Sandrino Graceffa, director of the SMart cooperative, why is mutualism going back in the United States and Europe?
Mutualism and the cooperative movement do not belong to the past. In the present situation of lack of job security and job destruction, it is an extremely modern idea, provided that it does not repeat the mistakes of the past, that of not having fueled the flame of the democratic spirit.
Are you talking about the transformation of a socialist organization into a capitalist enterprise?
Yes. Let me give you an example. In France, I am a shareholder of a cooperative bank, but I have never attended the general assembly. The bank speaks to me as a bank and not as a cooperator. I am not interested in being part of a bank. I am interested in reliving the cooperative idea through the network’s ability to create new forms of participation. Democracy today is limited to a representative idea: every four years, the representatives are elected and everything ends there. It is no longer enough: there is a need for participatory and direct democracy. And the cooperatives can play this role.
How do you govern this democracy within SMart?
We are a yard. Two years ago, we started a process – we called it “SMart in Progress” – involving more than 2,000 members through working groups. An amazing experience of popular education. Many young people have reappraised their social issues and organizational tools that are fundamental to our project. We have elected the new board of directors. For the first time in our organization, everything is open, there is no filter option anymore. All members can become Directors of the Board on the basis of a project. We have received more than 500 applications from people we do not know. Some colleagues are afraid, because they fear they will be led by strangers. We have taken a very important democratic risk. It’s very exciting.
Michel Bauwens, chair of the P2p Foundation and one of the main network theorists, argues that SMart is an open cooperative. What is the meaning of this definition?
The cooperative is a totally open process launched by the collaboration of its members. The cooperatives of workers created in the 20th century were a form of labor capitalism where the members were co-owners of the means of production. In our case, all the assets, both material and immaterial, are indivisible. Our by-laws do not offer any chance of earning from capital. The accumulated capital is a common asset that generates an interest to those who use it. To do this, you have to take part in the activities, if you leave, the others will use something that is actually a collective asset. In this sense, ours is an open cooperative.
Let’s make an example: a freelancer, an entity with a VAT code, and a temporary contractor want to enroll in SMart and present a work project. Does the cooperative finance it?
Everyone can join SMart, even without presenting a project. There is no selection, even when we were at the beginning and we were only looking for artists. Some were not brought in for art, but this is not a problem. For us, it is necessary to make this economic initiative possible for everyone. Our members have a range of services that allow them to bill their customers, using the co-operative VAT code, as if they had a small business. Their compensation is used to pay them a salary, with all related benefits. This system never penalizes failures, everyone can try to become a journalist, even if in a month they want to be a filmmaker. In the life of a member there are no priors, every day the cooperative must guarantee the same services. If it does not work, there are no consequences. Our economic model is based on the Pareto Law: 20 percent of our member finance the 80 percent of people who do not generate value.
But is it sustainable?
Yes, even though the services we provide them will never be able to pay for the total of services, but we provide them anyway. To do this, it is necessary to achieve a certain level of development, and we did.
Another feature that makes the SMart model interesting is the dual status of workers: employee members and freelancers. How does it work? And can it be applied in Italy?
Our system can be applied everywhere. It is always complicated when you want to apply less than what the legislation proposes. When you want to apply more, no one can bother you. The mechanism is simple: you bring the money you have earned and enter it into a shared and undivided system. Money is transformed into wage remuneration and benefits, including the unemployment allowance which otherwise is not possible to access. SMart allows you to move from an informal economy to a formal one. We understand that you can be free and at the same time protected.
Does it work because SMart acts as the guarantor to the freelancer or occasional worker in case of non-payment?
Exactly. Thanks to the system of wage guarantee and the contributions of all members of a percentage of their turnover (6.5 percent), we guarantee to all that they are paid in seven days. Even when the customer pays 60 days later, or when he does not pay. But we give them many more guarantees, and this is possible because even though the members approach the client as freelancers, for us they are like wage earners. We have two systems to pay our members. The first provides for a limited term contract for all professions that do not work consistently, such as musicians or tour guides. Those who work one day, and two no. They can receive a real salary when they build up enough contracts or days of work. They are eligible for unemployment benefits, social security and can get a mortgage. Today, moreover, we have added the possibility of permanent contract that provides a more stable income to our members.
In the latter case, how do you determine the amount of income or subsidy?
We calculate an average of the member’s earnings per year, together with the member. We calculate it according to his/her skills and determine a remuneration based on part-time basis. People who have a seasonal activity, like tourist guides, receive a permanent remuneration. For many, it is an important experience because they feel reassured and feel better about their social condition. Those with unstable jobs can buy an apartment because they have a contract, for example. This system allows freelancers to remain free and without bosses. They can organize themselves as they want, but every month they receive a fixed remuneration.
SMart has also become famous because it represents an alternative to the delivery motorbike riders working in the so-called gig economy. How did you do it?
The riders contacted us for billing via SMart. At first, we did not know how to do it. The two companies then active in Belgium, Deliveroo and Take Eat Easy, did not respect the trade union minimums and did not provide any benefits to these workers in any way. In a short period of time, 400 riders joined SMart. Shortly after, Take Eat Easy in Belgium went bankrupt. Thanks to the wage guarantee fund, the riders who had worked there were paid their salaries despite the bankruptcy: in practice, SMart paid more than €350,000, between salary and social security, which otherwise the riders would have lost.
What relationship do you have with Deliveroo?
On April 1, 2016, we signed an agreement with them. It actually is a labor agreement through which we have imposed, and they have accepted, a number of rules: the worker must not be paid according to the number of trips, the service shift must last for at least three hours, adjusted to the minimum wage of net €10. Today there are two thousand couriers associated with SMart. They are paid even if they do not make any delivery. This is the top innovation, compared to other countries where these businesses exist. Over time, we have gained more and more benefits: Deliveroo pays for the rent of the bicycle and cellphone. Labor insurance, civil and professional liability are paid by SMart. Deliveroo also contributes with an important percentage to the repair of vehicles. SMart gives the helmet to the rider. We hired an engineer to understand the risks of this new job, where accidents happen regularly. With Axa insurance, we fund prevention actions.
Can this model be exported to other countries?
Sure. There may be restrictions to the extent that in some countries there are very easy-to-use forms of self-employment. In France, for example, there is a self-employed status, which takes 15 minutes to open a position online. This is an ultra-precarious position. The platforms only want this system. It is a very dangerous system because it does not provide any protection. In Belgium, where this system does not exist, we have created a platform that allows the algorithm to communicate with our system. The rider receives a code from Deliveroo. This code automatically triggers and opens a contractual position with SMart. It also works on Sundays, when nobody works. It is important to create this complete automation through an agreement, but in order to do so, these platforms must open their coding, which are usually closed. Otherwise, you cannot create any dialog between the platforms.
Does mutualism serve to create another society or to compete better in this one?
Our interest is to create an alternative model based on an alternative vision to the classic capitalist system based on losers and winners. Our idea is a multi-company organization: everyone can become cooperative members, the workers as well as their customers and consumers. It is a model inspired in the French model of cooperative entities of collective interest, a form of multi-company cooperative. The idea is to put all parties involved in a productive activity around a table; also public institutions can enter the cooperative, when services impact on the organization of everyday life within a territory or municipality. In this system, each person can find their interest in a balance where no one captures or negates the freedom of the other.
Can this model be considered as an alternative to the ‘uberisation’ of the economy?
Yes, because it serves to make Uber and other digital platforms “smarter.”
Rebuild the world… of work: An alternative to the uberisation of the economy is the book written by Sandrino Graceffa, CEO of SMart, published by the publisher DeriveApprodi, in the “concrete community” column (112 pages, €12) which will be available in bookstores September 4th. Graceffa argues in the book: “lifetime job is no longer the predominant form of employment. We can regret it or feel nostalgic, but the main challenge today is to invent a new framework that preserves a model based on solidarity and mutualism.”
90 THOUSAND MEMBERS
In 1998, a group of itinerant performers decided to answer a recurring question among artists in Belgium: how to get a decent social protection level when they earn an irregular income, subject to delays? This is a problem that today also affects workers in show business, the self-employed, those who have occasional work and the independent. Thus the Société Mutuelle des Artistes (SMart) was born. Today, SMart is a cooperative present in seven European countries: France, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, Austria and Hungary. It has 210 permanent employees, 90,000 members, 80,000 buyers and billed €153 million in 2016, excluding VAT. Out of Belgium, the European members of SMart have sold €12.4 million, 10 percent of the cooperative’s turnover. In addition to this figure, €1.9 million were billed in about 60 countries around the world. Website: www.smartbe.be/fr/
SMART: FOUR YEARS IN ITALY
In Italy, SMart was born in 2013 and today it has a thousand members. There are two cooperative sites: Milan and Rome. As in other countries, it protects the work of independent and freelance workers: it guarantees its members’ wages, manages contractual, social security and performance benefits, provides information on international mobility, fundraising and copyright. Today, it is mainly active in the field of live entertainment (theater, music and dance), audiovisual (cinema, television, advertising), graphics and design, training and consulting. SMart has signed an agreement with the freelance association platform Acta ( www.actainrete.it), that allows the former to play the role of “chief-commissioner”. There is also a member service office at the Milanese cooperative’s headquarters in Milan’s Casoretto 41. For freelancers, the cost is 5 percent of the value of the contract, 8.5 percent if SMart also provides the certainty of the payment timeframe, guaranteeing the payment on the 10th of the month after the project was executed. Website: www.smart-it.org.
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