By Erbin Crowell
This past October, I spent ten days in Northern Italy as part of the Masters in Management - Co-operatives & Credit Unions program at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia (for more information, visit www.mmccu.coop). The architecture was amazing, the people quite welcoming, and the food-of course-delicious. But what was most surprising about the visit was the sheer level of co-operation that was all around us. Italy has more co-ops per capita than any other country in the world. But in Emilia Romagna, a region in the northeast with 4.2 million people, there are more than 7,500 co-ops, two-thirds of which are worker-owned. Ten percent of the workforce is employed by co-operatives in a region with some of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe.
Co-ops are such a common feature of daily life in Emilia Romagna that they are hard to avoid. For example, we often had lunch at what on the surface looked like an upscale cafeteria. I later learned that CAMST, "The Italian Restaurant," is a worker co-op with almost 6,000 members and annual sales of ?300 million (about $374 million US), providing catering and food services across the region. Looking up, a banner at a construction site declared that the project was managed by CESI, another worker co-op. If you needed cash you could go to a machine operated by Emilbanca, a credit co-operative. And the shelves of COOP, Italy's largest retailer and a consumer co-op network, were lined with products from farmer co-operatives. We even stumbled into a Fair Trade shop, only to learn that it too was a co-op. One of the most interesting recent developments in the Italian movement is the growth of "social co-ops," co-operatives that have sprung up to fill the increasing gaps in public services - including health care, job training and housing. Many of these co-ops involve innovative "multistakeholder" models that bring together workers, consumers and other community members in one organization.
The history of co-operation in Italy is truly amazing. But what was most compelling was the deliberate and strategic way that the movement is approaching modern challenges. In Emilia-Romagna, they co-operate like they mean it. For example, in order to support economic development every co-op in Italy by law contributes 3% of its annual surplus to a fund for co-operative development. Co-op sectors-consumer, worker, producer, etc.-are more integrated than in the US and work together through informal networks as well as more formal relationships such as federations. The social and financial capital built up by co-operators is considered the "patrimony" not just of the current members, but of future generations as well.
Here in the US, there has not been a more important time to make the co-operative alternative available to more people. Toward this end, there are lessons to be learned from co-op movements in regions Emilia Romagna where co-operation is a way of life and its benefits are quite visible. How can we more consciously promote the co-operative difference, collaborate across co-op sectors and invest in co-operative development in our region? In short, how can we co-operate like we mean it.
Erbin Crowell worked for over a decade with the worker co-op and fair trade organization Equal Exchange and currently serves on the boards of the Cooperative Fund of New England and the National Cooperative Business Association. He may be reached by email.