Cooperatives as a crisis solution for cultural workers – and many more

Press releases, Smart - 25/02/2021 - Xenia Kopf

The solidarity economy Smart Cooperative Austria has helped numerous artists, creatives and new self-employed through the first pandemic year, 2020.

The returning lockdowns have brought the cultural scene to an almost complete standstill. Coming together of live audiences and experiencing live art, has been put on hold. Cultural creatives are in the middle of a crisis. Their source of income is cut off and entire professional existences are in question.

However, against all odds, artists, creatives and new self-employed, were able to successfully carry out numerous projects in 2020 with the help of Smart Cooperative Austria. Smart Austria was established in 2015 to afford freelancers the opportunity to join together under the umbrella of the coop and to work fully employed. As coop members they are co-owners who enjoy full rights in decision making. Taken advantage of mostly by cultural workers and artists, it is permissible for all new self-employed, and since 2020, in many licenced trades as well.

In 2020, this paid off for many: Smart had 50 employees when the crisis hit in Spring 2020. More than half of them were eligible for “Kurzarbeit(short time work), partially for many months. Others were covered by unemployment insurance on the grounds of previous employment periods with Smart. In addition, Smart offers its users guaranteed payment which cushions cancellation of work contracts and, under the exceptional circumstances of 2020, allowed to negotiate better cancellation conditions in some cases. For many Smart users, that is a major source of support – made possible by the solidarity economy, not-for-profit structure of the Smart coop. Smart business manager Sabine Kock states,

“Smart as a common and shared responsibility structure creates better overall conditions and enhanced social security. This is due to its strong ideals of solidarity. During the crisis, the coop has thus created at least some kind of planning security.”

Smart Austria, with its 1,250 users is still in an early growth phase, compared to Smart initiatives in other European countries. In Belgium, where the model originated over twenty years ago, the local Smart coop has a total of 20,000 members. Smart offices were then founded in other countries, such as Germany, Italy and Sweden, creating a network that is increasingly viewed as a best practice model for new forms of work. US economist Trebor Scholz (New School, NY) names Smart an example of “platform coops”, that is, platform-based coops which belong to its members, contrary to e.g. Uber. Thus, they achieve fairer working conditions:

“[Smart] turns independent workers into salaried employees of the Smart cooperative thereby offering the full extent of protections such as unemployment benefits and protection against harassment that labor laws traditionally grant employees.[1]”

Artists working with Smart confirm this. Actor, director and musician Florian Eisner states,

“Long before anything came from politics on the theme of arts and cultural work during the crisis, Smart had already given me the feeling I was not left fully alone. Through Smart, I was able to realise the few possible cultural projects during the lockdown as an employee, and for the remaining period I was eligible for the short time work measure. Smart saved my position in cultural work for the future and allowed me to care for my family and two children.”

Cabaret artist and actress Christine Teichmann also benefited from short time work,

“Through Smart I was able to remain employed during the crisis for the most part of my artistic activities and was then able to switch to short time work in the second lockdown. All in all, I have been able to make ends meet and can use the time to work on new projects, such as my new cabaret program, which hopefully will open in April 2021!”

And visual artist Jonathan Quinn says,

“Since the Covid measures began, Smart has really relieved me of a load of administrative tasks. Instead of having to work through all the complicated funding applications all by myself as a self-employed person, I was able to remain employed and to unbureaucratically apply for short time work, for which I was eligible. I’m very thankful for that!”

The potential for Smart in Austria is still great, not only in the field of culture but for many freelancers working project to project. There are approximately 130,000 workers with multiple jobs [2], about 300,000 individual owner-operators [3], a careful estimate of at least 1.2 million ‘atypical workers’ [4], tendency growing. The Upper Austrian Chamber of Labor [5] has even declared the founding of cooperatives for individual owner-operators a new project.

At Smart, it’s already reality.

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[1] Scholz, Trebor (2021): Expanding Democratic Ownership. The ownership model of the public corporation should no longer be the aspiration for startups in the digital economy, in: Publicseminar.org, https://publicseminar.org/essays/expanding-democratic-ownership/

[2] Parlamentarische Anfragebeantwortung (2018): Mehrfachversicherte in den Sozialversicherungen, 842/AB vom 16.7.2018, https://www.parlament.gv.at/PAKT/VHG/XXVI/AB/AB_00842/index.shtml

[3] Konrad, Edith (2018): Die Solo-Selbständigen in Österreich. Eine Bestandsaufnahme, in: WISO 2018, Nr. 2, S. 81–110, https://ooe.arbeiterkammer.at/service/angebotfuersoloselbstaendige/KOM_2020_SoSe_in_Oesterreich_WISO_Juli2018.pdf

[4] Wagner, Norman (2013): Atypische Beschäftigung in Österreich: Bisherige Entwicklungen, aktueller Stand und Aussichten für die Zukunft, in: WISO 2013, Nr. 4, 72–88, https://www.isw-linz.at/index.php?eID=dumpFile&t=f&f=410&token=a7a099b01ec01d4a0999c4b5e5bb75195a699d01

[5] AK OÖ (2020): Arbeiterkammer und Raiffeisenverband OÖ. fördern jetzt Gründung von Solo- Selbständigen-Genossenschaften, https://ooe.arbeiterkammer.at/service/presse/Solo-Selbststaendigen_Genossenschaft.html

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Inquiries:

Dr. Sabine Kock

Smart Austria
Gumpendorfer Straße 63b
1060 Vienna, Austria
+43 1 997 44 66 – 001
sabine.kock@smart.coop
www.smart.coop