So, Emilia Romagna is fascinating and
it’s fascinating because it’s not just one worker co-op. You can point to
one worker co-op in the States here and there and people are like “okay, maybe
it’s not totally utopian” but they still can’t imagine how it fits together. They
can they can see the business but they can’t see the economy. You look at Emilia
Romagna though and you see an economy in which one-third of the GDP of this
region (it’s a small region, maybe four million people) but one-third of the
economy is generated out of cooperative business. This is really, really incredible.
Across different kind of work, right? Yep, across different kinds
of work, different kinds of cooperatives (some worker cooperatives, some consumer
cooperatives, some producer cooperatives), but all really working together and held
together in this really incredible ecosystem. And that’s the key thing, right.
It’s not a it’s not a monolith. It’s not, you know, one great idea that just
happened to be really, really successful. It’s an ecosystem of innovation, of
mutual support, of cooperative finance and all of these pieces fit together. And
you have a situation where if you’re talking to somebody on the street you
have a 1 in 20 chance of meeting somebody who’s a worker owner
in a worker co-op. It’s an incredible, incredible cooperative density compared
to the to the United States. And is it reasonable to say that it has existed
for so many years that obviously it meets a need, it’s something that the
people there value, it’s something that they work to reproduce, that if there are
enemies to work on coops they have not been able to undo this cooperatively
Yeah. I definitely think so. I mean, you see that it has generated
real results for the people of the region, like higher wages. It’s one of the,
honestly, it’s one of the most prosperous parts of Italy in part because you’ve
had this cooperative economic development strategy that brings
together basically small and medium sized enterprises (some cooperatively held, some not cooperatively held), but all kind of tied together in a big
network of innovation. And that network of innovation produces, you know, high
quality food products, high quality ceramics products, does exports, cabinets
across the world, all sorts of really interesting small
industries that together form really a network of prosperity for the
region. And that is, I think, you know something that people are really
attached to. I think they’ve developed the policies to accelerate this.
The government in that area supports them. In other words the government
provides benefits, supports, contracts to the worker co-op sector just the way it
does to the capitalist sector and the economy. I think that’s a very
important issue because here in the United States, for example, when you talk
about building up worker co-ops, people tend to think well that can only happen
if the government helps them. As if there’s something wrong with that.
And then I have to explain it, because I do economic history, that the history of
capitalism is the history of endless efforts by every capitalist enterprise
to get subsidies, to get contracts. The state has been supporting capitalism. All
that the worker co-ops would ask is basically a level playing field of
getting that kind of support for their alternative way of organizing business.
Yeah, and that’s what’s happening in Emilia Romagna and Italy more generally.
You have a number of interlocking policies around cooperative finance: you
have to take 3% of your net profits as a co-op and
basically kick them down to the next generation of cooperative entrepreneurs.
To give them capital to help their business. Exactly exactly
If you’re unemployed, your business folds in Italy, there’s something called the
Marcora Law which allows you to take some of your unemployment benefits but
also to access wider cooperative finance and take over your business, run it as a
cooperative. Do it better than the bosses who ran it into the ground. So
there’s all sorts of policies like this: favorable tax treatment, things that
allow cooperatives to self-finance themselves and to keep money flowing
within the co-operative economy. So the worker co-ops, I assume, have been
working to get politicians, political leaderships, government agencies to give
them that support. In other words, there’s a kind of almost natural collaboration
between the worker co-op and at least parts of the political structure to
reinforce each other, just the way capitalist businesses cultivated relationships
with their political parties to get the support of the state. And there’s nothing
that should prevent the worker co-op from basically doing that too.
Yep. And just like, you know, traditional businesses will have things like the Chamber of
Commerce and things like that, in the Italian situation you have very powerful
cooperative federations that worker co-ops are part of, depending
on exactly where on the ideological spectrum they lie. And these cooperative
federations provide policy advocacy but they also provide technical assistance,
they provide financing support. So they become powerful ways of banding together for the cooperative economy.
So a politician, not to push the point, but a politician would
not want to be viewed negatively by the association of worker co-ops because that
would hurt his or her chances of reelection etc. In other words, they
have to respond to the worker co-op sector given that it’s a third or more
of the economy in their region. They couldn’t possibly ignore it, or at least
it would be a political warfare of some sort.