The Co-operative Experience in Ferrara

Written by  Egidio Checcoli
Old utopias and new realities.
A great movement with its roots in the Ferrara area: almost a hundred thousand members, over eleven thousand employees and a turnover of well over two thousand billion lira. But today's co-operative societies are no more than the result of the movement's history, a history of change and struggle that began in the second half of the Nineteenth century.
At that time the population of the Ferrara area was about two hundred thousand people, of which eighty-two percent were illiterate. Devastating poverty and disease were endemic and fifty percent of young people died before reaching twenty.

In the wake of the birth and development of the manufacturing industry came the first working class groups, but most production was still connected to the agricultural sector, almost all of which was in the hands of a few landowners. But the desire for change, the establishment and the spread of a sense of solidarity soon created conditions favourable to the growth of mutual aid societies, the humus for the co-operatives of the future.

At the end of the last century the area boasted sixty-seven mutual aid societies with almost two thousand members. Some ran retail stores while others provided various forms of assistance. Industrial development was slow and limited in Ferrara, but this did not hinder the establishment and growth of the co-operative movement.

In 1873 the first co-operative for labour and production was set up in Bondeno. This was a co-operative of women textile workers that had been constituted thanks to the commitment of count Gioacchino Pepoli and to the support provided by the Bondeno town council. This textile co-operative has also earned a place in the history of the local movement because it voted a statute by which members had to send their children to school, subscribe to a mutual aid society, and attend night classes if they were unable to read or write.

At the end of the Nineteenth century the first farmworkers' co-operatives came into being. By 1920 these co-operatives were administrating 1,614 hectares of land. By 1877 the first consortium of co-operatives for labour and production had been formed: its headquarters were in Argenta and it represented co-operatives in Modena, Bologna, Ravenna, and Ferrara.

Then came Fascism. And the material and moral damage suffered during the twenty-year period of Fascist rule was to prove considerable. Once the war was over, the business of reconstructing the co-operatives was immediately undertaken as part of a spontaneous movement involving all sectors of production. Development was most intense in the agricultural, building, and retailing sectors.
Some factories got underway again thanks to the intervention of the co-operatives. And this brings us to Ferrara today, a province that is going through a complex and contradictory phase.

In the rankings that sum up the state of the Italian economy Ferrara has lost ground compared to other provinces and this is why the co-operatives have been making prodigious efforts to raise the competitive levels of the local system of production, to help create new jobs and to exploit the area to the best possible advantage. The new prospects that until a short time ago were being defined as residual, now represent the probable outposts of the economic future.

But this new ferment must not lead to our underestimating the need for a massive promotional effort on the part of the business community, an effort, moreover, not devoid of an element of risk. Which is why this effort cannot be borne by any single body.
This too is part of the co-operative movement's task - to persuade people of the worth of mutuality. If other bodies, businesses, institutions, and banks, get on to this wavelength, then the chances of success will increase remarkably.