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What, no cooperatives?

By Harry Throssell - posted Tuesday, 27 November 2012

 It is November 2012. At the end of this year the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives comes to an end, but that will make precious little difference in Australia where there has been a big silence on the topic. Unlike Britain, Spain, New Zealand, India, Argentina, Kenya, USA and many other countries where much business is controlled by consumers and employee-workers. <> In the 1940s this author, then a young lad in England, was responsible for walking to the local Co-op store to collect the 'weekly order', the family's list of groceries, and watch in amazement as the assistant with a vivid scar down his cheek collected the items on the counter and totted up the prices as rapidly as you could punch them into a computer. Then at the end of the year the family received its 'divi', or dividend, a return on money spent during the year.

At the 2003 conference A Future or No Future: Credit Unions in a Globalising Economy Australian academic Race Mathews referred to the Rochdale Pioneers, 28 poor cotton weavers who established the first British co-operative store in 1844, responding to the unsatisfied need for food and fuel. Similarly Friendly Societies were a response to thecallfor funeral, unemployment and sickness benefits, medical care, affordable life assurance and home loans. Worker co-operatives responded to the need for secure employment by enabling people to jointly own their workplaces.

Credit unions offered loans following the time when farmers gathered after Mass and pooled their savings to offer cash at affordable interest rates. In USA co-operatives developed in the 1930s in response to an urgent need for affordable hygienic milk deliveries then when commercial dairies moved in with comparable services, the cooperative reinvented itself so the accumulated capital could be applied to other needs, like eye testing.


The British Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was founded in 1863 as the sales and manufacturing arm of the British consumer movement. It is now Britain's largest co-operative body with annual sales in the 1990s of more than £3 billion, including more than 500 food stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets employing some 35,000 workers. With the largest funeral businesses and farming operations in Britain, it also includes Britain's second largest mutual assurance society, with 35 million members, and Britain's most rapidly growing bank with more than two million customer accounts.


Globally one of the most significant manufacturing, retail, financial, civil engineering and support co-operatives is the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation in the Basque region of Spain. This had its origins in 1954 after the Spanish civil war when priest D0n J0se Maria Arizmendiarreta worked with five industrial apprentices in a disused factory in a region of very high unemployment to make oil-fired heaters and cookers using hand-tools and sheet metal. In 1956 there were 24 owner-employees, increasing to 149 in 1958 and 21,000 in 1990.

MCC was recently reported as the 15th largest business in Spain and a major competitor in the global marketplace.


In 2001, Argentina suffered a devastating economic crisis. After following the International Monetary Fund's rulebook for a decade, the country was led into one of the failures of the Washington Consensus with very heavy unemployment, poverty and nationwide upheavals. However, writes Ginette Gautreau, underneath the ruins of capitalism the movement of'expropriation' was growing.


At the peak of the crisis unemployment and underemployment combined to reach 35 percent of the populace, with more than 60 percent of the population below the poverty level, exacerbating nationwide inequality.

Irate Argentine citizens took the matter in their own hands and laid the foundation for a nationwide movement.

Inspired by Avi Lewis's and Naomi Klein's documentary film The Take (2005), which explores the rise of factory expropriation and worker-cooperatives in Argentina, Gautreau describes the economic conditions preceding the crisis, said to owe its existence to decades of fiscal instability and president Carlos Menem's resolute trust in the Washington Consensus.

The film explores the case of the Zanon Ceramics factory: conditions before the crisis, and how they improved following the occupation. Also shown are the obstacles the workers faced throughout the process, carrying the battle through various levels of bureaucracy and the Argentine legal system.

Finally Gautreauanalyzes the movement according to participatory development on the one hand, and the underlying capitalist motivations on the other. The worker-cooperative movement is a direct challenge to the top-down, neoliberal system that governed Argentina into the crisis; the workers demonstrate that it is possible to build an economy based on a system of solidarity where rights are respected.

One of the most authoritative accounts of commercial cooperatives is by Australian academic Race Mathews in Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society, Pluto Press 1999.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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