UNISOL Cooperative Network - Brazil

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Carl Ratner:

On June 25, 2015 I visited a cooperative network in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It is named Unisol, which stands for Union of Cooperatives and Solidarity Enterprises. Unisol was an offshoot of the labor union movement and progressive political movement. It was started by the metal workers’ union of the Labor Party (PT). The metal workers’ union is also a member of the Central Union of Workers, which is akin to our American Federation of Labor (for more information, see here)

Unisol is on the Italian model of large cooperative leagues associated with political parties. LEGA co-op was affiliated with the Italian Communist Party. These are wholly different systems/models than American populist co-ops that form individually through local organizing efforts. The Brazilian and Italian cooperative model/system is much more political, class-based, and class-oriented than the American system/model. The PT and the metal workers’ union opposed the national dictatorship in the 1980s. The Metal Workers’ Union and PT studied liberation theology as well as psychology of liberation. Today, this union (which I visited) has political education for workers. An exposition of posters about the dictatorship adorns the entrance lobby. The politics of the PT is an important influence on the cooperative politics of Unisol, and it may have both positive and negative aspects.

Tying all of this together is the figure of Lula, the recent President of Brazil from 2003-2011. Lula was the president of the metal workers’ union that formed Unisol. He was also the leader of the PT. And he helped found the national workers’ union, CUT. In 1996 he visited Italy to study co-ops. He introduced the Italian labor constitution to the Metal Workers’ Union which subsequently visited Emilia Romagna region of Italian co-ops. Lula also introduced the Italian labor constitution into Brazilian national legislation.

The 1999 economic crisis led to recovering bankrupt companies. This was abetted by the Brazilian government that has an agency for the solidarity economy. (The government’s relation to this economy is contradictory, for it is also beholden to corporate interests that undermine cooperatives. One example of this is the fact that the government has privatized many government jobs, replacing them with contracted employees of private employment agencies.) This agency was abetted by the labor party (PT) and the Central Union of Workers. All three institutions encouraged employees of bankrupt companies to turn them into cooperatives. This is the political, class basis and orientation of Brazilian cooperatives. There are numerous co-ops that were not developed through conversion.

Chronologically, in the year 2000, Unisol organized from these recovered enterprises. Organizers studied Mondragon and Italian co-ops. In 2002, Unisol Sao Paulo formed, and in 2004 it expanded nationwide as Unisol Brazil.

Currently, Unisol includes 25 recovered factories, in addition to 800 formalized co-ops in total, 7 million members, and 70,000 employees. Unisol includes consumer co-ops which joined after Unisol began from workers of bankrupt companies. Interestingly, worker co-ops comprise the bulk of Unisol co-ops, with consumer co-ops comprising a minority. The reverse is the case in the United States where worker co-ops comprise only 10% of all co-ops.

Unisol is not the only co-op association in Brazil. Many co-ops are outside Unisol. More co-ops are not in Unisol than inside. Brazil has many capitalist-style producer co-ops. These include agribusiness co-ops. They operate like their counterparts in the U.S. (Ratner, 2015, chap. 1).

Member co-ops elect a general council that elects 13 executive directors.

Unisol covers diverse sectors: farming, restaurants, bakeries, bees, agriculture, handicraft, social, construction, orchards, metallurgy, recycling, tourism.

Unisol is a member of the International Cooperative Alliance. The President of Unisol is on ICA. Given its political, working class origins, Unisol opposes political neutrality of the International Cooperative Alliance. It is also critical of ICA’s association with capitalist institutions -- that parallels the National Cooperative Business Association’s close association with capitalist co-ops, corporations, and government agencies (Ratner, 2015, chap. 1).

Unisol has an educational relationship with Mondragon in which they share educational materials.

Most Unisol-associated co-op employees are members of the Central Workers’ Union (CUT). This is the same Union that represents industrial workers in corporations. Membership was formerly required; now it is voluntary." (http://www.geo.coop/story/cooperative-economics-brazil)