large number of unaffiliated co-operatives operating outside these three groupings. The legislative and local government environment is favourable towards co-operatives, with tax benefits and other supportive legislation in place.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect in relation to the UK today is the use of co-ops in social care. In Italy there are now over 3,000 social care co-operatives, employing nearly 60,000 people, many of whom are handicapped or were formerly marginalised from mainstream society. In Emilia most of these are workers co-ops. They range in size from 10 or 12 members to over 500 in the case of CADIAI, which provides a range of health services and elderly care.

First organised in the early 1970s, social care co-ops were formed by care-givers and families to provide services to the disabled that were not available from the state. Today, their turnover is over 1.3 billion euros, amounting to 13 per cent of Italian expenditure for social services. In Bologna, over 85 per cent of the city’s social services are provided through social care co-ops.

In a recent study of elderly care in Emilia Romagna, it was shown that social co-ops provided a superior service at 50 per cent of the cost of state programmes. This can be traced to a number of factors, including more flexible working conditions, lower labour costs and greater commitment among workers resulting.

The Basque Country and Mondragón

The first workers’ co-op in the Basque region was set up in the early 1950s with a handful of members. The Mondragón network started in 1956 with a small stove factory built by five former students of a priest named José María Arizmendiarrieta. A focus on domestic appliances and machine tools for the protected Spanish market allowed the network to expand.

Today Mondragón has more than 66,000 employees operating over 160 co-ops, of which 135 are industrial, six financial and 14 involved in distribution. The three sectors are backed by the Caja (bank), and by housing, schools, health clinics, training co-ops and even a university founded in 1997. Mondragón is the Basque country’s largest business corporation and the seventh largest business group in Spain.

At the time that Mondragón was started, Franco was in power and trade unions were banned. But agricultural co-op laws allowed workers to own their workplaces and the co-ops provided protection for workers who were otherwise easily exploited. However, debates rage over how radical this sprawling business group really is today.

This debate intensified after 1991 when over 100 co-ops, previously organised by geographic regions and linked through the Caja, reorganised in three business sectors as Mondragón Co-operative Corporation. This allowed speedy, centralised decision making but opened them up to the criticism that they had lost their internal democracy and adopted too similar a form to the corporate sector. There are now large pay differentials between workers, although the ‘salary’ is based on a democratically agreed job rating index. Share capital also still only carries one vote per person and with no non-worker owners, co-ops remain in the hands of their active workforces.

In her book The Myth of Mondragón, Sharryn Kasmir discusses a number of problems, from working conditions under ‘just in time’ production methods to lack of union representation and a depoliticisation and loss of solidarity amongst workers. She argues that these issues are cemented by commentators from abroad eulogising the model without any critical engagement, limiting the possibility of the co-ops developing on more progressive lines.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


18