The re-emergence of cooperatives worldwide

Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Hazel Corcoran, Executive Director of the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation reports on a press controversy around coops:

“Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, Canadians who made the film ‘The Take’ in 2004 about worker takeovers in Argentina, are at it again.

In their recent blog posting called “The Cure for Layoffs: Fire the Boss!”, they passionately made the case for hostile worker takeovers as a response to the economic crisis. Although they mention worker co-operatives generally, their focus is on mainly on protests, “bossnappings”, sit-ins and the like.

CanWest newspapers printed the attack on Klein and Lewis’ article without ever having printed the article itself.

Evidently, they touched a nerve. Philosophy professor Joseph Heath wrote an opinion piece in response which appeared in at least four Canadian daily newspapers: “Economics for lefties: Co-ops sound great if you hate big corporations. Not so great if you care about how they work in real life”.

Oddly enough, CanWest newspapers printed Heath’s response without ever having printed the original Klein and Lewis article. Heath states that, “Klein and Lewis, I must admit, make me a bit crazy. … They blame problems on totally fictitious causes, then recommend solutions that are guaranteed not to work. Like co-ops. … Co-ops are not a ‘cure for layoffs.’ They cause unemployment.”

Co-op supporters should laugh at his ire, not cry. As Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” If we believe this, then we are three-quarters of the way there!

Of course in the co-operative way, if “we” win, everybody wins. The point would be to get away from having winners and losers. Co-ops are about creating an economy in which people matter more than profit; in which we create an environment in which people are free to discover the gifts that they bring to this world and have a way to develop them and contribute them to the common good.

Canadian co-operators responded vociferously to Heath’s opinion piece through various letters to the editor, refuting every point. You can see some of these letters printed as comments at the bottom of the Ottawa Citizen site.

In fact, Heath’s argument is refuted by the full scope of the worker co-op movement which has arisen around the world. In Europe, for example, there are approximately 50,000 worker co-ops with more than 1.4 million worker-owners. Many are manufacturing businesses. In the region in and around Mondragon, Spain, where the economy is based on worker co-operatives, there is lower unemployment than in other regions of Spain.

CICOPA (the International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Co-operatives, which promotes worker co-operatives) notes that “in France alone, in 2007, there were 70 cases of business transfers to employees.” The European Parliament has recently passed a resolution in favour of the social economy, which supports business transfer to co-operatives, 580 votes to 27 with 44 abstentions. The success of worker co-operatives, especially in Europe demonstrates the great potential there is for North American workers.

In Canada, legendary labour leader Lynn Williams spoke at the founding meeting of the Western Labour-Worker Co-op Council in September 2006, which has become an active and thriving organization, as reported in the first issue of Work Together. Similar efforts are underway in the US, with a conference on labour solidarity and worker co-ops held in early August, 2009.

“People are absolutely starving for alternatives to our broken system,” as Avi Lewis said in his speech at the Canadian Co-operative Association Congress several years ago. He went on, “But they aren’t getting them – they don’t know about them — and that’s where Co-operators will either seize the moment, or watch history pass us by. … It is, after all, when the market fails that co-operatives have historically come to the rescue of communities, economic sectors, even whole ways of life…

“[T]his is both a major challenge and a huge opportunity for you as co-operators right here in Canada. These sites of creative resistance, of urgent struggle and deep co-operation are often not even on the radar…. They need to be.”

Even staunch free-marketers like Joseph Heath have to admit that the current economic system is broken. (Well, he doesn’t, in this article, but most observers do.) Gandhi also said that wealth without work and commerce without morality are two of the seven worldly sins. Perhaps that’s why the free-market capitalist economy broke down.

We need to not only fix it but to replace it with another, co-operative economy whose basic goal is to meet human needs. The stories about co-operatives in Europe and Argentina and around the world demonstrate the worker co-operative movement (even the whole co-operative movement) can be an effective response to the global economic crisis.

But the co-op story needs to reach the public, through voices such as those of Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, who speak and write with passion and eloquence. We need more public champions, particularly at a time when the corporate-controlled media are spreading misleading, negative information about the worker co-op and broader co-op movements.

If Gandhi was right, then defensive (not to say defamatory) articles in business media are a promising sign. In Avi Lewis’ words, at least we are “on the radar”. Let us seize the opportunity to use all the networks and smaller media available to us, to highlight the practical steps being taken by activists working in the field. Then, indeed, we may be more than three-quarters of the way to overcoming our broken and exploitive economic system.”

Please note:

* There is a more recent and more comprehensive film about worker coops in Argentina, the award-winning ARGENTINA TURNING AROUND,

* an interview with the filmmakers –

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