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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Narratives of Cooperation, Resilience and Resistance: Workers’ Self-recovery in Times of Crisis

This paper is based on an inquiry on Italian worker-recuperated enterprises, a phenomenon that has acquired growing importance in the country since 2008, following the Great Recession that hit most of the Western economies. As reported by CICOPA (the International Organisation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives) in 2013, the practice of business transfers to employees has been increasing at a European level. Not only Italy, through the “Marcora law”, but also Spain, through the “Pago único” law, and France, with the Social Economy and Solidarity law adopted in 2014, put in place some special regulation in order to provide workers with more favourable conditions for the takeover of their company in front of the eventuality of closure. The logic behind these measures is that of considering the employees not as mere creditors, but rather as potential investors, providing them with the legally guaranteed opportunity of considering the purchase of the company that formerly employed them in order to preserve their jobs and their rights.

In this paper we will consider two very different types of worker-recuperated enterprises, worker buyouts (WBO), and what we refer to as “recovered social spaces” (RSS). A definition for WBO and RSS will be provided in the third paragraph of this paper.

Worker-recuperated enterprises reveal the ability of workers to run businesses deemed as unproductive by capitalists and economic technocrats (Ruggeri, 2014), in so providing an interesting example of social and economic resilience and opening up a breach into the possibility of a worker- managed economy (Barbera et al., 2014). At the same time, the more contentious experiences show an explicit will to challenge some of the fundamental features of market economies, advocating for the recognition of the supremacy of work over capital, and subordinating the pursuit of private profits to greater social goals and to the collective redistribution of incomes, thus demonstrating a will to rewrite the capitalist rules that look at work as a mere financial variable rather than a way for achieving self-fulfilment. In this paper we offer a reading of the phenomenon, focusing on four crucial dimensions: resilience (and resistance), relationship with the territory, relationship with the market, and workplace democracy.


While WBOs are rarely contentious (labour conflict WBOs represent indeed a small share of the Italian WBOs), what we define here as Recovered Social Spaces (RSSs) are usually a more controversial phenomenon. RSSs arise in contexts in which there are at the same time labour conflicts, highly politicized actors and difficult conditions for the restoration of the original productive function of the company. They can be described as social and economic initiatives aimed at the recovery and reconversion of abandoned industrial spaces with the explicit aim of resisting the economic marginalization of labour, at the same time offering inclusive arenas for the (re)production of cultural and social capital. Recovered social spaces are commonly based on an ideological project, drawing usually on socialism, environmentalisms, economic democracy and on the assumptions of sharing and circular economy, and often involve the mobilization of a composite set of actors, besides some of the failed company’s former workers.

An important characteristic to be underlined is that RRSs, usually based on the occupation of private areas and facilities, commonly lack institutional recognition, and relate more to the domain of social movements than to that of workers’ cooperatives. At the same time, as they integrate a various set of activities, such as recycling, small manufacturing and services, besides the organization of cultural and social events, it is not easy to define them in a univocal manner.

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