ILO COOP 100 Interview

Dr Sonja Novkovic, the Chair of the ICA Committee on Cooperative Research and a Professor at Saint Mary’s University in Canada

Established in March 1920, the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit marks its Centenary in 2020. On this occasion, the ILO COOP 100 Interview series features past and present ILO colleagues and key partners who were closely engaged in the ILO's work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). The interviews reflect on their experience and contributions in the past and shares their thoughts on the future of cooperatives and the SSE in a changing world of work.

Article | 29 July 2020

Could you tell us about your background and how you first got involved in cooperatives?

My background is the Economics of self-managed firms, first in the former Yugoslavia where I also had experience working in such firms after receiving my undergraduate degree, and then I applied the tools of microeconomics to labour-management in my graduate work in Canada. Worker ownership and participation has been the focus of my research and writing since. I expanded my interest to co-operatives more broadly in the early 2000s, as I became involved in, what is now, the International Centre for Co-operative Management at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

You are the Chair of the International Co-operative Alliance Committee on Cooperative Research. What are the objectives and activities of the Committee?

ICA CCR is a thematic committee of the Alliance. It is a global network of researchers in cooperative studies from all disciplines. The objectives of the committee are to promote and support research on co-operatives, broaden its scope, as well as disseminate research findings within the cooperative movement and the academia. We do that mainly by organizing regional and global conferences where researchers and practitioners exchange knowledge and experience, but also by engagement with the International Cooperative Alliance in their activities, such as the upcoming Congress celebrating 125 years of the ICA. We contribute to various publications and books, such as the joint publication with the ILO and CICOPA, Cooperatives and the world of work, and edit the ICA International Review of Cooperation. We have established a Young Scholars Program making sure that the next generation of researchers is supported and connected to cooperative networks, but also have the space and opportunities to create their own agenda and networks. 

The world of work is changing rapidly, how are cooperatives adapting and/or need to adapt in responding to these changes?

ILO Geneva, UNRISD meeting, 2019
Cooperatives are as creative and innovative as their members. We have therefore seen an explosion of new types of cooperation and cooperative activities, from organizing informal workers and platform cooperatives adjusting to the new modes of delivery and new business models, to cooperation of self-employed workers engaging in all sorts of activities based on their members’ needs-- pooling benefits, job search activities, or collective creations. Interestingly, incumbent cooperatives of all types have been adjusting to the changing world of work as well, such as credit unions providing health insurance to their (consumer) members who are self-employed, for example. We also see increased collaboration between organized labour and the cooperative model, in creation of union cooperatives around the world.

In your opinion could worker cooperatives provide viable options in response to the unfolding crises around the COVID-19 pandemic?

As any small business, worker cooperatives have been hit hard by the pandemic. Depending on the industry they are in, some are thriving in this crisis, while others struggle to survive. But collectively devised solutions seem to carry a lot of weight in firms’ coping through the crisis. Besides immediate solidarity, and support for the hardest hit, there are early signs of adjusting to the new reality by proposals for conversions of small businesses into worker cooperatives. There are also signs of a change in public opinion toward a shift in ownership structures, increasing the share of public ownership. Procurement by worker cooperatives and social solidarity economy more broadly seems to be one way to localize the economy and connect through global networks to exchange lessons and experience.

You have written on multistakeholder cooperatives. Could you tell us about the growth of the multistakeholder cooperatives in recent years?

Multi-stakeholder cooperatives, also known as solidarity cooperatives, are not a new phenomenon. Their members are engaged with the enterprise in a host of different ways, as workers, suppliers, consumers, or providers of resources, but they all converge on the mission of the enterprise. Often the mission is provision or protection of ‘the commons’, although it can also be advocacy work. Some countries recognized the importance of this type of economic democracy and provided legal frameworks (e.g. Italy, Spain, France, Quebec in Canada, and others), while in others the cooperative law is broad enough to allow for such formations. Multi-stakeholder governance is thought to be unstable, but in practice, members’ solidarity in purpose is the glue that holds them together. This model seems attractive in resolving complex socio-economic issues, calling for involvement of diverse stakeholders.

What do you think is the role of the UN in general and the ILO in particular with respect to cooperative and wider social and solidarity economy development?

UN agencies play an important part in the development and promotion of cooperatives. This model of enterprise is an extension of human rights to economic sphere. Having recognized them as a unique movement that spans across cultures and social and economic issues, UN’s support is making an important statement about a humanistic economic model as an integral component of sustainable development. The ILO (and in particular its Cooperatives Unit) is paving the way toward a different kind of economy, with decommodification of labour as a critical aspect of the social and solidarity economy that ILO has been supporting in its work. A building block of the social and solidarity economy, the cooperative movement is a historical and continued ally to the ILO.