Once upon a time we could be proud of our co-operative movement in Sweden. Some fifty years ago the traditional consumer, producer, insurance, building, and bank co-operatives were all doing splendidly. Though at this time, worker co-operatives were very marginal, fewer than one hundred.
But during the following years all of these these co-operatives gradually degenerated. Members had a hard time seeing the difference between an ordinary capitalistic company and many of the co-ops. At the same time, consumer and producer co-operatives started to merge. Just a few years ago KF (the central office for consumer co-operatives) merged approximately 90% of its co-operatives into a gigantic private company, leaving the members behind. Next year we shall see another merger: consumer co-ops in Norway and in Denmark are going to join into Co-operative Scandinavia. All of these mergers, they tell us, are forced by competitive threats from the private market.
In 1975, the consumer cooperative movement founded the Co-operative Institute. At this point, almost a whole new generation could not even spell the word co-operative. Neither could anybody tell how to start one, not even among people in the old co-operatives. At the same time, the Swedish welfare state was encountering problems. The Greens had become a new power on the political stage. And without any outside support, all of a sudden, some green co-operatives were born. Connected to the welfare sector crisis, the first co-operative childrens daycare centers were started. Today almost two thousand are in operation.
In 1978 a report analysing the co-operative movement in Sweden, ordered by the governement, stated that the traditional co-operatives were in big trouble. In 1982, a co-operative support system was introduced with up to 50% financing by the state. The most important part of it was the co-operative development system, imported from England. Today you can find 26 Co-operative Development Agencies (CDAs) spread all over the country. The result of the work of these CDAs is quite amazing: roughly 15,000 new co-ops. Most of these are in the service sector, but only a very few are worker co-ops.
In 1989 I was approached by Kent Ottermark (a co-operative researcher at the university in Goethenburg) and Yohanan Stryan who had just finished his doctorate on Self-Management at the university in Stockholm. They wanted me to set up a network organization for worker co-operatives in Sweden and to start mapping out the different co-operatives, including employee-owned private companies, without any payment, just for fun. I could not resist this fantastic offer. As a result, in 1991, the organization, Self-Management Sweden, was founded.
By 1998, we had managed to get 65 worker co-operatives to join Self-Management. The trade unions still hated our guts and the government could only make one after another investigation (three in all) as to whether Sweden really should bother having any worker co-ops. But during this period, we made study trips to other countries with more positive attitudes towards worker co-ops: Spain, Italy, Uruguay, Mexico. Some of these visits became development projects, through which Self-Management with our own fundings (20%) and that of the government (80%) could help worker co-ops get started. Running Self-Management Sweden on my free time, as chairman and later on as general secretary, and getting my bread as a co-operative consultant in daylight hours, I found myself getting more and more interested in co-operatives in developing countries. Considering the resistance all around us in Sweden regarding workers co-operatives, the board of Self-Management decided to change the second half of Self-Managements name to the organization for new co-ops in developing countries. At the same time I retired after having consulted on the development of new co-operatives in Sweden for 20 years.
Self-Management is at this point engaged in a Co-operative Environment Center in Goa and a WomensCo-operative in Kothalam Village, all in India. In Africa, we are trying to start a Womens Co-operative in Uganda, a complete new co-operative housing system for squatters in Mozambique, and a Self-Managment agency in Eritrea. In Urugay, we are helping a co-operative ecological farm to invest in eco-tourism. In Montenegro, we have just started a project for people hurt by the war. This is just a sample card of what we are doing. Instead of having organizations as members we are now looking for individuals who want to work in and for their home countries. This means that 50% of our members and board consists of immigrants.
For myself, I am planning a trip around the world together with my wife next year. I should like to meet IIS members and many others involved in co-ops throughout the USA, in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. I also hope to find people Canada, New Zealand, and Australia to talk with about workers self-management. If any GEO readers are interested in meeting me or just want to know more about co-operatives in Sweden, please get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Editors note: Jöern Hammarstrand has written a number of instruction books, including How to Start a Workers Cooperative. This article is a summary of a presentation intended for the 2001 IIS Conference in Dubrovnik. Because of a mild heart attack, from which he has now recovered, Jöern was not able to present it.Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.