Co-operative Argentina – visits to a hotel, a bank, a theatre, a restaurant and a print shop

Hugo Cabrera enjoys teaching printing skills to young people coming out of prison, because he has been on the wrong side of the law himself.

In 1992, he and fellow workers at the Grafica Campichuelo print works occupied the site, in protest at its closure by the government and in defiance of an expulsion order from the police.

Forty three of the workers, with the active support of their trade union, came together to bid to save their livelihoods by saving the machinery and the business. To end the conflict and perhaps because they thought it would fail, the Government allowed them to reform as a worker cooperative.

Eleven of those founders, with a workforce now of fifty, are still with the business, which holds the contract for printing car registration documents.

Bringing new people in, without sharing the context of that extraordinary start, took time but they were committed to operating in an open way as a cooperative. “To begin with,” explains Hugo “young workers would watch debates at our Assembly like a crowd at a tennis match. To change that, we moved to decision making in smaller circles, giving new people a chance to participate and build their confidence to contribute and to challenge.”

Hugo has retired now, with the benefits that the cooperative had been able to build up, and now leads the social programme of the business, a foundation which supports training and work skills for people who are homeless or ex-offenders.

Grafica Campichuelo is one example of a recovered or recuperated enterprise, where firms went bankrupt and once abandoned, were taken over by the workforce as a coop.

Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires is a second example. With a coffee shop, Utopia, and artwork on its walls, the hotel provides free space for solidarity groups, such as recently the annual meeting of the human rights collective that formed during the Dictatorship years. The Mothers of the Disappeared (of the Plaza de Mayo) are now grandmothers and great grandmothers, but their spirit is undimmed and as economic challenges mount up again in Argentina, they carry the torch for democracy and human rights.

Ana Martina of the US Worker Coop Federation at the Hotel Bauen

A hotel, a bank, a theatre, a restaurant and a print shop are among the co-ops I have had the chance to visit over three days in Buenos Aires, alongside the programme of the International Cooperative Alliance. (I have written a report of the Assembly of the Alliance for Co-op News, which you can find here.)

As the President of the national Cooperative Bank, with 250 branches and 1.5m members, put it to me: “our job is to combine efficiency and democracy and to demonstrate that the result is a better bottom line”.

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Can organisations have courage? A story of brave hearts and values led organisation

This week, on 18 October 2018, it is World Values Day.

The first World Values Day was soon after Routledge published my own book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business in 2016 and it has been wonderful to see the

world-values-day

day grow and spread. There are millions of organisations working worldwide that are led by values – not least 2.9 million co-operatives that are bound by a common, global statement of values and principles. By chance, the same day is International Credit Union Day, of financial co-ops around the world.

There is a short introduction to World Values Day by Charles Fowler in a blog for the RSA. The day in short is an opportunity to think about your most deeply held values and to act on them. Staying true to our values and acting on them has never been more important and this year’s core theme is around one core principle of co-operatives, shared with many others, which is about care for the community.

the-value-of-joy-expressed-with-a-smile-at-joy-village-in-nigeria

Residents of Joy Village, Nigeria

One of the less recognised values that I have looked out for since my book was published is that of bravery. I had the chance to ask a number of key people involved in one such organisation at an event with former colleagues on consumer rights in Edinburgh. The organisation was the Scottish Consumer Council which lasted for around forty years until merged and disbanded a decade ago.

The Scottish Consumer Council was fearless in championing the interests of the consumer against some formidable industry interests, including lawyers, farmers and financiers. Yet it was never a campaigning organisation, fuelled by self certainty or self righteousness. Its reports were careful in their detail and considered in their findings. What the organisation had, under Chairs such as Dames Barbara Kelly and Deirdre Hutton and Directors Peter Gibson, Martyn Evans and Trisha McAuley, was courage.

How can a lawyer ever be his own judge - Sarah O'Neill SCC Scotsman 6 September 1999 2To be threatened with legal action by the Law Society in Scotland or shouted down in a room with hundreds of farmers took personal courage, but key was the extent to which the organisation stood behind the individual on the end of that. It did pay off, such as work starting with the 1986 report I’m Not Happy with My Solicitor, which led over time to basic information on the costs of legal advice and the formation of an independent complaints system for lawyers across the country. The history of the organisation is told in a report funded by the Peter Gibson Memorial Fund.

A culture for courage I learned was down to the following:

  • the encouragement at staff level of fierce and forensic internal debate
  • careful review and decision making by the Board before going public, and then
  • complete loyalty across Directors and staff teams to those making the case in public.

This means maximising internal diversity, to anticipate tests and challenges that could come up in the outside world, and drawing on the confidence such a principle engenders to commit from the top down to external unity, whatever the pressures were that emerged.

We should not confuse courage with marketing – it is easy for companies to claim to be bold. And we should not confuse courage with recklessness, at least if you are an organisation and you want to succeed over time. Courage is an individual attribute, so for different individuals across an organisation all to share courage as an organisational value I think requires the opposite of recklessness.

Organisational courage is the creation of a space for shared safety in which people can be courageous, because they are prepared for what is to come through a process of learning.

The most courageous organisations are those that have a commitment to foster internal challenge and dissent, in which fears are anticipated, opportunities tested and lessons learned.