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Bologna was at the heart of the fight against fascism. In fact it was in Bologna that the first major overthrow of Nazi forces by the partisans took place, in April 1943. Yet Emilia Romagna, like Italy itself, was a region divided. Forli, the birthplace of Mussolini, is just a short drive southeast of Bologna. Italian fascism was born there. Mussolini's fascist squads unleashed a persecution campaign against the co-operatives and the trade unions from the earliest days of the fascist movement.

Their survival today then is not merely an economic success story. It is a triumph of immense political and social significance for the people of this region. When the war finally ended and Italy was picking up the pieces of a shattered region, the signal importance of the co-operative movement to the democratic idea was written into the founding principles of the constitution of the new republic. Their power and influence was not merely ideological. They were a source of employment and pride, producing goods and services that were essential to their communities and conveying to their members a solidarity of purpose that was woven into their day-to-day lives in tangible, visible ways.

In Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast, there is a worker cooperative called CMC (Coperative Muratore e Cemeniste) – the Cooperative of Masons and Builders. It was established in 1901 by 35 workers as a small association of manual labourers working on construction. It is today a leading international engineering firm engaged in major construction projects around the globe. The new subway in Milan and the massive tunnelling drills that are being used in the world's largest construction project, the Three Gorges Dam in China, were designed by CMC.

Like CMC in Ravenna, SACMI is a worker co-operative whose origins began just after the First World War, in Imola, and today it is a leading international company in the field of ceramics. In Imola in fact, much of the housing, the roads and public infrastructure, the financial services, the social services, the schools, all owe their existence in one way or another to the co-ops that built or operate them. SACMI is among the town's most venerated institutions. SACMI tapped into the quickening pace of machine production and industrialization that came with Italy's reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. The co-op soon became Italy's most important designer and exporter of specialized ceramic presses and furnaces as well as a major research centre for new ceramic materials.

Today SACMI is a new species of global co-op – a hybrid organization that is still owned and directed by its 390 members in Imola, but whose operations include control of 60 capitalist forms, 37 of them abroad, and sales in 100 countries.

The preconditions to membership in SACMI are stringent. Employees must have worked there for at least five years before they can be nominated for membership. The nominee will then be assessed on the basis of their work ethic, their level of skill and most importantly how they relate to other workers and their capacity for being a committed contributor to a democratic organization. These are traits which can only be assessed first hand. SACMI, overall then, is very cognizant of its social and economic role in the communities where it operates. The co-op spends substantial sums in community and social development projects both in Imola and in its locations abroad.

Italian law requires commercial co-operatives to invest 80 per cent of their surplus in a reserve that may not be divided among members. It is a collective and intergenerational patrimony. This cap on the amount of a co-op's surplus that may be distributed among members is the quid pro quo that allows co-ops to be exempted from having to pay income tax on this undivided capital. It was the growth of this capital reserve that prompted the co-op to pursue its acquisition strategy. SACMI, like many other industrial co-operatives that accumulated large reserves, was able to finance its growth with little or no recourse to outside loans. The indivisible reserve stabilizes the enterprise, encourages ongoing investment in the business, and secures the co-op's future. It is a collective asset

That passes down between generations of members and so becomes a social patrimony. The indivisible reserve acts as a major disincentive for hostile takeovers of co-ops by other firms, as the reserve reverts to the state if it is not allocated within the co-op sector. In times of crisis, the accumulated indivisible reserve is a lifeboat, when access to credit is so difficult.

SACMI is in fact only one example of an Italian co-operative that has crossed a threshold to an entirely new economic scale, encompassing local, regional and international dimensions. What is most distinctive about the Italian co-operative movement, however, is the degree to which co-operatives in the last 30 years have emerged as dominant players not only in the regional economies of places like Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Trentino, where they have a tradition of success, but also the national level too. As a group, co-operatives have exceeded capitalist firms in the rate of employees hired, in the scale of operations and in market share of key sectors.

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