Meet … Diana Dovgan, secretary general of Cecop and Cicopa

‘The most exciting and stimulating part of my work is meeting
and speaking with co-ops and co-operators … it feeds your motivation and knowledge’

Diana Dovgan holds a master’s in political sciences from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Since March 2018, she has been the secretary general of Cicopa (the international organisation of co-operatives in industry and services) and Cecop (the European confederation of co-operatives in industry and services). Previously, she was a policy officer for both organisations for 10 years. From 2004 to 2008, she was a policy advisor for the Belgian minister in charge of social inclusion and equal opportunities.

What was your introduction to co-ops?

When I joined Cecop and Cicopa in 2008 I was just looking for a new job. And when I read more about the job, I remember telling myself, well, this is for me! I graduated in political sciences in Brussels, and at university we were taught capitalism as fact, and about how it has won over the other economical models. Discovering worker co-ops demonstrated to me that other ways of production are not just possible but work well, for the interest of workers and for the interest of the community – opposite to short-term-oriented, profit-driven companies.

I had a personal connection with worker ownership because I grew up in Yugoslavia, where the economic model was built on worker self-management. So that was also part of my background and the values I received as a child. Co-operatives helped me reconcile some of my educational environment with my professional career and once I started working with worker co-ops, I was hooked. In co-ops I discovered something that speaks to me personally and professionally.

What is it about worker co-ops in particular that excites you so much?

The power that is given to workers, that too often is put aside and replaced with a paternalistic approach. I think people can be surprised by how many resources are there in workers who are given the possibility of making decisions about the future of an enterprise. They absolutely don’t need to be people with high university degrees in management, there are many examples of workers at different levels with different backgrounds and different skills. They have things to say and they are very cautious and clever when it comes to the interests of the enterprise – they have a natural motivation to see their enterprise live longer and will often go over their own individual interest for the collective wellbeing of the enterprise, which will in turn also guarantee them some job security. Even on paper, worker co-ops sound amazing, but then when you talk with people, it gives you the full picture and you understand this idea, this sparkle, this fire, this motivation that people find which gives a totally different dimension to their work.

What do you do day-to-day at Cecop and Cicopa?

The team was very small before I joined in 2008, so I was the one who took care of conveying common policy messages to European institutions, the International Labour Organization and other global institutions. This part of my job was fascinating, but becoming secretary general was a totally new adventure. It requires a lot of multitasking, and no day is like another. There’s a lot of coordination with my great team, speaking with members, listening to their needs and identifying prospective new members. Institutional relations are also something I also really enjoy.

I don’t like to spend too much time in the office – of course, there is important office-based work, but the most exciting and stimulating part of my work is meeting and speaking with co-operators. My team and I try to do it as much as we can because this is when you really get the real sense of why we do this job. When you speak with people in worker co-operatives it feeds your motivation and knowledge.

How has the co-op landscape changed during your time in the movement?

The landscape has changed a lot, and unfortunately, crises are a common cycle. The first major crisis during my time here was the 2008 global financial crisis, the year I joined. Before that, I have the feeling that co-operatives – at least from the EU institutional point of view – were quite marginalised and not fully understood. But in 2008 and the years that followed, we did amazing work to demonstrate co-operative resilience in times of crisis. Co-operatives were more recognised, and institutions started to understand their added value and what they could bring to society.There have been other shift s too. Around 10 years ago, European institutions believed that only social co-ops have a positive social impact; we managed to demonstrate that all co-ops in all sectors – including the industrial sector – have a positive social impact on society. We also see that on the global level; recently the UN adopted a resolution on social economy that also goes in that direction.

The co-operative landscape itself has also changed very quickly over the last few years. We’ve seen the emergence of co-operatives established by non-standard workers, such as co-ops of freelancers, self-employed or gig workers, like platform co-ops. Worker co-ops have been around for over a century, but this formula is still relevant and responding to new work-related challenges. That’s a very exciting part of the changing landscape: seeing how this 100-year-old formula is creating new typologies and answering new challenges.

What are some of the challenges?

Education about co-operatives is a permanent challenge. We need to continue to promote co-ops among universities, schools, public administrations, trade unions, all around in the society. It’s something I know that our members are very invested in.

At Cecop and Cicopa we have a very diverse and rich network, with members in lots of diff erent places. Our members are federations – Cecop has 25 members in 16 countries and Cicopa has 51 members in 35 countries. So you can imagine the challenge of all sitting together and trying to find common positions, common actions, and common strategies. It’s really interesting, but it also requires a lot of energy to animate such a network and keep it alive and dynamic. It’s also a challenge to stay connected to members’ needs and what they expect from us, too; it’s important that all our members can fi nd the space to be heard, feel represented, and receive something valuable from us. Another important challenge for us is to continue to be recognised among European and global institutions.

What are some of Cecop and Cicopa’s greatest achievements?

Many! But I would first like to underline that all achievements are a result of our collective work and have an intergenerational dimension. The achievements we have today may be the result of years or even decades of work – sometimes you need to spend months or years of energy to see some results. But to highlight a few: today there is a real discussion in the European Commission on how to support workers’ buyouts. We were talking about this with European institutions more than 10 years ago. They were a bit afraid: “What’s that? You want a revolution and fi re all the bosses?” There has been a lot of education and advocacy, a lot of energy invested together with our members to demonstrate that there is no revolution, we’re not going to cut off anyone’s heads, we are here to save enterprises, save jobs and save skills from disappearing. Another recent success at the European level is the recognition of co-operatives by the European Parliament in a discussion to adopt a new European directive to regulate platform work.

But one of the most important achievements is that Cecop and Cicopa are, I think we can say modestly, quite well-organised and valued organisations among the European and international institutions. People know who we are. They listen to us. For example, Cecop has a seat in a very high-level European Commission expert group, the European Industrial Forum, which is something we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.

Where do you see Cecop and Cicopa in the future?

I’d like to see the organisation growing and new members joining – but I would say most importantly, continuing to answer the challenge of decent work.

There are new challenges appearing all the time, which is quite normal as society changes and new types of work appear, including digital work and artificial intelligence. But our mission will stay the same: how to provide decent work, quality work for all the workers.

Another challenge to address over the next few decades is to reconcile traditional worker co-op sectors with innovative worker co-op sectors and not let them grow apart. I believe that they can feed each other and learn from each other.

How are Cecop and Cicopa marking International Workers’ Day?

On Workers’ Day, we will look at what it means to be a worker co-op in 2023. Cecop will launch a campaign on skills this year, as 2023 has been declared the European Year of Skills. Among others, we will work on workers’ buyouts. As I said before, workers’ buyouts don’t just save enterprises from closure, they also save skills. And I think we have a huge challenge in Europe, with traditional skills disappearing.

As part of this we’d also like to raise the attention of the European institutions and national governments on how they could best support workers’ buyouts because we also believe there’s a whole ecosystem that needs to be put in place. In countries where buyouts succeed – mainly Italy and Spain – it’s because there is a very rich support system that is put in place by co-operative federations and unions. There are also some good legal frameworks and policy support measures in those countries. We need those three dimensions together for worker buyouts to achieve their potential. We will be addressing this in a European conference here in Brussels later in the year.

What are your favourite memories of Cecop and Cicopa so far?

Without any doubt, it’s when I have visited co-ops. When you speak to a co-operator or visit a co-op, something special happens. I remember visiting a worker co-op in the South of France, which was a result of a worker buyout in a very industrial sector that I had personally no understanding of; they were producing pieces for high-speed trains. I was given a tour and asked about their story.

It used to be a conventional enterprise that was facing liquidation. They tried exploring the possibility of a worker buyout but the workers were afraid and didn’t want to take any risks. But then there was a huge flood in the region. The next day all the workers came to clean up the factory and machines together and in that moment of being together, they looked at each other and said “Okay, let’s do it”. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. In those moments we understand why we do what we do, and remember that these are the people we work for. If they had all this energy and motivation and courage to do what they did, then we need to find that courage too.