Worker cooperatives, a status to survive in a changing world or a status to change the world? Spain and France, two worldviews on worker cooperatives

Working paper CIRIEC N° 2015/13

Summary :

A previous version of this paper was presented at the 5th CIRIEC International Research Conference on Social Economy « The Social Economy in a Globalized World », ISCTE - University Institute of Lisbon, (Portugal), July 15-18, 2015.

Since the recent crisis, the resilience of worker cooperatives has not gone unnoticed in Europe (Cecop, 2012). In France this renewed interest in worker cooperatives has led to a new law in 2013 promoting this model of enterprise based on democratic governance.

The legal status of worker cooperatives implies that such organizational forms are characterised by a double mission: to be profitable in order to maintain their activity and to be responsible vis-à-vis employees and towards their community. Such hybrid mission implies that such firms may be viewed as social enterprises.

In this context, we use Austin & al.’s (2006) framework in order to assess how leaders of French and Spanish worker cooperatives make sense of who they are in terms of social or commercial entrepreneurship. Our study is based on a series of twenty semi- structured interviews conducted with founders and / or leaders of worker cooperatives, from the Western region of France and the Basque country in Spain. Both regions are known for the large number of employee-owned cooperatives in their own country.

Findings show that French and Spanish leaders of worker cooperatives have very different ways of making sense of what a worker cooperative stands for. In Spain, managers’ worldview is pragmatic and instrumental as the benefits mentioned are lower taxes, work flexibility, higher empowerment of workers and a great emphasis placed on of the role of the client. In France, managers’ worldview is more normative and ideological and less commercial/instrumental as they frame the worker cooperative as an alternative model to the classical capitalist enterprise, stressing the importance of workers, labor compensation and democratic governance.

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