Film Review: Solidarity Economics in Italy

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Trailer for “WEconomics: Italy” (2016), directed by Melissa Young & Mark Dworkin, Bullfrog Films, 19 minutes.

The Italian province of Emilia-Romagna is like a cooperative version of a Richard Scarry picture book. Everywhere you turn, there’s another happy co-op worker, providing a service that’s good for society.

There was a time when U.S. workers’ movements encompassed many forms of cooperation.

Unions, worker cooperatives, farmer and consumer cooperatives, credit unions—they were all part of the same discussion. The National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, for instance, organized producer and consumer cooperatives in the late 1800s. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and others built huge housing co-ops. Unions and cooperatives distributed food and proposed taking over industries in the 1919 Seattle General Strike.

And there’s a long history of cooperation in African American working-class communities, including co-ops formed by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, traced in historian Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s recent book Collective Courage.

But since the 1950s, the tide of collaboration has receded—though the connection between unions and co-ops was never completely broken. Today the best-known U.S. example is probably the New Era Cooperative in Chicago, where members of the United Electrical Workers (UE) occupied and then took over their window-and-door factory.

Still, for most unionists today, “worker cooperative” probably brings to mind a small organic bakery or alternative coffee shop—if anything at all.

It’s a shame, because the question of democracy in the workplace (and in the economy) is one we can’t afford to ignore.

Everywhere You Look

In their 2012 film “Shift Change”, filmmakers Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin introduced viewers to workers who make the case for democratic control and ownership of production. The film highlighted successful examples like the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque Country in Spain and the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as smaller projects (including coffee shops and bakeries).

In their new film, “WEconomics,” Young and Dworkin show viewers what cooperativism looks like not just in a single workplace, but on a social level—an ecosystem of many co-ops. This time the successful model is Emilia-Romagna, a province in Northern Italy that has “one of the highest concentrations of cooperatives in the world.”

As in “Shift Change,” the story is told—very effectively—by the people interviewed, a mix of co-op leaders and one academic. But this time, instead of watching workers assemble washing machines on a factory floor, we’re watching people stroll through the scenic streets of Bologna, sit in piazzas sipping fair-trade espresso, shop for shoes made locally with all-natural materials and no chemicals, work with children and the elderly, and refill their bottles with the local Sangiovese wine.

“WEconomics” is like a cooperative version of a Richard Scarry picture book. Everywhere you turn, there’s another happy cooperative worker, providing a service that’s good for society.

Before World War II, a Bologna University professor explains, there was a lot of poverty in the region. After the war, cooperatives began to spread, aided by legislation that treated them as public-interest institutions. Today, eight of the 10 largest companies in Emilia-Romagna are cooperatives, including a supermarket with over a million members.

The cooperatives featured in “WEconomics” are mostly in distribution and retail (supermarkets, shops), and social services (childcare, elderly care, and support for ex-convicts, drug addicts, and people with disabilities). There’s a brief mention of a network of construction cooperatives that, together, are larger than any other construction firm in Italy—but unfortunately that story is left untold.

Co-ops of Co-ops

While “Shift Change” focused on democracy on the job, “WEconomics” is about creating a social fabric of democratic organizations, shaping the spirit of the whole society.

In cooperatives it’s “una testa un voto”—one member one vote (a key value for union democracy, too). Democracy can be “slow and tiring,” says Simone Mazzochi, the leader of an ecological landscaping co-op, “but the decisions are strong and solid.”

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In Emilia-Romagna there are networks to promote cooperation among cooperatives. This “intercooperation” allows the co-ops to stay small enough to function democratically, yet achieve the scale they need to compete with private companies. Imagine if Chicago’s New Era Windows and Doors were part of a regional or nationwide cooperative group—you can see the advantages.

Cooperatives also contribute to a culture of creativity that’s essential for innovation in production. In the film, it’s hard to picture—mostly we see people enjoying the beautiful old architecture and traditionally made foods---but innovation is a top priority in the world of worker cooperatives.

Unanswered Questions

“WEconomics” left me with a positive impression of progress towards an economy based on human needs and priorities. The solutions co-ops offer aren’t just ideas—they’re real. But the film also leaves many questions unanswered.

The society we see seems to be mostly about consumption. Many of the organizations profiled are consumer cooperatives or multi-stakeholder cooperatives (where board members are a mix of customers, workers, and others). Cooperatives definitely offer a better way to shop, but to democratize these businesses, worker cooperatives or collectives are needed.

Work itself is mostly seen from the outside. The closest we get to production is brief visits to childcare and assisted living centers. At a great distance, we see a handful of construction workers high up on the scaffolding of a building. Workers in agricultural and manufacturing cooperatives aren’t seen at all. How are these cooperatives organized? How are these sectors integrated into the cooperative ecosystem?

We also don’t see other forms of social organization, like unions, worker centers, immigrant worker organizations, women’s organizations, environmental groups, or political parties. What are the connections between cooperatives and social movements, especially unions?

Oddly, in Emilia-Romagna cooperatives have benefited from the economic crisis—in part because they offer an alternative to privatization for governments looking to reduce spending. Public services are contracted out to social-service cooperatives, which can do the job for less money than either government agencies (due to lack of bureaucracy) or private companies (due to lower taxes). But what are the repercussions for public sector workers? Do they become members of the cooperatives? This is a key issue for building solidarity between unions and co-ops that “WEconomics” does not address.

Emilia-Romagna is one of Italy’s wealthiest provinces and one of its industrial centers. What is the relation between the network of cooperatives and the big players in industry and finance? To what degree do the impressive social benefits of the co-op ecosystem depend on being based in a wealthy province? And on the other hand, how much of that wealth is due to the work of cooperatives? What do they do to spread their model to less-wealthy areas?

As in unions, democracy in cooperatives is only as good as its practice. On paper, co-op democracy is usually very good. But, like unions, co-ops may have annual meetings that are more like pep rallies, passing resolutions with no real debate or discussion. In some cases, worker co-ops have a top-down management system and may even employ a second tier of non-member workers who have limited rights. What is the status of internal democracy and worker control in the Emilia-Romagna cooperatives?

“WEconomics” is a good introduction to the idea of cooperation as a way to organize economic life and meet social needs in a community or region. “Shift Change” might be a better choice for an introductory union workshop about co-ops, because it provides a fuller picture of cooperation in the workplace and in society. But “WEconomics” challenges us to think big and look for opportunities to organize across institutional lines.

If you want to know more about cooperatives and how to organize them, check out resources like the Laura Flanders Show, 1worker1vote, the Sustainable Economies Law Center, and the Evergreen Cooperatives Initiative to see how you can play a role.

Matt Noyes is an adjunct professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. You can get “WEconomics” (and “Shift Change”) at www.bullfrogfilms.com. Discounts are available for non-governmental organizations and activist groups. Call 800-543-3764.

How does a worker cooperative with 1,050 members function? Click here to read about Mexican workers who run a tire factory collectively. They cut costs by doing away with the foremen. It's rare that anyone is fired—that requires a group decision—yet the plant produces 50 percent more tires under co-op management than it used to under a top-down system.