Lessons from the Italian cooperatives

Italy leads the way

Today we discuss the rich tradition of Italian cooperatives, and the role of cooperative federations in promoting cooperatives. We believe that stronger cooperative federations in the U.S. could have a positive impact on our economy and society.

However, the overarching question is: Does the United States need strong cooperative institutions and educational programs to promote the value of cooperatives, or is a societal recognition of the value of cooperatives a prerequisite to strong cooperative institutions? 

An example of where both exist is in Italy. Support for cooperatives cuts across political parties, religious traditions, and generational lines. In fact, the Italian Constitution itself explicitly recognizes the social function of cooperation and its contribution to the country. Article 45 of the Italian Constitution states, “The republic recognizes the social function of cooperation for mutual benefit free of private speculation. The Law promotes and encourages its implementation with suitable provisions and ensures its character and purposes through proper controls.” Along with societal support are strong institutions that promote and develop cooperatives.

Legacoop, for example, is a cooperative federation in Italy consisting of 14,500 cooperatives. The federation includes cooperatives that operate in a variety of industries, including construction, agriculture and manufacturing. Among other activities, Legacoop promotes cooperative values, develops cooperative businesses, and advocates for policies nationally and internationally that support cooperatives.

The following are some of the innovative practices Legacoop has developed to promote cooperatives in Italy:

  1. Legacoop is involved in the development of cooperatives in diverse sectors such as consumption, building, social services, and culture. The diversification of their cooperative portfolio is a smart strategy because it increases their chances of establishing successful business models and reaching different audiences.
  2. Legacoop provides consulting to small- and medium- sized cooperatives as they try to compete with global businesses in the global economy. “Innovacoop” focuses on innovation and international growth, and provides consulting and training services.
  3. Legacoop creates competitions to get youth interested in cooperative development. The federation works with universities to create contests and training programs to inspire the next generation of cooperative entrepreneurs. The project “Bellacoopia,” for example, is a business plan competition that assists students in creating business plans for cooperative enterprises. Similar to business plan competitions in the U.S., the winning ideas are selected based on the economic sustainability of the idea and its originality. This model of promoting the values of cooperation, mutuality, and solidarity through a competition, though not intuitive, could still prove to be successful in reaching young people.

So where should we begin here in the U.S.?

Legacoop is successful in part because it is building off of a strong foundation of Italian cooperatives. While there are a lot of cooperatives in the United States, our geographic expanse may make collaboration more difficult. However, here in the Bay Area we are blessed with the country’s largest concentration of worker cooperatives. So, perhaps the Bay Area is where we begin.

First, we should emphasize building interest among the next generation of social entrepreneurs. With young college graduates struggling to find work, cooperative training programs could spur entrepreneurs to pool their risks and start companies that are focused on the values of this generation- sustainability, community building, and fairness.  Examples could be certificate programs at local community colleges, business plan contests for cooperative entrepreneurs, or screening educational films at schools and colleges. Similar to Legacoop, we could conduct tours of existing cooperatives and educate youth on the values of co-operation, packaged as part of cooperative classes or training programs.

In conjunction with building interest, educating people on the benefits of the cooperative model is important. In Italy, people see the value of the cooperative model in providing social services, for example, to vulnerable populations. These “social cooperatives” can provide health care or educational services, or they can be “training cooperatives” that employ disadvantaged populations. Members can be providers, beneficiaries, volunteers, or public institutions, and this ensures multi-stakeholder input into the provision of services. One analysis of Italian social cooperatives explained that these cooperatives experience success in providing social services to the vulnerable since workers in a democratic, horizontal structure tend to be more motivated and invested in their work since they have an ownership stake in it. In addition, the analysis noted that these cooperatives, due to their preference for solidarity, may be more likely to establish networks of trust with other similar actors in the region.

What seems clear is that in these challenging economic times, people and institutions are increasingly willing to discard outdated and ineffective models of economic development and are embracing radically new visions of economic prosperity. If we can demonstrate how cooperative enterprises provide opportunities for ownership and management to all, but especially to low-income individuals and communities of color, then people will gravitate towards them. Due to the success of worker-cooperatives in the Bay Area and increased education, we’re already seeing the uptick in interest in the cooperative model among our workshop participants and clinic clients. For example, we had over 70 people attend our Think Outside the Boss workshop on how to create a worker cooperative this past Saturday, Nov. 17th! Out of those attendees, 15 people came forward with requests for legal assistance for their cooperative business ideas.

The example of Legacoop offers a practical path forward in the United States. It highlights the importance and necessity of a multi-faceted approach that combines promoting cooperative values, youth interest and support services to emerging worker-cooperatives.  This, along with demonstrating success, is a resonating lesson of the Italian cooperative experience.

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