You are the President of the social cooperative “Ecosviluppo”, which has the objective of creating job opportunities for disadvantaged persons in the management of environmental services and also President of Federsolidarietà, the federation of social cooperatives of Confcooperative (Italy). You have been a social cooperator since 1988: what is your story?
I started working in a cooperative in February 1988; I had just finished my civilian service and a friend asked me to run a workshop which was managed by a cooperative and which repaired and sold bicycles. I was immediately excited by this opportunity, although I was not sure what a cooperative was. I started as a simple worker-craftsman and was initially an employee, even though the job required me to manage the workshop with a high degree of autonomy.
This was also where I encountered the social dimension, commitment and solidarity that I had experienced during my civilian service. In fact, that particular cooperative also took care of disadvantaged children and minors, helping them to approach the world of work. At that time, the law that instituted social cooperatives in Italy did not yet exist (it was only introduced in 1991), but cooperatives were already working in this way. The contact with disadvantaged children and with the cooperative educators, who were also my contacts from a corporate point of view, enabled me to discover my "social and educational vocation".
So I began to study at night school to get a diploma and then, once I got my qualification, I started as an educator, before enrolling at university where I qualified as a Professional Educator. Since then, I have always worked in cooperatives, playing different roles, until I became director and President. In these years, I have helped to establish new cooperatives and consortia of cooperatives, mainly in the social sector. But I have also been a director in a cooperative bank and in services and training cooperatives.
Why have you followed the cooperative path?
It has given me the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. If I had not met the cooperatives on my way, I would have been a manual worker all my life, given my roots and family circumstances. Cooperatives are a real driver of change and one of the few systems that, in today’s world, can provide opportunities for growth and the empowerment of people who can become entrepreneurs without having the necessary economic capital base.
You have been recently elected President of CECOP: what are the challenges faced by cooperatives today?
We face many, large challenges at a time when an increasingly competitive and globalized market makes the life of all businesses which rely on the real economy and have a high labor content, difficult. These challenges are made even more complex by the prevailing political and cultural context in which the economy and politics are increasingly conditioned by the depersonalized financial culture. In recent decades, finance and the culture of accumulation of pension capital have strongly affected the economy. Work and the production of goods are "subordinate" to the frantic search for income and profits, whilst the economic capital of the business, rather than being a factor of production, has become "liquid", exchanged in a continuous flow that needs to generate money, even when it does not create goods. This is a form of omnipotent financial delirium which considers work to be a cost which must be reduced to the bare minimum.
In this context, cooperatives represent a safeguard for the principle of economic democracy: they are "rescue" platforms for the real economy. They could be considered as a form of protection which makes it possible to save the market economy from the financial intoxication that is generating a series of crises, in particular in the services, production and craft work sectors.
For these reasons, CECOP wishes to focus great attention on the issue of labor and, regarding production, we would like to think of a "re-industrialization" of the productive economy that is based on the ability to aggregate cooperative enterprises in a social economy design that ties the producers of values, services, goods to a development model and helps them to build alliances; a model where the real economy becomes a common good alternative to financialization which is plundering the territories and local economies.
Youth unemployment, deindustrialization, migration crisis, Brexit… the European Union is facing economic, social and structural challenges: what is the role that cooperatives in industry and services can play to tackle them?
Many of these problems are just consequences of an economy in which finance has fueled the illusion that it is possible to generate wealth without work, but we can all understand that the only reason why a few people are able to accumulate great wealth without working is that there are far too many people working without being able to earn a decent wage. This typical financial phenomenon cannot happen (at least not to such a striking extent) in cooperatives, which is why they have a responsibility that goes beyond their simple role of enterprises. Indeed, over the years cooperatives have demonstrated their ability to weather successive crises and to protect jobs, whilst at the same time being one of the few forms of companies which still able to offer investment opportunities and growth for young people.
It certainly may seem unrealistic and utopian to imagine that worker cooperatives could, by themselves, "re-industrialize" Europe and combat unemployment, but it is essential that someone "dreams of a Europe" that once again cares for the real economy, sustainable development and social justice. We are convinced that if you can dream of something, doing it together is the way to achieve it. This is why I think that cooperatives will lead us to the real economy.
In some ways, Brexit, which is the result of a victory for the "leave" campaign, has fueled the discomfort created by financialization and by a Governance of the European Institutions which is subordinate to the overwhelming power of the prevailing orthodox economic doctrine of recent decades. This also explains a certain lack of attention or even hostility to cooperatives, which e can see in the attitudes of certain political decision-makers and senior officials within the institutions.
What do you think the cooperatives represented by CECOP can do to achieve social justice and economic cohesion?
I am convinced and, in some ways, my own history proves, that cooperatives are the most appropriate way of organizing economic activities and jobs that can then redistribute wealth while producing it; in other words, they are basically companies that limit the growth of inequalities and promote social cohesion.
It is important to affirm this potential with conviction and strength, to demonstrate, especially to the European institutions, that without cooperatives, the goals of the EU 2020 program for a more sustainable, smart and inclusive growth will remain largely incomplete. The welfare initiatives, the Youth on the Move or Social Innovation programs, etc. themselves will not, on their own, help to correct the enormous disparities which the prevailing economic model, dominated by finance, continues to produce.
For this reason, we also need to increase the visibility and recognition of the cooperative system, especially within the European institutions, improve our share of representation, affirming our pride in the cooperative system, not out of any sense of arrogance, but out of practicality and the reality of the results we are able to achieve. We must learn to both communicate better and to document with greater authority these results and our effective way of doing business. A strong cohesion and determination is required on the part of the cooperative movement in order to demonstrate what a lot of our cooperatives are already doing to tackle inequality and social injustice.
The future of work is uncertain, but some trends linked to the loss of workers’ security can be already identified. How can the cooperative movement, and precisely, some formulas like self-employed producers, provide inspiration?
We must work hard to restore dignity to work: among the objectives that the UN has set for sustainable development, we find references to the need for everyone to be able to aspire to a "decent job," thanks to the ability to create new "Industry and Innovation." To pursue these objectives, a review of economic models is needed.
From this point of view, cooperatives are a vital tool, but what we see is that the "digital revolution" and new technologies are substantially changing the world of work. In many cases, this results in a loss of jobs. It is estimated that in the next five years in Europe some 5 million jobs may disappear due to technological innovations, whilst 2 million new jobs may be created. The result is a negative balance of 3 million people excluded from the labor market. Mostly, these calculations are based on the prevailing economic model, which continues to see work as a cost to be contained, allowing major shareholders to gain an ever-increasing return on their financial capital.
Instead, we need to ensure that the wealth generated by new technologies without the contribution of human labor is invested in measures designed to accompany the digital revolution with a "sustainability revolution" made of investments in renewable energy, the reuse of materials, care for the environment, the maintenance of the territory and cultural heritage and the care of people. They are all labor-intensive sectors in which cooperatives are already working successfully, but it is essential that citizens, politics and institutions also act to change the economic model and to orient it towards sustainability.
There is a need for an "ecological and social business plan" that recreates the conditions to give a future to work, repositioning it at the core of economic development policies. Placing cooperatives firmly on the European agenda is part of this design that we in CECOP want to help building.
On 23 June 2016, Giuseppe Guerini was elected new President of CECOP.