Co-operative jewels – the story of co-ops in the Czech Republic

 Working with Co-operatives Europe, I have had the chance to visit the coop sector in the Czech Republic this week.

It is a country I have loved for some time, having visited it many years before to write an article for the Financial Times on computing in the country. In those days, of perestroika, a second Prague Spring, technology was a mix of home grown and struggled imports from the West – the old 1980s Amstrad PCW on the one hand and a domestic creation I found, invented by an agricultural coop, that was faster, but heated up so much that it could be used to fry eggs.

The Czech Republic has a rare wealth of culture, writers, musicians and artists. It was home of the original Good King Wenceslas (although some bad King Wenceslases were to follow, you know what Kings are like). But the cultural hero is the stalwart, comic character the Good Soldier Schweik – someone who gets on with life despite all the worst accidents and circumstances.

The Czech Co-operative Association, Družstevní Asociace ČR, was our host – with my counterpart, David Füllsack. They have 1,242 member coops, through sector associations such as for agricultural, retail, housing and worker co-ops. Around 23% of farming, by land, for example is co-operative, whether on farm or through marketing beyond. This includes hops, milk, fruit and vegetables. Of course, history matters, particularly in a sector that grows from the roots. Just as the period of independence post 1918 was a flourishing period for the arts, architecture and music in the wider nation of Czechoslovakia (The First Republic), so it was for co-operation. 

In 1908 there were 99 housing coops in Bohemia and Moravia. By 1922, it was 1,236. Zdeněk Juračka, of the consumer co-operatives, told us that “the golden era of the consumer co-operatives was the First Republic. The worst was the communists, they nationalised one third of our assets and confiscated facilities, expelling members of the coops to remote areas.”

Co-operative housing is a common presence across the country, particularly for apartments, over half of which (56%) are in co-operatives – although there has been a steady stream of conversions to private ownership over the last twenty years. There are also ten co-operative schools and one Management Institute.

Granát Turnov is a coop formed when private goldsmiths came together in 1953 and is one of a number of manufacturing, or production, co-operatives (the oldest of which is a toy maker dating back to 1906). The coop is the world’s largest producer of garnet jewellery. It operates a mine in Bohemia, where the garnet jewels comes from, and sells across the world, with design and fashion awards to its name.

You can’t visit the Czech Republic and come away feeling just a little bit Czech yourself. It is a people and culture to admire, and to learn from.

Open to women?

To be a woman in the labour market in Iran marks you out, as for every one of you in a paid job, there are eight men. 

It was inspiring for me to meet one such woman this week who is part of the co-operative sector in Iran. In Iranian coops, the ratio is less uneven. For every one woman, there are three men. You can’t easily step outside of the context and culture you are in – it’s like building a boat while the stream is carrying you on. But the co-operative sector appears to be promoting equality with gentle persistence, giving a voice to women in practice, which is a kind of radicalism of intent and commitment to transformation over time that I can admire.

The same persistence seems to spreading in other co-operative contexts. Work by the United Nations COPAC Committee suggests that 75% of stakeholders of the sector worldwide feel that women’s participation is on the rise. In South Africa, women make up more than 60% of the members of all co-operatives. In Spain, there is gender equality among worker co-operative members. 

In Japan, women have long been core to the consumer coops, in part because of barriers to their participation in the wider labour market, and their leadership in a cooperative context is slowly opening up space for women’s representation more widely. I remember visiting the Seikatsu Consumer Co-operative some years ago, which helped to get women candidates onto the ballot – politics from the kitchen was one slogan.

The challenge of opening up leadership roles to gender equality has been one of the campaign goals of the UK sector initiative, The Co-operative Women’s Challenge. We think of democracy as an open system, but the workings of democracy can throw up subtle barriers. And patriarchy, whether overt or covert, in the form of unconscious bias, has a hold in the co-operative sector that is a denial of the very values of equality and openness that coops espouse.

In Spain, women perform 40% and rising of leadership roles in worker coops. We have exemplary women leaders in UK co-operatives, with less gender inequality by far than the wider corporate sector. Less inequality, but across the sector as a whole, not yet equality or close enough to that. We need the same persistence as the co-operative women of Iran.

  The election of a second successive female President of the International Co-operative Alliance days ago wasn’t because of her gender, but in following the wonderful Dame Pauline Green, Monique Leroux offers encouragement to many women across the sector. This is what I saw in Turkey around the Alliance election, when with Pauline, a leading member of a raisin producer co-op in Turkey came to shake her hand. She said “you have given me hope for years, and now I am meeting you in person, I can say thank you.”