Neamtan is coordinator of the Intercontinental Network for
the Promotion of a Social/Solidarity Economy (RIPESS), and
president and general director of Chantier1
de l’economie sociale, Quebec, Canada.
Sirel met up
with her at the 2010 National Summit on a People-Centered
Economy, held in Ottawa, Canada on May 30 through June 1,
where she discussed several aspects of the relationship
between Social/Solidarity Economy initiatives and the labor
-How would you describe your organization, Chantier de
-It’s a large meeting point where different stakeholders
come together to promote and develop a Social/Solidarity
Economy in Quebec. What this means is that we are a
group of networks of cooperative and associative companies
operating in various sectors, such as housing, environmental
issues, work cooperatives and early childhood education
(daycare centers). In addition to these collective
companies, we gather other networks that work in the
development of their local communities, both in urban and
rural areas. Also involved are large social movements that
support the development of a Social/Solidarity Economy
as a way of contributing to the democratization of the
economy. The participation of these movements is immensely
important to us. I’m referring, for example, to Quebec’s two
leading labor confederations, the youth and women’s
movements, and the associative movement for cultural
democracy, among others.
Chantier’s goal is to further a Social/Solidarity Economy
(SSE) so that people will be able to carry out
undertakings geared to meet the needs of their communities.
It also provides a number of tools that can be used to
coordinate efforts among all the agents involved in the
various actions. Our structure is in itself a space for
coordinating actions and for working jointly on the issues
that bring us together.
-Could you give an example?
-We have a working conditions committee that meets with a
network of companies to examine current labor conditions in
collective companies, and, together with the green movement,
it studies possible ways of improving our companies’
environmental practices. It’s a space for coordinating
efforts, for discussing differences and inconsistencies, and
for seeking common solutions.
We also have a representation mandate, so that we’re
recognized by the government of the province of Quebec, and
by all of civil society, both at the provincial and at the
international level, where we act as Social Economy
Chantier’s goal is to further a
Social/Solidarity Economy so that people will be
able to carry out undertakings geared to meet
the needs of their communities. It also provides
a number of tools that can be used to coordinate
efforts among all the agents involved in the
-What historic ties are there between social economy efforts
and trade unions in Quebec?
-Their integration is an issue of the utmost importance, and
I believe it is key to the success and the strength of the
SSE movement in Quebec. This is not a recent
development, as cooperatives and associations have existed
for ages in our province. But there has been a renewal of
the citizenship movement at the heart of the economy, which
began in the early 1980s with the emergence of two
simultaneous debates, both of great social importance.
One of these debates arose within the labor movement. While
society was searching for ways out of the economic crisis
that we were suffering at the time -other crisis would
follow-, the Quebec Workers’ Federation (Fédération des
travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec - FTQ)
began to question whether it should continue indefinitely
with a defensive strategy (which includes one of the basic
functions of trade unions, the negotiation of collective
bargaining agreements and working conditions), or if it
should instead adopt a “proactive” stance, that is, if it
should take action to solve underlying problems, such as the
need to generate and protect jobs.
then sat down with the government to negotiate the
establishment of a legal framework that enabled the creation
of Canada’s first workers’ fund, called “Fonds de
This pension fund, which complements the general pension
scheme and is wholly-controlled by FTQ affiliates,
was set up with the aim of encouraging workers who had no
pension benefits, or who were not in the habit of saving, to
start putting money aside for their retirement. Once
sufficient resources were raised, the Fund was required to
invest in the generation and preservation of jobs in the
province of Quebec. At present, sixty percent of the money
collected by the Fund must mandatorily be allocated to that
This brought about an enormously significant change in terms
of social conditions, and it created a ripple effect, with
other labor federations replicating the experience, but at
the same time, it helped the associative movement solve a
dilemma that it too was facing. Although we were directing
our efforts towards defending labor laws, especially those
protecting poor urban populations, we feared our efforts
were actually contributing to reproduce poverty, as the
development model that prevailed at that time -the heyday of
neoliberalism, with Ronald Reagan in the United
States and Margaret Thatcher in Great
Britain- precluded any alternatives.
-How was it that this change came about?
-There weren’t many of us back then, and that made things a
little easier, but at time these discussions became brutal.
In the end we arrived at the conclusion that we had to
address economic issues, but with a different approach. We
were working from a southeast Montreal neighborhood,
in the industrial heart of Canada, and we were seeing
factory after factory closing down; also, there was already
a second-generation of unemployed. So labor and cooperative
struggles crossed paths on the field.
When a new crisis came in the 1990s, we saw that
we could promote a Social/Solidarity Economy as
a response to that crisis, as a way of
addressing employment generation needs. At that
time, the labor movement worked with us from day
one to develop that idea.
We started working together with the labor movement to save
our factories, generate jobs and train workers, as we
quickly realized that many lacked basic training and
So we established what we called Community Development
Corporations, which are still operating today and have even
influenced Quebec’s public policies in community matters,
and which above all have shown that establishing a policy of
alliances is key, not just socially but economically.
This associative movement continued to develop over time,
and when a new crisis came in the 1990s we saw that we could
promote a Social/Solidarity Economy as a response to
that crisis, as a way of addressing employment generation
needs. The labor movement worked with us from day one to
develop that idea.
That’s not to say there were no discussions among us, as
logically some fears and uncertainties existed, which gave
way to significant debates. For example, public sector
unions were wary of the government, because they feared it
would take advantage of the communities’ capacity for
self-management by using it to meet social needs through
cheaper means, and that it would take it as an opportunity
to eliminate public-sector jobs.
But in this framework of shared goals and joint efforts, we
were able to have this debate openly, transparently and
productively. We were able to define where public service
ends and where communities must begin to self-manage
initiatives to solve their own needs, without employment
being affected. Moreover, with the passing of time and as
our undertakings grew, we saw the emergence of a trade union
of SSE workers, which, in contrast to conventional
employers, we considered a very positive thing.
It’s also true that we asked trade unions to rethink their
union practices, as the methods that are applied in, say,
General Motors or a transnational corporation cannot be
applied in a small neighborhood school run by parents.
Unions are a good thing in all cases -we don’t argue that.
But labor relations cannot be the same everywhere.
All of this has led to a very smooth and intense dialogue
with the labor movement, to the extent that labor
federations are now present and actively involved in the
structure of Chantier, as are all the other organizations
that have been formed for SSE development in Quebec.
Another very important level of collaboration
with labor federations are the solidarity funds
- FTQ, for example, has a seven-billion-dollar
fund -, which are mandated by their bylaws to
allocate 60 percent of the money for investment
projects within the province of Quebec.
-Do trade unions in SSE companies observe labor laws like
trade unions in any other company?
-Of course they do, and workers there usually earn better
salaries than workers who perform the same tasks in
conventional companies. But the aim is to go beyond that and
develop improved methods for working together. In cases in
which part of the income is guaranteed by government
subsidies, efforts are directed towards fighting together to
improve wages and ensure that workers receive better
training. There have even been successful initiatives aimed
at building new skills.
One innovation, for example, is a company that offers
homecare services for elderly people who are no longer able
to live fully on their own but are not yet ready to be
committed to a nursing home. This service was not
institutionally available, and it’s a highly skilled task,
because it’s not just about cleaning and cooking, but also
about spending time with the other person, establishing a
relationship of trust and care, and there are many delicate
matters that caretakers must tend to. In some cases it may
even be necessary to make a decision to alert social or
healthcare services about the situation of the persons cared
for. For that reason, together with the community-based
companies that provide this service, we developed a training
course that has received government recognition, and the
first generation of students have just graduated.
We’ve developed a similar initiative in waste management,
forming several companies that recycle and reduce the volume
of waste. These initiatives consist in first identifying
anything that can be recycled, instead of dumping it. This
has given rise to a trade, which is performed upstream in
the waste disposal process, and which we call “valuing,
whereby workers select, for example, fabrics -cotton, silk,
synthetic fibers, etc.- and determine the value of each
material. It’s a process that has considerably increased the
productivity of these companies. This would’ve never been
possible without partnering up with trade unions.
More recently, by gathering together youth organizations,
women organizations and SSE undertakings, a
complementary “multi-employer” pension fund was created,
which small businesses can join so that they can provide
coverage for their employees. This wasn’t possible before,
because pension funds were only available for large
companies or public sector jobs.
Another very important level of collaboration with labor
federations are, of course, the solidarity funds. FTQ,
for example, has a seven-billion-dollar fund. According to
these funds’ bylaws, 60 percent of the money they collect
must be allocated for investment projects within the
province of Quebec.
The National Confederation of Trade Unions (Confédération
des syndicats nationaux - CSN) of Quebec has a
smaller fund, but which is more SSE-oriented, is
managed in a participatory manner and focuses on
environmental issues. We’ve also created a 20-million-dollar
fund with CSN, for investing in social capital
companies that are controlled by local agents, as opposed to
what happens in the regular credit markets, where the
companies that apply for financial aid must relinquish some
control over their activities to the financing partner. In
this fund, productive agents are fully respected, as are
their social, environmental and cultural goals.
learned that if we all came together
-cooperatives, associative organizations, mutual
funds- we would be able to show that we had
significant economic weight and represented a
different way of doing business.
-What’s the difference between an SSE company and a
-What happened was that we realized that Quebec had very old
cooperatives, such as the province’s leading financial
institution, which was created more than a century ago. In
1996, we had the opportunity of getting together and
adopting a common SSE vocabulary, where SSE
companies are defined as collective companies -either
associative or cooperative- that are non-profit oriented,
managed democratically and operate independently from the
state, and which place people over capital.
We learned that if we all came together -cooperatives,
associative organizations, mutual funds- we would be able to
show that we had significant economic weight and represented
a different way of doing business. From that realization
there was only one step to demanding that the government
adopt public policies to contemplate the specific needs of
You could say that some of the large and old cooperatives
have kind of lost sight of their roots, but the vast
majority of small cooperatives are members of Chantier and,
therefore, they are part of this great movement that seeks
to transform the economy and society.
Chantier was built on an accumulation of past experiences.
The labor and cooperative movements were born simultaneously
as a reaction to capitalism. The labor movement emerged to
protect workers against abuses from management and
employers, and the cooperative movement was created with the
aim of democratically controlling the means of production.
But what happened was that both sectors often failed to see
each other as members of the same family. So we made sure
from the start that our structure was not based solely on
SSE companies, but drew also on social movements working
for social change and on agents working on the field, to
find a long-term internal balance that would guarantee that
SSE companies would continue to be a work-in-progress
and not an end in itself.
-You’ve been appointed for a one-year term as coordinator of
the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of a
Social/Solidarity Economy (RIPESS). What is the Network
-RIPESS has decided that the policy that will be
followed from now on will be to rotate these positions, a
policy I agree with completely. We’re a network of networks
that is still developing from a dynamic that began in 1997
in Latin America, more specifically in Lima, and
which continued in Quebec in 2001, and then in Senegal
in 2005 where RIPESS’ structure was finally
We define ourselves as “intercontinental,” as opposed to
“international,” because we believe that ours must be a
network that grows from below, with local, regional,
national and continental expressions, with their own
realities and characteristics that we want to respect. Which
is why we planned to form a network in every continent.
In this way, a network is being developed in North
America, throughout the United States and
Canada; the network in Latin America is
expanding, as this is the region where, without a doubt,
SSE networks have been better implemented and
acknowledged; and in Europe, after the Second
Intercontinental Meeting held in Luxembourg in 2009,
a movement emerged with the aim of establishing a RIPESS
chapter next year. In Africa, several networks are
being formed and there’s a continental meeting planned for
next October in Morocco, where the RIPESS
Africa chapter will probably be formalized. And the same
process is underway in Asia, with RIPESS’
Third Intercontinental Meeting scheduled to be held in the
Philippines in 2013.
So, little by little and with our own dynamic, we’re
building our movement with genuinely local, national and
regional roots, avoiding other approaches often imposed by
organizations whose sole aim is to co-opt society-built
Quebec, Carlos Amorín
July 5, 201