How old is a 40-year-old? In their forties, people have the ability to look lucidly at what was already accomplished and what remains to be achieved. When families are together for 40 years they have had the opportunity to grow together, realise common goals, support one another in hardship. Without stretching the comparison any further, 40-year-old organisations can draw some conclusions, too, celebrate unity and renew their commitment to new challenges the political, economic and societal environment presents them with.

This is the year CECOP, the European Confederation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives, celebrates its 40th anniversary since the creation of the organisation in 1979.

A few kilometres away from Rochdale, the crib of the cooperative movement, and from the heart of the industrial revolution, CECOP was founded in Manchester and this is why delegates and guests from several European countries and national federations gathered in the largest city of New Hampshire (UK) from the 20th to the 22nd of June 2019.

We have come a long way…

Looking at our own history in the light of the macro history the European continent has witnessed during these last 40 years has been all but an easy exercise. National federations of worker cooperatives which came together in 1979 from Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in order to bring the voice of cooperatives in Europe saw a political space for the cooperative model to be promoted at the European level and they occupied it.

Certainly, the cooperatives and their movement are much older than the establishment of CECOP: at the time, other sectors and national federations had their interests already represented in Brussels (COGECA and the agri-cooperatives, for example), but CECOP’s first and foremost priority back then was to promote the cooperative model of worker-ownership more than specific production sectors.

“For an effective advocacy towards the EU institutions you need representativeness and a legal basis; this is why the battle for the EU institutions to recognise the cooperative concept itself lasted for 20 years”, said former CECOP Secretary General Rainer Schlüter, who led the organisational work from 1985 to 2004.

1979 was also the year when the European Parliament was elected for the first time by universal suffrage. European citizens were called to elect directly the members of the only transnational Parliament in the world right when Margaret Thatcher took office as UK Prime Minister and shortly before Ronald Reagan was sworn in as 40th President of the United States. Together they would steer the economy into globalisation and neo-liberalism radically changing the role of politics from that moment on. While the gap between labour and financial speculation would widen, CECOP identified the need to come together and defend the cooperative model. As the current President of CECOP Giuseppe Guerini put it, “When the others started earning money from financial speculation, we highlighted the importance of an economic model which is based on labour and worker democratic participation. During all this time, starting from when the States decided to disengage from their economic prerogatives until now when we witness some States disengaging from their role of democracy defenders, worker cooperatives resisted and demonstrated that another economy and another democracy is possible”.

The fight for worker cooperatives recognition

Political achievements we today take for granted were fiercely fought for, like the European Cooperative Society statute for which a great deal of effort was put in order to firstly find an internal agreement among members. The richness of our movement also lies in the cultural differences and priorities with regard to national institutional and legal frameworks, and the level of cooperative development. As CECOP Vice-President from Cooperatives UK and beloved host of our anniversary Sion Whellens stated in its inaugural speech:

The purpose of us getting together is understanding one another, tackling the sometimes uneven development of our movement across Europe and being ready for global challenges”

The CECOP family grew bigger as years went by, and so did our ambition: in the nighties we contributed to the foundation of REVES, the European network of regions committed to social economy and later in the early 2000 to the common effort of establishing a European intersectoral organisation of cooperatives: Cooperatives Europe.

Welcome social cooperatives

As for our own development, one of the most significant and transformative changes at the time was the enlargement of CECOP’s membership to organisations representing social cooperatives. From the sole worker-ownership model, CECOP’s identity widened to multistakeholder ownership, creating a very unique and specific organisation representing sectors such as industry and service but also typologies such as worker cooperatives, social cooperatives and cooperatives of independent producers/workers.

We can say that throughout our history, we were able to be inclusive and diverse, at the image of the cooperatives we represent. In the eighties, the birth and rise of social cooperatives in Italy met many societal needs. At the beginning, worker cooperatives took the initiative to integrate into their workplaces persons coming from disadvantaged groups. This way, cooperatives put together entrepreneurship and solidarity and later widened their action and membership.

CECOP President Giuseppe Guerini and former President of Federsolidarietà (the Italian branch of Confcooperative specialised in representing and accompanying social cooperatives):

Work, solidarity and cooperation are the main ingredients of social cooperatives. When mutual interests match with community work one has an entrepreneurial model that leaves no one behind”.

Nowadays, social cooperatives include in the decision-making and in all activities a larger number of actors who have a stake in the cooperative work, be it beneficiaries, local authorities, not-for-profit organisations, ensuring therefore a continuous and rooted attachment to local needs as a whole. Examples of this broad community vision come from Italian social cooperatives and cooperative consortia, French multi-stakeholder cooperatives, British community interest companies, and many more.

For this form of cooperatives, international cooperation has been crucial and thanks to the European Social Fund a great number of social cooperatives have been founded.

News from the East

In the nighties, another major transformation occurred in our organisation. Right after the fall of the Berlin wall, national federations from Central and Eastern European countries joined the CECOP family in a time where cooperatives were highly associated with the recently overturned communist regimes. While fighting for legitimacy and aspiration, several CECOP central and eastern members suffered from severe losses due to the new political course. As the President of our Polish national federation NAUWPC, and CECOP Vice-President, Janusz Paszkowski pointed out:

we joined CECOP to show the people at home and internationally that cooperatives are important and they have a voice”.

Our role in the future of industry

While trying to assess what CECOP has achieved over the last 40 years, we cannot but be confronted with institutional actors. Along the constant and dynamic way towards recognition and legitimacy of our enterprise model, we sometimes found allies. Important achievements were accomplished thanks to a fruitful collaboration with European Commission and the European Parliament, but we look forward to deepen and tighten this collaboration further.

In the European Commission for examples, digitalisation has been highlighted as one key opportunity for Europe, and a phenomenon to be embraced together with the opportunities of artificial intelligence. However, this does not come without the risks of job losses and deteriorating working conditions:  our business model, though, with its inherent democratic governance and pursuit of general interest put our cooperatives in the best position to combine technological advancement and decent work.

Ulla Engelmann, Head of Unit for Advanced Technologies, Clusters and Social Economy at the European Commission, recognised CECOP and worker and social cooperatives’ role in facing the challenges of digitalisation. In wishing many more years of success, she stated,

“Cooperatives are key actors in industrial modernisation, fostering innovation and securing fair working conditions. Mostly they demonstrate that economic performance is compatible with positive social impact”.

CECOP holds the topic of the future of industry very dear, since competition in this field is fierce and technological change might affect our cooperatives just as it does with conventional enterprises. Our 2013 study on resilience shows that cooperatives in industry and services resist economic shocks because of the internal democratic governance, indivisible reserves, and the community orientation, which makes them locally rooted and thus more resilient. We can expect that radical technological change will pose a challenge to our industrial cooperatives, in terms of skills and organisation of labour. Fabrizio Bolzoni, Director of Legacoop Produzione e Servizi, the Italian cooperative organisation that is most engaged in the industrial sector, encouraged indeed our network not to fear technology, “because by our intrinsic nature we will be able to combine technology and inclusion”.

In order to respond to new needs and steer the change, not succumb to it (!), we need alliances. CECOP never operated in silos: cooperation runs in the family from the local level to the European one, as illustrated by our participation inside Cooperatives Europe and our collaboration with other European sectoral cooperative organisations. Since 2018, we engaged with the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Social Economy Europe and several other European partners in the “Stand Up for the Social Pillar” alliance.

Our cooperation with the trade union movement in this framework has been fruitful as it often is at the local level where unions and cooperators join forces to ensure quality jobs, also in critical times.

Cooperatives and the unions, common fight for quality jobs

Liina Carr, newly re-elected Confederal Secretary of ETUC, brought to the debate the unions’ point of view with a special focus on new forms of employment. While collaboration between the cooperative movement and the union has always been possible and important (sometimes even critical for the very establishment of many cooperatives through workers’ buyouts), it is undeniable that nowadays’ challenges of work bring us closer.

The future of work does not always look as bright as many optimists depict it: just because a certain service is now provided through an app it does not make it very innovative per se. What is continuously changing is the working conditions and guarantees of the people performing the required tasks.

“When we look at these challenges, we need to remind our leaders in Europe that the social market economy needs to protect the workers, regardless of their legal status”, Ms Carr said.

In spite of having entered the XXI century since twenty years now, labour actors find themselves still discussing XIX century issues, like ‘what is a worker?’. Every country has to a certain extent a few definitions of employment relationships (subordinate and autonomous mostly).

“Today self-employed people are not only the successful professionals who are meant to provide for their own social protection, like lawyers, but many just try to make ends meet. What is a worker then?”

When it comes to analysing power relations, identifying the imbalance of power usually indicates also the type of roles: in employment relations, the imbalance between providers and engagers is clear. It is however much more difficult to define a self-employed. Ms Carr suggested: “In the ETUC study on new forms of employment, we found out that the focus must lie on the personal work relation. If a person is engaged by another to provide labour and this person is not genuinely operating a business on their own account, then this person must be a worker”.

CECOP and ETUC common struggle is to fight for quality employment and democracy at work so that no one is left behind regardless of their employment status. This question sees us both on the frontline to call for the full implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights. By building good alliances between trade unions and the cooperative movement, we can effectively defend and advocate for workers' rights with politicians who want to avoid the word ‘social’ in the European model of ‘social market economy’.

In particular, CECOP’s positioning throughout the years is to aim at protecting and promoting the social economy, our natural family. Together we share values of democracy and sustainability, in order to guarantee a favourable ecosystem for 2.8 million enterprises contributing to 8% of Europe’s GDP.

Alliances within the social economy

CECOP became member of Social Economy Europe in 2018 to mark the importance of joint action and representation between the worker and social cooperatives and other social economy enterprises.

Social Economy Europe President and cooperator Juan Antonio Pedreno stated that “Cooperatives are the backbone of social economy”. Our alliance is more relevant than ever since our common advocacy towards the EU starts with the democratically new elected officials, the Members of the European Parliament, particularly in our common interest to re-establish the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Social Economy.

With 14 million jobs, there is momentum for social economy enterprises to thrive in Europe. They need to be represented towards the European Institutions and, in spite of substantial improvement over the past years, much remains to be done, for example when considering to mainstream social economy among all directorates general of the European Commission.

If you think that advocacy at the highest level and at an early stage of the European decision-making process is difficult, do not forget that “only those who can see the invisible can accomplish the impossible!”

…and have a long way to go

Today CECOP counts on 25 members in 15 EU countries, representing 40,000 cooperatives and 1.3 million workers. Active in industry, services and construction, our network represents roughly 80% of worker cooperatives and 20% of social cooperatives. While the number of jobs as well as the number of social cooperatives and cooperatives of independent producers/workers is on the rise inside CECOP, we witness the presence of new forms of enterprises that have the ambition to meet the social challenges of the future of work, such as community-, multistakeholder-, and platform cooperatives. Our current Secretary General Diana Dovgan highlighted the importance and the duty to

closely follow the new trends, because industrial challenges, digitalisation and the need to reskill and upskill the European workforce can find in the cooperative model a solution for more solidarity and decent work”.

In terms of the organisation’s diverse representation, the Director of COCETA, Paloma Arroyo referred to the crucial role of women in industrial and service cooperatives reminding that women were at the core of the cooperative movement all along, starting from Eliza Brierly who was the first woman to join the Rochdale Pioneers until the promising figures of female leadership roles in Spanish cooperatives (54%!).

However, we need to challenge our organisation to gender equity at all levels of the decision-making.

To conclude, among the overarching questions that the organisation is (and will be!) confronted with there is the topic of sustainability. CECOP is engaged in the fight for sustainability since the very beginning because for us, to put it in our President’s words

“it’s not just a fashionable question to be dealt with like they do in the Silicon Valley! For us sustainability it’s about redistribution of wealth going hand in hand with environmental policies”.