ILO COOP 100 Interview

ILO Interview with Legacoop President, Mauro Lusetti

Established in March 1920, the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit marks its Centenary in 2020. On this occasion, the ILO COOP 100 Interview series features past and present ILO colleagues and key partners who were closely engaged in the ILO's work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). The interviews reflect on their experience and contributions in the past and shares their thoughts on the future of cooperatives and the SSE in a changing world of work.

Article | 12 June 2020


Good morning and welcome everyone. I am Valentina Verze of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and I’m very happy to be here today, even if it’s only virtually, with Mauro Lusetti, national Legacoop President in Italy. Welcome and thank you for joining us. 

This conversation is one of a series of interviews we are holding to celebrate the Centenary of the International Labour Organization Cooperative Unit. The Unit was set up in 1920, the year after the International Labour Organization was established. It came about in the belief that cooperatives are a means of pursuing the mission of the organization, particularly that of promoting social justice and decent work. It is particularly poignant that this centenary is being commemorated during these difficult times, allowing us to reach out to colleagues, friends and partners of the Cooperative Unit.

The International Labour Organization and Legacoop are linked by a long-standing partnership in various working areas that share common values of cooperation, equality and social justice. Therefore we are really delighted to have Mauro Lusetti, President of Legacoop with us today.

The National League of Cooperatives and Mutuals, established in 1886, is the oldest Italian cooperative organization. Nowadays Legacoop includes more than 15,000 cooperative enterprises and associates. These are present in all the Italian Regions and productive sectors, including retail sales, building and agri-food, not to mention insurance, finance and credit services. As well as acting as national Legacoop President since 2014, Mauro Lusetti holds different positions. He was also elected President of the Alliance of Italian Cooperatives in 2019, a role that he has held before. In 2014, he was elected President of Coopfund, a mutual fund for the promotion of cooperatives. In 2015, he was appointed President of the Ivan Barberini foundation. He is also President of the Italian Documentation Centre on cooperatives and social economy. He is currently Vice President of AICCON, the Italian Association for the Promotion of the Culture of Cooperation and of Non-profit Organizations. All this adds up to a lifetime commitment to the cooperative movement. And this is where I would like to start our conversation today.

Can you tell us a bit more about your experience? How did you start to work in the world of cooperatives and Italian cooperation, and Legacoop in particular?

I consider myself lucky because when I was 20 I started work in what was then the Cooperative League in my home province of Modena, and I’ve stayed in the movement since then. I began to work as an administrative manager when I was 20 and finished my working career as President of Legacoop. I don’t think that anyone could wish for more or better than my own experience. That’s why I feel so lucky. I began when I was 20, just after finishing my military service, then after four to five years’ experience in Legacoop Modena, I transferred to a retailers’ cooperative that was in the process of expansion. The retailers were part of the Conad supermarket chain and I held various roles and responsibilities within the chain until 2014. That was the year I was elected President of Legacoop for the first time. This coincided with the current President Poletti being appointed as Italian Minister of Employment. My post was reconfirmed the same year by the Congress and I was reappointed last year by the 40th Rimini Congress. I’ve spent my entire working life within the movement. There is a saying that is sometimes used to describe what it’s like to spend your life in our world: born and brought up on bread and cooperatives. So I don’t know anything else!

It’s been my whole life. We started by talking about the past, but now We are experiencing a difficult present because of the health crisis. This is also having serious socio-economic repercussions around the world. In some ways the situation is unprecedented. How has the Covid 19 crisis affected Italian cooperatives and how is it continuing to do so? I’d like to make two points. One about the lockdown period and the other about the present and near future. Like the rest of Italian society, the cooperative movement has been affected. It was forced to shut up shop. We were all locked down at home during that period, i.e. from March until early May. Our cooperatives that were part of the essential supply chain, amounting to 40 to 50 per cent of our workers’ enterprises, continued to deliver essential services. The rest were locked down, but in that period we demonstrated that our values and links with our communities made us a great resource for Italy. Because we kept services alive in places affected by hardship; because many of our cooperatives worked in services, hospital facilities and care homes throughout the health system. Others, such as cooperatives working in the farming sector and in distribution, kept Italy’s food supplies flowing and so they performed an essential service. Anyone who wasn’t working in the supply chain still continued to provide support activities for the most vulnerable groups, children and the elderly, with absolute solidarity. Some donated, we donated more than EUR 35 million overall to the health and civil protection system. One of our cooperatives owns a hotel and made it available to the health system so that people recovering from Covid could convalesce. It was available to anyone who was unable to convalesce at home. And we donated a lot of PPE at all levels and in all situations. Our contribution raised our public opinion profile. Our status has been complicated for some years but public opinion polls during this period showed that more than 50 per cent of the population held a positive opinion of us. This is a significant result on a political and social level.We were also recently acknowledged by President Mattarella, who awarded the Order of Merit for Labour to two of our colleagues, a man and woman who worked in essential supply chains. The cooperative movement was in evidence during lockdown. It stepped up and showed its true colours of solidarity in caring for the community, and above all caring for people, their rights and their health. However, this is all behind us now. Now we are no longer dealing with a health emergency, even though we must stay prudently alert to avert any possible threats. Now people’s feelings and attitudes are changing. There is huge concern over the economic and social emergency and this is a different ballgame.

If I could just take you up on something: you spoke about the impact that the health crisis has had on the productive sector and enterprises including cooperatives and the cooperative movement; but you also mentioned the ability of stakeholders who are part of the cooperative movement and also perhaps the broader social economy to respond promptly. In this situation, given that we are still really caught up in the crisis, what is and what has been the role of Legacoop at national level? What type of support did Legacoop call on the Italian government to offer in responding to the crisis and now again as we emerge from lockdown?

First of all, as the Alliance of Italian Cooperatives, we’ve been active throughout the pandemic before lockdown and then as we emerged from lockdown. The Alliance of Italian Cooperatives is a strategic project involving Legacoop, Confcooperative and AGCI, which are the three main organizations representing the cooperative movement. These three organizations cover 90 per cent of the movement. When you act in a representative capacity and are in a position where you have to engage in a dialogue with the institutions, you need the capabilities and power that only the Alliance can offer in terms of overall representation. The cooperative movement embodied by the Alliance currently accounts for eight per cent of Italian GDP. This means it’s an economic and social body of incredible size. We based our ideas of Italy in the future on the economic and social importance of the cooperative movement as a whole. We put ourselves in the centre of the debate, seeking to imagine the world that is to come, and the way we think our country, our economy and our society should be run. In that context, we began to put together suggestions and calls for action. These were not responses to the emergency, but parts of a bigger picture. We realized that Covid had not really taught us anything we didn't know already. It simply accelerated pathways and processes that were already in existence. Sometimes it exposed fault lines, sometimes it made things more pressing, sometimes it made things more devastating. In other cases, it made us realize that we can change. If you had to sum up the attitude of the cooperative movement in two words, I’d say it has been resilient on the one hand and flexible on the other. Resilient, because that is our nature, we give our all to defend every job and try not to leave anyone behind. We have a very proactive attitude towards the community and so we have done everything in our power. Earlier, I mentioned the specific elements of solidarity we deployed; holding the community together, mending the deepest cracks that this pandemic has opened up in society. At the same time, we have tried to be flexible, calling on the government to do certain things. Firstly, in terms of cash flow: like most of the economy, our businesses need to survive and the lockdown imperilled the economy, social relations and our future prospects. This brings us onto the subject of cash flow. Our government did well on this score. It did well to make significant resources available, it did well to work effectively with the rest of Europe. We have long-standing problems with red tape in our country. This means we have too many laws and by-laws that make it difficult to get the resources that have been allocated out to society, to people, to families, to workers and to companies. This is why we are intervening in the debate to speed things up. After that, at the stage we are at now, we are imagining the future. We would like it to be sustainable, to be consistent with the UN’s 2030 Agenda. We would like nature and the environment to be respected, we would like to avoid financial waste, but above all we would like to avoid wasting the lives of human beings. The idea that underpins everything for us is of a sustainable economy, an economy that puts people’s values and rights centre stage. We set down this idea in a document entitled “Rebuilding Italy by Cooperating”. We delivered it to the Prime Minister, the political forces and the economic forces and we want to use it as a basis for building a dialogue that will get us out of this situation by imagining a different society. The impact of the virus is geographical in some respects, but its spread and devastating effect find fertile ground in an model of society that is abhorrent to us.

You said that this health crisis is also a socio-economic crisis and has actually merely exposed and worsened pre-existing problems. Looking to the future with foresight and imagining how life might be after Covid 19, what role could cooperatives play to help the transition toward that society?

We are very pragmatic because we have to deal on a daily basis with the problems faced by our members, our workshops, and our community cooperatives. So we addressed this question firstly by taking a good look at ourselves and working on ourselves. Before asking anything of anyone else, we must be able to show what we can do for our country. So we began to think about the way we operate, our ability to imagine ourselves in the “new normal”. Our review and appraisal revealed that the crisis will threaten the existences of many of our cooperatives. The first thing we did was to work on ourselves to ensure the safety of our enterprises,
our cooperative members, and our workers, because they are our fundamental building blocks. You can’t imagine a future unless you can manage and map out your present. This is the first big task that awaits us. The second thing is that one of the very few factors highlighted by the health emergency is that Italy’s digital transition is essential if we are to imagine a future different from the one we are experiencing as a society, and in terms of the pandemic. In the blink of an eye, we have all become experts on smart working, on long-distance relationships, on webinars, on doing everything on the Internet. We have also seen the great limitations of our country. Part of Italy is not served by any infrastructure and the Internet cannot reach those areas. A some people in our society do not have access to a tablet or PC and others possess one but have to share it with everyone else in their households. So we think that there is a risk that speeding up the digital transition will create further cracks and deepen divisions between an Italy that is able to embrace change and another Italy that is constantly excluded. Our first main theme is therefore a kind of digital literacy campaign involving he whole country, starting with areas that really struggled during the pandemic, because they are not on line, because they can’t get hold of the tools they need. The first main action that any government in power must take if anything is to be achieved is to acknowledge that the digital transition must involve the whole country, from the viewpoint of training, infrastructure and availability of resources. How can we talk about remote schooling when 30 per cent of families are not connected to the Internet or do not have access to a tablet? This means we are still only peaking to part of the country and excluding another. We oppose this and have made this our first big issue. The second big issue is the idea of a sustainable economy and everything to do with respect for the environment, i.e. the use of natural resources, soil consumption, recovery of Italy’s internal areas, the war against waste and thus the circular economy, which has to do with the white economy and a different relationship between State and private sector. These are all areas where the cooperative movement can make a difference: because cooperatives are non-profit social enterprises, they can take a leading role and be first in line to talk to the State about a new approach to solidarity and welfare. These are the points covered in the report we delivered to the Prime Minister and that are part of the contribution that the cooperative movement can offer as we try to see how society will enter the “new normal”.

You spoke about solidarity, within a broader multilateral context that crosses national boundaries. Where do you think the Italian cooperative movement stands and can it play a role in the broader movement at European and international level? What about its role in relation to the social economy or social solidarity economy, whatever you prefer to call it?

Legacoop and the Italian Cooperative movement have always had an international outlook. We experienced the honour of having Ivano Barberini as a colleague. He was a great exponent of the cooperative movement and President of ACI. I’m happy to mention Barberini because he was my mentor and fellow citizen. Unfortunately it has been 10 years since he passed away, but I mention him now because during the ILO’s hundred-year history, Ivano Barberini was someone with whom the ILO built up a very important relationship. This relationship gave us something to build on in later years: the resulting close relationship bore fruit in a whole variety of ways. I’m very happy to talk about the latest of these activities: the ILO was our partner at the last congress and it is arranging a set of top level, top quality training courses for us. Over time, our vocation has turned out to be not so much the economic activities we were already engaged in, but our constant and ongoing exchange with other cooperative movements, especially in developing countries. We are involved in transferring models, transferring knowledge and transferring ways of promoting cooperatives because self-entrepreneurship and cooperative values, particularly in developing countries, are essential if we are to get people out of poverty and suffering and get the weakest imaginable strata of society out of difficulty. These activities allow us to rediscover our roots. As you mentioned, we were set up in 1886 to meet the primary needs of the most marginalized people. This meant protecting jobs, guaranteeing food distribution through consumer cooperatives and promoting forms of solidarity from the viewpoint of health cover. These very basic elements are linked to people’s primary needs. We believe that the cooperative approach embodies this capacity and this is why we reach out to international organizations and individual national cooperative movements. Above all, we wish to export a model, a means of encouraging new cooperatives. This is something we are proud of because we believe that these activities get us back to our roots.

Thank you so much once again for your time and I wish you the best in your work, particularly in achieving your vision of the future.

In the cooperative spirit, congratulations on your centenary and I hope you continue for another hundred years. I also hope that we will continue to have this profitable relationship with the ILO, which is all about helping the weakest and frailest people.

Thank you, and goodbye.