C Cooperatives and Social Welfare Services

The ever increasing needs of citizens for welfare services are reflected by demographic trends in most European countries. Increasing urbanization, growing female participation in the labor force, an increasing number of single-parent families and the rapidly growing ranks of pensioners in most countries are some of the major factors explaining the continual expansion of such needs. Citizens’ needs and expectations stand, however, in sharp contrast to the increasing financial constraints facing most European governments as well as the prohibitive costs for ordinary citizens if such services were to be financed solely through private sources.

New or previously unmet needs for welfare services can, under these constraints, help bring the producers and consumers of social welfare services together in untraditional forms. Cooperation among and between producers and consumers can constitute an economically feasible alternative to the public or private provision of social welfare services. Rather than the privatization of the public provision of social welfare services, they may be ‘cooperatized’.

Recent developments in the economic and political settings of both Eastern and Western European countries indicate a growing importance of cooperative movements and of the role of cooperatives in the provision of social welfare services. The public sector is being privatized at different rates in many Western European countries, including the public service sector, but ‘cooperatization’ may provide a viable alternative to privatization. Cooperatives are unique in being able to combine the efficiency of private firms with the social commitments of public services (Pestoff, 1991a).

Understanding the different economic, political and social settings of cooperative movements in both Eastern and Western Europe is necessary for comparing trends in the institutional and organizational transformation of national cooperative movements. The external relations and internal dynamics of cooperatives vary from one country to another; cooperatives can both reflect and influence their environments. The European Community has published a 600-page catalog on cooperatives, mutual benefit societies and NPOs in the European Communities (1986). Cooperative movements are strong in some Western European countries, but weak or nonexistent in others. To illustrate, they are strong in the Nordic countries, but weak in many continental European countries and have collapsed elsewhere. They display a pattern of regional strength and weakness in other countries, such as Italy (Zan, 1982) and Spain (Rovira, 1990).

Established cooperatives are facing new challenges in the final decade of the 20th Century in most European countries, with the erosion of their traditional bases. However, they are rapidly developing in new directions both in the East and West. Although cooperatives do not traditionally provide social services, there are numerous examples of this new type of development now found throughout Europe. In some countries, this new phenomenon is supported by established cooperative movements. In others, it has recently become part of their normal operations, while in others it is condoned if not encouraged by the state. This may reflect a new strategy of survival more than the need to move from stagnant to expanding sectors of the economy (Stryjan, 1989, 1990). It seems reasonable to assume that cooperative alternatives for the provision of social welfare services will more readily develop in favorable institutional and organizational environments.

In Sweden, consumer cooperatives in particular are providing the infrastructural prerequisites necessary for the development of social service cooperatives. For example, small groups of parents wishing to join hands in setting up and running parental daycare cooperatives can turn to the Union of Wholesale and Retail Cooperative Societies (Kooperativa Forbundet, KF) to obtain legal advice on how to proceed (Kooperativa institutet, 1986a). Small groups of parents normally lack the necessary expertise for starting a daycare cooperative or the resources to obtain legal advice on the private market (Kooperativa institutet, 1989). The HSB building and tenant cooperatives are running a project for the cooperative provision of eldercare (HSB, 1988a) as well as daycare (HSB, 1988b). HSB has plans for providing all the social services in a given neighborhood of the city Vasteras (Kooperativa institutet, 1986b).

In 1989, the municipality of Vastervik decided to turn the integrated operations of social service in an entire neighborhood over to another building and tenant cooperative society, Riksbyggen. The city of Gothenburg decided recently to manage two of its inner-city schools on a cooperative basis by using alternative pedagogics. Starting in 1991, the insurance cooperative - Folksam - is promoting the idea of healthcare cooperatives. It has taken over the management of a local hospital in Are from the county council and runs a rehabilitation home.

In most of the Swedish examples, social service cooperatives are comprised of the clients or recipients of the services. Clients or consumers are thus empowered vis-a-vis the civil servants or professionals normally providing such services, and they are also involved in the provision of the service. This, in turn, facilitates a dialog between users and providers of social welfare services which can improve the quality of such service.

In Italy, the Lega cooperative movement in the Emilia-Veneto area has assumed the responsibility of creating worker cooperatives for the provision of essential social services (Zan, 1982, 1988). This may concern daycare, health and medical care and similar services. However in this case, it is the providers rather than the consumers or clients who take the initiative to establish cooperatives for the provision of social services.

Throughout Eastern Europe, hundreds of new cooperatives have emerged under policies of economic reform and recent revisions of the laws governing cooperatives. Cooperatives are no longer seen as a socially inferior form of ownership, but rather are now put on equal footing with private ownership. A significant number of these new cooperatives are concerned with the provision of social services (Dellenbrant, 1988). In addition, established cooperative movements are also expressing concern for the development of new forms of cooperatives.

These recent developments in the provision of social welfare services have received scant serious attention by social scientists. This comes as no surprise, since cooperatives are normally studied by economists and political scientists, while social welfare services are studied by sociologists. Moreover, much of the debate about the privatization of social welfare services finds its origin in political concerns associated with neo-liberalism, Thatcherism, etc., which tend to ignore collective solutions provided by cooperatives.

Cooperative welfare services are such a new phenomenon that they have not yet been closely scrutinized by social science researchers and definitely not from the perspective of consumer empowerment nor enrichment of work life. The discussion below of consumer empowerment and enrichment of work life through cooperative social services will therefore be speculative. However, this is necessary in order to derive a number of clear hypothetical expectations to guide further theoretical and empirical research endeavors.

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