Guest blog: Ruth Holtom reports from Argentina

Normally what you get on this blog are my own thoughts and comments. Occasionally, though, it feels right to make the space available for guest blogs. This report, from Ruth Holtom (who when she isn’t in Argentina works at the Co-operative College in Manchester), deserves a wider audience I think. – Andrew Bibby

In the north eastern province of Santa Fe in Argentina, surrounded by flat fertile fields and nothing much in between, there is a small town of around 25,000 people that on the surface looks like any other. But in fact, Sunchales is a town with a remarkable history and a deep co-operative spirit, which merits a visit from any co-operator who is lucky enough to find themselves in the beautiful country of Argentina.

I had the opportunity to visit the official co-operative capital of Argentina as part of my travels around South America, and in the space of three days the amount that I learnt and the warmth of the welcome I received there was overwhelming. A short while before arriving in Argentina, I had contacted Raul Colombetti, the vice president of the insurance co-operative Sancor Seguros, (based in Sunchales ever since it was established in 1945), to see if I could perhaps visit a few co-operatives there. Before I knew it, he had arranged a full intensive three-day programme for me, which included visits to eight schools, a dairy co-operative, a drinking water co-operative and many others. True co-operative generosity in action! I could spend hours recounting all of the inspirational organisations and people that I met there, but for now here is an insight into the co-operative activities in the schools of Sunchales, from which I believe we can learn a lot about co-operative education and youth engagement.

´Cooperativas escolares´: putting the 5th principle into practice

There are 16 schools in Sunchales, including two special schools and two rural schools several kilometres from the town. Every single one has a ´cooperativa escolar´, or a school co-operative. Almost all the students of the school are members of these co-operatives, and between them they are engaged in an impressive range of activities, both at primary and secondary level: from creating their own school radio stations and tuck shops; to producing handmade soap and jewellery; to designing leaflets, bags or T-shirts.

Every year the co-operatives hold elections where all the members vote students onto the ´consejos´ (committees), and students take on roles such as chair, treasurer and secretary. These committees take care of the administration and practical organisation of the co-operative, learning from a young age how to make collective decisions and work together as a team. But in reality, the students told me that all the members are incredibly active in the co-operative, not just the committee members, and it was clear that in all the schools the co-operative had a large presence in the school. The co-operative values and principles and co-operative symbols were painted in rainbow colours across the walls of many schools, and one primary school was even called ´Escuela de los pioneros de Rochdale´ after the 28 textile workers that opened the first successful co-operative in the world, thousands of kilometres from this small school in an Argentinian town.

rholtom

I was also struck by the way all the schools are united through the ´Federacion de Cooperativas Escolares Sunchales´. Every school votes for two representatives from their co-operative to be part of the federation. With the support of the Fundación Grupo Sancor Seguros (the educational and development arm of the insurance co-operative), both financial and otherwise, the youth-led federation unites the schools by organising local social events, as well as international youth exchanges where students from Sunchales meet young co-operators from other countries such as Brazil, Italy and Spain. The fact that the federation is completely run by the town´s students of all ages, is an impressive example of co-operative learning in practice, and the young people involved are clearly deeply motivated to create a thriving and united youth co-operative movement in the town.

After my three-day visit, I have seen that Sunchales truly is a town where co-operation is written into its DNA. Just as the pride and dedication of members of Sancor, the town´s dairy co-operative and the oldest co-operative in the town, established in 1929, demonstrated the richness of Sunchales´ co-operative history, so the co-operative spirit and passion from the young people that I met in the schools provides certainty that the town´s co-operative movement will only get stronger and will continue to inspire future generations of co-operators in Argentina and beyond.

Making links: cooperatives and trade unions

Deadlines (and life generally) have meant that I have not had time  to report on an interesting seminar on links between coops and trade unions which was organised by the Co-operative College last Wednesday in London.

There were some stimulating presentations, including one from the Musicians Union who described how in various parts of the country school music teachers – as a response to the loss of their previous employment status with local authorities – are banding together in cooperatives. The MU has produced an excellent handbook Altogether Now:  A Guide to Forming Music Teacher Co-operatives, based on experiences gained at a pioneering cooperative in Swindon set up in 1998.

Both the trade union and the cooperative movement know that they share the same historical roots and the desire for a deeper relationship today was clearly expressed at the seminar.  The development of cooperative schools has seen a useful link made between the Co-operative College and some of the teachers’ unions.

But there remain tensions. As Matt Dykes from the TUC said, his first objective is to see workers who deliver public services remaining as public employees. The implication was that some sort of cooperative arrangement may be better than outright privatisation, but is still something of a fallback.

More fundamentally it was hard to disagree with Cliff Mills of Mutuo, who called for the traditional assumption that public ownership means just state ownership to be re-examined. Like Cliff, I’d maintain that there are other ways that public ownership can be established (some of which may take us back to ideas tried out in the early days of the coop movement in Britain).

If you’re interested in this area and haven’t already come across it, the ILO report from 2013 Trade Unions and Worker Cooperatives: Where are we at? is worth a good look.