Workers Control and/or Worker Cooperatives?*

An Interview with Dario Azzellini

Workers Demonstrate for Worker Control (picture by Dario Azzellini)

GEO: Dario, your co-edited book, Ours to Master and To Own, Workers Control from the Commune to the Present, presents a rich variety of worker control initiatives. These have taken place not only in Europe, but in Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, the USA, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, and other countries. Can you clarify for us what these examples have in common, and what you see as their importance?

 

DARIO: The importance of this wide range of worker control experiences rests in its showing that during the past one hundred years workers have occupied their workplaces and started democratically controlled and self-managed production enterprises in almost all regions of the world. Under all forms of political rule, workers have struggled for participation in the decision-making processes of the enterprises they work in, and have attempted to develop forms of co- and self-management, or workers’ control; they have founded cooperatives and councils as a genuine expression and manifestation of their historical and material interests. In the early twentieth century, workers tried to gain control over production in social and socialist revolutions like those in Russia or Spain, and under state socialism as in Poland or Hungary; they did so as well in anti-colonial struggles and democratic revolutions in Portugal, Indonesia and Algeria. This form of worker control was present in labor struggles against capitalist restructuring in the last third of the twentieth century in Great Britain, Italy, Canada, and elsewhere; and it manifested itself strongly as an instrument of workers and communities contending against the consequences of global capitalist crises since the 1990’s, in Argentina, most of Latin America, and as well in India and some European countries.

What can be seen from all of these examples is a common struggle of workers for a democratic control of production. They show how even without knowledge of previous worker control initiatives, collective administration of worklife has frequently emerged as an inherent tendency among the rank-and-file.

GEO: Over the past two decades, movements to build worker owned cooperatives have begun in the USA, and Canada, and elsewhere. But there is no mention of these movements in your book. From the perspective of this tradition of worker control, how do you view worker cooperatives?

DARIO: The cooperative movement in the Basque country, Italy, and also central and Northern Europe is even older. And among the contemporary examples of worker control in our book – Argentina, Brazil, India and Venezuela – you will find also cooperatives. Usually, however, these are based in collective ownership, without any option of individual property; all workers have equal shares and equal voice. They use the cooperative form because it is usually the only existing legal form of collective ownership and collective administration of workplaces. But cooperatives as such are no alternative to capitalism.

Most cooperatives are embedded in the framework of the capitalist economy and compete on the capitalist market following the logics of profit-making. Many cooperatives have employees who are not part of the cooperative. Mondragón Corporation in the Basque country, one of the most advanced examples of a cooperative network, is worker owned but in many cases, not worker managed. In order to survive in highly competitive markets. it has even outsourced production to Asia and Latin America.

As mentioned, cooperatives in general retain an individualistic notion of ownership: shares can be traded, inherited or accumulated by individuals, and this enables unequal distributions of shares. Cooperatives rarely question private ownership of the means of production; they tend to see this individualistic notion as the source of the right to participate in decision-making and benefits. This notion, and its logic, is also fundamental to capitalism. Hence, cooperatives may represent a positive step in democratizing ownership of enterprises within the frame of capitalist economy, but not an alternative.

In contrast, worker control, as exemplified in our book, questions private ownership of productive and other workplaces; this is true as well in the cases which assumed the form of a cooperative. And it provides an alternative to capitalism, one based essentially on the idea of a collective or social form of ownership. Enterprises are seen not as privately owned (belonging to individuals or groups of shareholders), but as social property, or “common property”, managed directly and democratically by those most affected by them. Under different circumstances, along with workers, this might include participation by communities, consumers, other workplaces, or the state. In short, the individualistic notion of ownership is one factor disabling cooperatives from building a strong alternative to capitalism.

GEO: How so?

Worker at Worker Control Demonstration (picture by Dario Azzellini)

DARIO: Imagine all cooperatives founded during the last 100 years remaining cooperatives with at least non-capitalist ideas; they would make up a huge part of the economy. But they don’t. Most cooperatives see their ideals fading away as their members age. Having to act in a capitalist economy, while not following its rules is extremely difficult. Capitalism is a vortex. Most cooperatives started with great ideals and with time they sold out – ideologically and materially. Often, we have seen how cooperatives are sold to corporate business or investors once they reached a certain size. Their individual notion of property makes that possible.

Moreover, in most areas within the economy it is impossible to compete with capitalist businesses. Therefore, the cooperative sector is always growing more slowly than the business sector which follows strictly the rules of capitalism. This happened even under advantageous conditions like those in Venezuela during the last 14 years [see below]. Without a notion of common property, solidarity among cooperatives frequently will suffer. Each cooperative will tend to view itself as a separate business, disconnected from other co-ops – neither supporting or supported by them. What has been called “enterprise consciousness” will outweigh any commitment to build and maintain a truly worker and community controlled economy.

GEO: But how does worker control, in your sense of it, manage any better at diminishing the power of corporate capitalism?

DARIO: In several ways. As we’ve just seen, this tradition of worker controlled enterprises has a conception of “property” which is explicitly oppositional to capitalism, and this helps keep those enterprises from being easily absorbed by it.

Also, worker control’s opposition to capitalism has additional, wider dimensions. It raises important questions not only about individual enterprises, but about how decisions should be made throughout the whole of society. In doing so, it challenges not only capitalistic businesses, but the widespread system of so-called liberal and representative “democratic” governance that has enabled the capital-controlled economy to grow and become dominant.

More specifically, it relies on a form of direct democracy involving what are called “councils”. These can be assemblies of workers within a particular enterprise, but in addition, decision-making councils of workers in a common sector (teachers, steel workers, farmers…), of territorially identified communities, or even of consumers who use specific products or services (heating oil, farm produce, health care…). Under workers control, these councils totally replace the familiar governance structures – legislatures, bureaucracies, political parties – which pass for “democracy” so often today. And which, on the whole, ensure that capitalist exploitation can count on an uneven playing field. Thus, for example, these worker control councils are not composed of “representatives”, elected from and loyal to one or another political party, and beholden to wealthy campaign donors. On the contrary, council members are delegates, drawn from, remaining in, and easily recallable by, the very constituency that has selected them. They are only “spokespeople”.

In short, as opposed to worker cooperatives, worker control aims at much more than building cooperatively owned enterprises, or even networks of those co-ops. That alone, as I’ve explained, will not threaten capitalism. What’s required is the wider strategy of reshaping political power and governance, so that at all levels – communities, regions, nations – those affected by decisions participate in making them. Of course, capitalism must be challenged by developing new forms of social ownership within individual enterprises. But these forms must also be supported outside those enterprises. To accomplish this, we need to build a very different political system, one in which directly accountable councils of various sorts take control over the allocation of basic resources and fundamental priorities.

GEO: That all sounds very attractive; still, most of the examples in Ours to Master and to Own have not lasted very long. Is this oppositional and council-grounded form of workers control really sustainable? Are there best practice models of it?

DARIO: In the case of workers control within revolutions, the council and self-administration bodies were destroyed either because the revolutions were defeated or because the councils were seen as a threat by the new rulers (usually “the party”). But these cases still show that workers have the knowledge and will to administrate from small enterprises to entire industrial sectors. Workers control struggles in capitalism were also often defeated. Still, we can find functioning examples all over the world. The struggles of the 1990s in the port of Naples in Italy could not stop privatization, but there is one remaining worker owned and worker controlled shipyard. There are some 300 worker controlled enterprises in Argentina, some in Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela or India. In Chicago, workers started workers controlled production in the Republic Windows factory last January and in February, after an occupation in Thessaloniki, Greece, the building materials factory Vio-Me started production “without bosses and hierarchy, and instead planned by directly democratic assemblies of the workers”. Most of these enterprises are legally cooperatives, but they function under workers control.

The experience of Venezuela is very interesting. When Chávez assumed the presidency in 1999, the state decided to promote cooperatives. Thinking that their internal solidarity would spread into the rest of society, they abolished registration fees for cooperatives and exempted cooperatives from the payment of certain taxes. In just a few years more than 200,000 new “cooperatives” were created; only about 700 existed prior to Chavez. Many of these new ones were faux co-ops or were just registered “in case”, since it was free of charge. In the end, some seventy thousand well-certified cooperatives are operative in Venezuela. Nevertheless, these still did not emanate their internal solidarity to the rest of society; instead, most of them got absorbed by capitalist production chains instead of helping to create new, non-capitalist oriented, production and consumption alliances.

After recognizing that internal solidarity and horizontal social relations would not spread automatically from the cooperative to the rest of the community – and that the cooperatives were not necessarily guided by the interests and needs of the communities – the state began to develop models of community based and controlled enterprises. In 2008, communal cooperatives, ones controlled by structures of local self-administration like community councils, started to be promoted by several national level institutions, especially in under-resourced villages and neighborhoods. Since 2011, this type of collective ownership and management has been called “enterprises of communal direct social property” (EPSDC).

The EPSDC model aims at creating local production units or service enterprises for the communities. These enterprises are the collective property of the communities, controlled by their local consejos (councils), which also decide about the organizational structure of their Enterprise, the workers employed, and the use of eventual earnings. Most EPSDCs produce food or construction materials, or offer services to the community such as transport or liquid gas. The priority for enterprises chosen in this collective way is to address problems faced by the majority of lower income communities throughout the country.

By the end of 2009, 271 EPSDCs had been created and, in another 1084 enterprises, communities were sharing the administration with the state(1). By 2012, more than a thousand EPSDCs had been created. While in the beginning, EPSDCs were mainly small-sized production companies or local services (such as transport), since 2011 the development of productive EPSDCs with 20 to 100 workers producing doors, carpentry products, tiles, etc. has begun.      (Editor’s Note: For more on Venezuela, see Dario’s article in Ours to Master and to Own, entitled “Workers Control Under Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution”, and his co-produced video, Comuna: Under Construction, reviewed in this issue.)

GEO: One final question. Do you see any ways to bridge the contrasts between oppositional worker control and the emerging worker cooperative movements? Might they both be stronger, if they began to learn from and collaborate with each other?

Worker Control Demonstration (picture by Dario Azzellini)

DARIO: What is usually summarized under cooperative movements is a huge variety of different models. But generally cooperatives are one important element in the construction of a different society. Cooperatives as such do not represent an alternative to capitalism, but that does not take away that it is preferable to democratize capitalist economy and better to work without a chain of command. Workers control is not opposed to the original values of cooperativism. But we need to get beyond the privately owned and isolated cooperative model if we want to change the world. And since, in capitalism, businesses not oriented by capitalist logic grow slower than private businesses, we cannot expect to change society by “accumulating” cooperatives or other positive initiatives; we have to take away enterprises and resources from capitalism.

GEO: But to follow up here: to me, it seems that – by itself – worker control, in your sense, may also be unable to dislodge capitalism. So far, at least, it has not been very successful in this aim, especially in the major capitalist countries. Perhaps (part of) what’s needed is collaboration between worker cooperatives that have learned how to survive well and support each other within the current capitalist system, and worker control initiatives that create a path outside and beyond that system based on both “social ownership“ and the introduction of council forms of democracy? (This sort of collaboration is actually pre-figured in your Chicago worker takeover example, now called New Era Windows and Doors: it came to life only through support from the worker cooperative community, both in Chicago and from The Working World, a global micro-credit fund for worker cooperatives.)

If we walk on these two legs, might this give us a much better chance of avoiding both being absorbed by capitalism and being defeated by it?

DARIO: These two legs, and many more: the organized communities, self-organization in different sectors of society, “consumers” participation in decisions on production… and a coordination and communication among all those legs…

 

FOOTNOTE

1. Aurelio Gil Beróes, “Los Consejos Comunales deberán funcionar como bujías de la economía socialista,” Rebelion (January 4, 2010), http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=98094.

*Editor’s Note: Dario Azzellini will continue writing about “workers control” for GEO in subsequent follow-ups.

About the author: 

Dario Azzellini is a political scientist and lecturer at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, and a writer and documentary film director based in Berlin and Caracas. His research and writing focus on social and revolutionary militancy, migration and racism, people’s power and self-administration, workers’ control, and Latin America. Visit his web site for lots more on workers control: www.azzellini.net/english

 

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: GEO (2012). Workers Control and/or Worker Cooperatives?. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 14. http://www.geo.coop/story/workers-control-andor-worker-cooperatives
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