Cooperatives with no positions

A cooperative where there are no positions, only tasks to be done

Cecosesola, Venezuela

by Carla Ferreira

 In Venezuela and abroad, Cecosesola holds the reputation for being a leading example in successful and innovative cooperativism. For years they have hosted a continuous flow of visitors- researchers, students and everyday citizens alike- all drawn by the prospect of a working alternative to the capitalist model. Here they find just that- a more humane and just social-economic system, whose main pillars are shared responsibility, consensus-based decision-making and ongoing communication through regular participatory meetings. It was in these circumstances that on September 27 2010, three volunteers arrived in Barquisimeto from the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela. The following is based on ten days in the life of the Center of Cooperatives of Social Services of Lara State (Cecosesola, its Spanish acronym), that in December celebrated 43 years of struggle and success.

 A wooden plaque boldly engraved with the words: “MEETING ROOM OF CECOCESOLA DIRECTORS” has found a new location after visiting many corners of the funerary services office in the cooperative’s central building. It now rests, solemnly, in the front window of the building they call the “School”, located on the same grounds as the Central Market, the biggest market of food and domestic goods in Barquisimeto. The official-looking object has the symbolic weight of a museum piece. It is displayed to remind hundreds of worker-members that pass through every day of a very different time in Cecosesola’s history, when it was a “hierarchical, rigid and bureaucratical” organization (1).

carla ferreiraSince the co-op was founded in 1967 by a group of 10 cooperatives in the region, until today, it has aimed at progressively diminishing those vestiges of the traditional vertical structure on which the current “patriarchal culture” is based (2). This theme, incidentally, has been both valuable for the organization, and has produced extensive knowledge from the daily experience in the laboratory of their workplace.

“The workers were just workers – they obeyed and didn’t take part in the meetings,” remembers Gustavo Salas, 68 years old, one of the many young volunteers that went to Barquisimeto in the early 70’s to advise the regional cooperative movement, then organized around savings and loans. “In 1971 when I got here, after leaving the administrator’s position of one of my father’s companies, Cecosesola was already a bureaucratic organization, and because of that, it had lost the enthusiasm of the first years,” he adds. This wave of volunteers, who were inspired by the Cuban Revolution, the Allende movement in Chile, and by an ideal of Christian socialism, originally came to help the religious group, Communitarian Organization for the Marginalized, that had given impulse to the development of the cooperative movement in Barquisimeto since the 60’s.

“We had a dream: that the cooperatives would be like an advance model of the society we wanted to build. But we didn’t know how to do this, and besides, we thought the transformation depended on the State, on some kind of power,” recounts Teofilo Ugalde, a 67-year-old Cuban native. He arrived in Venezuela in 1968 as a Catholic priest, and came in contact with the organization during it’s most politically and economically challenging years managing a Cooperative Transportation Service (1974-1985). This quickly become the largest and most affordable bus service in Barquisimeto. Trouble began in 1980 when the local government cut off subsidies, and the cooperative began running up $300,000 in debt every month. Cecosesola maintained it’s low price at half the going rate, at .25 Bs., as promised to the local community, despite financial difficulties imposed by the government. This fight laid the foundation for the dynamic self-organizing process that defines what Cecosesola is today.

And what is Cecosesola today? The collective describes itself as a “cooperative integration organism,” that involves 60 community organizations, more than 20,000 members, and a broad spectrum of activities including: agriculture, small-scale agro-industry, funeraral services, transportation, health, savings and loans, mutual funds, and distribution of food and domestic items. The cooperative has annual gross sales of 200 million Bolivares Fuertes, close to US$47 million.

The adventure of transportation: disaster or opportunity?

Let’s go back to 1974. The threat of the transportation business owners to raise the price from 0.25 Bs to 0.50 Bs awoke the will of a small but spirited group of young people. They went to the streets and joined their voices with the choir of local protestors. It was their golden opportunity to practice the concept of “popular organization open to the community problems”(3), in which the dividing wall between “us”, the service providers, and “them”, the users, would grow weaker everyday, until it finally would disappear.

During the 1970’s, Cecosesola became the owner of 92 buses with the help of a loan. It employed 300 workers and had great respect and influence in the community. In 1979 it was commended by the municipal chamber of commerce, as a Cooperative Transport Service (SCT by its Spanish acronym) that “was an example in Venezuela of an efficient transportation organization with low prices.”(4) It was an example to be envied, and feared.

As their success boomed, so did the number of enemies determined to sabotage them. Opponents came from all over the political spectrum, some using their stronghold in the media to manipulate public opinion. The rampant dissemination of propaganda created further oposition, and even managed to convince some other local cooperatives to rally against them. The bad press combined with economic hardship was clearly a recipe for disaster, and from a solely economic perspective, the SCT was considered to be completely “unrecoverable.” The facts speak for themselves: during that period, the cooperative accumulated debt amounting to thirty times higher than their own capital, while at the same time confronting accusations of corruption and bad management, alleged support of radical leftist militants and even the financing of international guerrilla movements.

Was it the end? Teofilo says no, it was rather like a rebirth. “The failure of SCT was very important. We remained without any tool of power, without any board position. We felt vulnerable but we discovered that we did in fact have a lot of strength.” From the profound crisis emerged a stronger collective conscience and determination to find creative solutions for recovery. For example, during the oil shock of 1984, SCT launched their first bus as a mobile Produce Fair. A radical idea at the time, seats were ripped out and replaced with bins of fresh fruits and vegetables. Despite low expectations, this innovative sales mode was an enormous success. By mid 1985, Cecosesola had enough units equipped to supply fresh produce to15 poor neighborhoods around Barquisimeto.

José Alejandro Cambero says their “social strength” was gaining force. Now 80 years old, he is one of Cecosesola’s founders and among the most experienced activists of the cooperativist movement of Lara State. The veteran remembers a meeting with Argentinean economist, Bernardo Kliksberg, advisor to the United Nations, who was impressed by their specialness. “He visited us and said that this organization is the only one where there’s social capital.” José adds, “When the benefits of capital go to the community, its socialism.”

To talk, discuss, clarify… towards consensus

There’s a perfect brand image for Cecosesola: their meetings. On Monday, before eight in the morning, human circles form outside the “school,” wherever there is shade. Every Monday, all day long, is reserved to review the previous three days of the Produce Market. The largest of their productions, this market supplies between 50,000 to 60,000 people (30 percent of the Barquisimeto population) with affordable produce and home goods. According to the data from the last month of September, the prices of vegetables were only 55 percent of those sold in the general market. But the communitarian network of food production and distribution extends to four additional states – Trujillo, Portuguesa, Yaracuy and Barinas – making Cecosesola the leading non-government food supplier in the Central-Western region of Venezuela.

Everyone carries their own chair. There are no neckties, PowerPoint presentations or debate moderators. Participation is natural, dynamic and all-inclusive. Topics of discussion vary between wholesale and retail prices, weekly sales, work methodology, the lunch menu of the collective eating hall or even personal matters, so long as they are pertinent to the overall functioning and well-being of the collective. “The keys are the meetings. We spend 20 to 25 percent of our time in meetings,” explains Gustavo Salas, conscious of how strange this may seem to an outsider. His wife, Teresa Correa, who has been with the cooperative for 41 years, clarifies the dynamics and the usefulness of these encounters. “They’re a tool for collective reflection. That’s where we evaluate our responsibility to grow as people and to create common criteria. As we fall in love with the organization, there’s more sense to the meetings. And what does the time and the money we spend on meetings matter, if we save on directors, bosses, etc.?”

Meetings are the “only organizational structure of Cecosesola”(5) but they do not always end with a decision, or even less, a vote. That would divide the collective between those who agree and those who differ over a particular proposal. Teófilo Ugalde explains the local indigenous tradition as a way to understand the dynamics of these human encounters where consensus is sought. “When the indigenous people get together in a churuata (a communal thatched house), the meeting continues, even though some are coming and going. The community stays together until those who are present reach clarity on any point. That’s when the meeting ends,” he describes. In Cecosesola, they seek the same objective. It doesn’t matter how many hours or days it can take to reach consensus, as long as during the path they were able to build a “collective agreement.”

Today in the market, tomorrow in the kitchen

Another primary component of the cooperativism practiced in Cecosesola is the rotation of tasks, engendering a more open attitude towards work by transcending the myth of specialization. “There are no job positions, only chores to be done.” (6). And Eduardo Salas, 23 years old, is a good example of the personal and professional growth as a result of this system. Today he works in the “farm,” an animal farm that also produces organic fertilizer, but since he got involved with Cecocesola at age 12 as a helper packing bags, he has done everything in the Produce Fairs. He began in the “quincalla” (cosmetics), then he was the coordinator of vegetables in the Downtown Fair and then the coordinator of groceries in the Ruiz Pineda Fair. During this time, he continued his studies – it is a commitment that all minors and their parents or legal guardians establish with the Cooperative Central. Today he is studying tax administration at the university. “We don’t stay in one place. We are in a process of change, of evolution,” he comments.

He admits that one of the most important achievements he obtained in Cecosesola was to learn to take initiative. “It’s vital in our lives, I practice it here, in my house and in my music group, were I compose songs and play the guitar.” For Eduardo, the meetings are “educational spaces, which help our personal and organizational development.” He has the clear notion that he is part of an organization that makes a difference, not just in Venezuela, but on a global scale. “I feel as though I’m with my family. It’s an organization where every opinion counts and is respected. In other places, people just work and nothing else. They pay you to do that.”

The cooperative salary or “member anticipation,” as they call it, is an equal share of the total surplus, and it is the same for everyone, regardless of one’s current job responsibilities. Today this amount is equal to three times the minimum wage. However it is not something stable and fixed. “It’s subject to reductions or increases, depending on sales. But everything is decided in the assembly, with all the members, more or less 400 people, the cooperative members and also the producers,” clarifies José Raul Vizcaya. He is 22, another boy that began packing bags when he was 12 years old, and who has already gone through all the chores in the Downtown Fair. On the other hand, points out Teresa Correa, “The rotation has the educational value of learning to respect the work of others.” For example, it’s less likely that someone will complain if lunch is delayed in the dining hall, because they’ve all been in the kitchen many times cooking for hundreds of people. Most importantly, concludes the stanch cooperativist, task rotation “prevents generating spaces of power, and in a capitalist society we have the tendency to do that.”

Integral Health Center: the most recent triumph

Besides being in charge of the largest funeral home in the western region, Cecosesola administers a health care network that in 2007 attended more than 150,000 patients in six community health centers (7). The Integral Cooperative Health Center (CICS by its Spanish acronym) was inaugurated in April 2009, and its new, shared building now offers additional medical services. The newest additions include alternative therapies (such as acupuncture, mesotherapy and hydrotherapy), laboratory services, radiology and an inpatient clinic. It is expected that during the first trimester of 2011 the health center will also be able to perform surgeries.

The development of the health center has been a long-awaited response to a “very old concern,” remembers Teófilo Ugalde. It required an investment of about nine million Bolivars, made entirely of their own funds. In addition to profit surplus from the fairs and various fundraising activities (clothes sales, for example) was the mobilization of savings pooled together by many other cooperatives in the form of a loan “with higher interest rates than what banks would charge.” Three million Bolivars were guaranteed in this manner, a fact that, according to Teofilo, “was a great evidence of trust.”

The construction began before all the money had been secured, but asking the Venezuelan government for support was never considered. “Politicians love to give away money. That’s the way governments hcontrol,” explains the former priest. He makes it clear that Cecosesola doesn’t follow any ideology or philosophy, but a system of human values shared by the cooperatives and members.

In practice, through a health insurance contract that costs only 2 Bolivares a week, each member and eight of their family members can benefit from three medical specialties (general medicine, gynecology and pediatrics). The other clinical treatments are made accessible through “solidarity” prices. To the non-member community, the costs correspond to 25 per cent of what is charged in private clinics.

1 Buscando una convivencia armónica. Barquisimeto, Venezuela, 2001, p. 24
2 Op. Cit., Pág. 6.
3 ¿Hacia un cerebro colectivo?, Barquisimeto, Venezuela, 2009, p. 8
4 Buscando una convivencia armónica, p. 24.
5 Op. Cit., p. 25.
6 Op. Cit., p. 36.
7 Buscando una convivencia armónica, p. 82
8 Buscando una convivencia armónica, pág. 86
9 Construyendo aquí y ahora el mundo que queremos, Barquisimeto, Venezuela, 2007, p. 5

Carla Ferreira: With a bacerlor’s degree in journalism from the Universidad Técnica de Lisboa and with a Masters degree in Iberian Studies, she has worked 12 as a professional journalist for a regional newspaper of Portugal and regularly contributing in various specialty publications (literature, theater and tourism). She has done volunteer work in a poor neighborhood of her city, tutoring children and adolescents.

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