The supermarket should have closed two hours earlier, but it was still full of people. New Year’s Eve 2016 was only three days away, so the carts should have been filled with nougat and champagne, right? Not so. The champagne was flowing into plastic cups as ladies toasted and laughed. The workers were laughing, too, despite the late hour. Strange.
It looked like a festival, but it was in fact the opening of a new supermarket in Scicli, a town in the southeastern tip of Italy. The next day, the scene was replicated in Pozzallo, 15 kilometers away: A supermarket opens, the country celebrates. I’m not from around here, but I got the idea these were special supermarkets. So I asked at the checkout line.
“The Coop has reopened,” they said. The logo on the sign had been replaced. “Yes, these were the workers at the Coop, who were fired when it closed two months ago. They reopened the supermarket and changed the name.” I read the receipt: “Giorgio La Pira Cooperative.”
La Pira was a longtime mayor of Florence who died in 1977. What does he have to do with these groceries?
Eager to get the full story, I returned to Pozzallo the next day to find the answer. There, Fabio Portelli, president of the Giorgio La Pira Cooperative, invited me to a bar. It’s a long story.
“We were the May Day Cooperative, the first in the area, founded in 1977. We had 15 outlets.”
“The crisis, not very serious, brought us prematurely into the arms of the Coop, the largest distribution group in Italy. We were a subsidiary. In 2012, we signed an agreement with their Sicilian branch. They appreciated and wanted to invest in our supermarkets to overcome the crisis. We decided to trust them. They took over the May Day Cooperative supermarkets, demanding sacrifices that would be temporary. Many of us went to part-time, which means €700-800 (monthly) salary. ‘The job is safe,’ we said, ‘and the company has strong shoulders.’”
Not strong enough. The Coop management was a failure. Losses increased. At the end of 2014, Coop Sicilia closed Scicli and Pozzallo, along with others in the area. They were only willing to invest in mega-supermarkets in large shopping centers.
“The only alternative to dismissal was moving to Palermo, 300 kilometers from here,” Portelli says. “For €700 per month, that’s impossible.” The battle against the Coop began, which in essence was a family quarrel. The senator from Padua, a respected pediatrician from the Democratic Party, sided with the workers (as did the Italian General Confederation of Labor). Meanwhile, the president of Coop Sicilia, Gianluca Faraone, is the brother of the Education Secretary in the Renzi government.
In October 2015, workers occupied the city council. The city mediated the conflict, and the parties reached a deal to keep the supermarkets open another month. On Nov. 7, the doors closed.
Portelli and his colleagues, however, didn’t resign themselves to unemployment or black market jobs. If the Coop wanted to leave Scicli and Pozzallo, their loss. They’d start their own grocery store. The citizens supported them. So they founded the cooperative and named it after the most famous citizen of Pozzallo, who made his career in Florence as the “holy mayor” or the “white communist.” Workers were hired on at pre-crisis salaries. The Coop let them take the cash registers with them.
“That way they didn’t have to pay to dismantle the premises,” Portelli says. “From cashiers and desk workers, we became carpenters, painters, electricians. In one month, we reopened the supermarkets and now we manage ourselves, in our own way.”
The same thing happened in many factories in Argentina after the crisis of 2001. The phenomenon of “recovered companies” — technically, a workers’ buyout — is now spreading in Europe. In his recent book Working Without Bosses, ex-manifesto journalist Angelo Mastandrea writes of many similar situations across Italy, France and Greece. Steel and tea producers, railway manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and even broadcasters have been saved by workers.
Argentina rescued 40,000 jobs in 270 companies this way since 2001. In Italy, the numbers are smaller, but the crisis came later. There are almost 70 companies managed by employees in this country (il manifesto is one of them). Most are in the industrial North, where workers take advantage of their valuable skills. But it’s also happening in the South. In Messina, 16 former employees of city’s historic brewery took over the plant after it was acquired by Heineken and then shuttered.
But it’s not very common in the retail sector. Among the Italian workers’ buyouts there is only one case similar to Scicli and Pozzallo, another supermarket in Palermo. Part of the reason is that in the South, there’s another crisis. It’s called the Mafia. Most companies bought out by workers have been confiscated by organized crime syndicates.
But the story of Scicli and Pozzallo is unique. Their province, Ragusa, has the highest per capita income south of Rome. The Mafia didn’t cause its crisis, but rather its ownership did. Today the owners aren’t managers by trade, but they’re committed storekeepers and cashiers. Conventional market theories dictate that individual retail outlets count for very little. Instead, profit is derived from economies of scale, optimizing inventory and logistics. But that management model has failed. In its place, a different model shows promise.
For example, the butcher returned to the job after the supermarket here reopened. Portelli explains: “When this was the Coop, the meat was sold pre-cut and packaged. The advisers said that increases productivity. Fine for the North, perhaps, where everybody’s in a hurry. Here, until recently we were farmers. We like that a butcher explains what we’re buying. And the line is around the counter.”
Even the head of the managing council of Giorgia La Pira Cooperative, Giovanni Inghilterra, believes in this strategy. He worked with the May Day Cooperative and in the administration of Coop Sicilia. The algorithms from experts convinced him a little, but the people on the ground who know the territory and the customers persuaded him more. So he deserted and joined the new coop.
And this is the paradox. Forcing modernization from above seems like a good idea from afar. But up close, in the actual South, the strategies of large companies appear too rigid. Flexibility, sacrifice and local roots are what the workers, not management, bring to the enterprise.