How can public policy support co-ops and a solidarity economy? At a virtual conference sponsored by the Institute of Cooperativism at the University of Puerto Rico, held on May 28th in San Juan, participants from New York City; Seville, Spain (Andalusia); Montréal, Canada (Quebec); and Puerto Rico addressed that question.
Puerto Rico has a long history of supporting cooperatives. The Institute itself dates from 1953. Puerto Rico is also home to the 55-year-old Seguros Múltiples cooperative, a leading insurance company, which Dun & Bradstreet estimates earns $137 million in annual revenue.
In the wake of bankruptcy, Hurricane Maria, and now COVID-19, community-based economic approaches have gained new attention. This year, an effort in Puerto Rico to pass worker cooperative legislation fell short. But efforts in this direction continue.
New York City Deputy Mayor J. Philip Thompson kicked off the proceedings. The home of Wall Street might seem an odd place to begin, and Thompson himself noted that “Puerto Rico is a lot more advanced than New York City in thinking about cooperative strategies.”
Still, the Big Apple, as NPQ has covered, has been a US leader in supporting worker cooperatives, which Thompson’s office has supported. In his remarks, Thompson noted that support for employee ownership and cooperatives is driven by the failure of conventional approaches. As Thompson related, “Since 1968, there have been over 10,000 African Americans elected to various levels of government in the US, but the median net wealth has actually decreased by eight percent since 1968. We have a lot more people elected to offices, but economically things got worse. We even had a Black president. Things got worse.”
As a result, Thompson says, “We believe something has to be done. We need to think out of the box.” Thompson advised changing the culture first. Policy change, Thompson noted, “starts with helping people imagine. Without new imagination you can’t have new policy. We sent staff from city hall to Mondragón, Spain to better understand the policies in the Basque country to accelerate innovation and inclusive ownership.” The Mondragón cooperatives are, as NPQ noted earlier this year, a network of 96 worker co-op businesses that employs over 81,000 people.
As for policy, one benefit of employee ownership is it can help retain existing businesses. “We are using the fact that many owners are nearing retirement as a springboard or trampoline,” Thompson says, adding, “We launched a communications campaign last December. We have reached tens of thousands of businesses so far.”
Nonetheless, as Thompson acknowledges, New York City is at an early stage in its co-op development, with at most a few thousand worker-owners in a city of over eight million people. Two other speakers—one from Montréal and the other from Seville—both spoke about decades-long efforts to build support for community ownership.
Béatrice Alain directs Le Chantier de L’Économie Sociale —the word “chantier” literally means construction site. Over the past decades, the center has sought to construct a broad sector of the economy that prioritizes social solidarity. Social economy organizing in Quebec really took off in the mid-1990s. A 2013 provincial social economy law now provides formal backing. With a population similar to New York City, Alain estimates that the social and solidarity economy in Quebec includes about 11,200 businesses that employ roughly 220,000 people.
That said, many challenges remain, not least of which is limited recognition from the Canadian federal government. One important policy achievement has been provincial support for specialized bank-like institutions that help capitalize social economy businesses. These businesses have also made major gains in childcare and homecare. Quebec’s system of childcare provides deep subsidies to nonprofit, often multi-stakeholder cooperatives (known as “solidarity co-ops” in Quebec). An April 2021 Bloomberg article noted that childcare’s cost in Quebec is set at less than CAN$9 a day. The article adds, “Studies have found that the province’s low-fee subsidized program not only dramatically boosts mothers’ participation in the workforce, it more than