The idea of cooperative movement in Poland
Rev. Msgr. Ireneusz Skubis talks to Grzegorz Bierecki, President of Poland's National Association of Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions (SKOK).
Fr Msgr. Ireneusz Skubis: – Do you think we can ascribe SKOK the characteristics of the idea of cooperative movement? What is the essence of cooperative movement in the Polish credit unions?
Grzegorz Bierecki: – One can say that credit unions are the closest forms of the traditionally understood cooperative movement. Credit unions serve only their members. Only the members are owners of credit unions and the supervisory boards of credit unions consists of only volunteers – people who do not get any pay for their hard and responsible work, people who work in credit unions to serve others. Credit unions are democratic organisations: each member has the right to vote and be a candidate to the management of his credit union and members govern their cooperative society. Credit unions are non-profit organisations, i.e., the aim is not profit but the best services. At the same time credit unions are financial institutions able to offer their members the best services the way contemporary consumers expect. Very many people mix up form and idea and think that a real cooperative society is the one that uses abacuses and copying pencils. Credit unions prove that the ideas of cooperative movement can be successfully realised in a modern way.
– What happened with the great idea of cooperative movement in the pre-war Poland?
– It is a very sad topic. The idea of that great, developing cooperative movement in the pre-war 20-year period underwent a process of systematic elimination in the first years after 1945. That movement, which could have contributed to improve the conditions of Poles’ lives, did not find its place in the philosophy of the state based on the pillars that had nothing to do with the self-organisation of particular people. The centrally controlled economy made it impossible to create cooperative societies based on the pre-war tradition. In fact, after 1956 there were attempts to organise something similar to the traditional co-ops, for example the little known Beskidy experiment but when it turned out that the Beskidy region was developing better than the remaining parts of the country the idea was given up very quickly. One should remember that the post-war cooperative movement was cut from the Christian sources and inspirations. If a person stopped being in the centre of the interest of some cooperative society it soon occurred that that members of cooperative societies did not get benefits due to them and even that their co-ops acted against their interests. In practice the cooperative movement, and especially the financial cooperative movement, did not enjoy favour of the people’s state until 1989, i.e., the first attempts to reactivate credit unions in Poland.
– Why do people trust such institutions as credit unions?
– There are at least several reasons. The Cooperative Savings and Credit Unions are institutions that are only based on the Polish capital. It is also an example of the only financial institution in Poland that began its activities without a contribution of any single state penny in 1992 and after almost 19 years can serve over two million Polish households. The credit unions were restored after 1989 from the roots of the solidarity movement. We managed to create universally accessible institutions that are different from the typical financial institutions, active in Poland now and during the times of the Polish People’s Republic. We have created a democratic institution as a self-help financial organisation. People come to credit unions as they come to their homes. Here common respect and following the human principle of co-existence are obligatory.
– How do the credit unions SKOK defend themselves against the accusation of usury?
– To tell the truth I have never faced the accusation of usury since it would be an absurd accusation, the more that our credit unions, actually the only financial institution in Poland, are fighting with the financial exclusion and also with usury. Our credit unions were deeply involved in preparing the anti-usury bill that was to limit the level of the maximal interest rates forced by financial institutions and loan firms. Finally the bill was passed in the Parliament but in that period, as we supported the anti-usury law, we became the object of some black RP and consequently, unprecedented journalists’ attacks. Similarly, the credit unions supported the bill on consumer insolvency and faced strong criticism. Lastly, one can say that thanks to us the maximal level of interest rates for loans was set. Such activities belong to the fundamental principle of the functioning of our credit unions. Thus we continue to struggle against usury, which centuries ago the montes pietatis and then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the precursor of the cooperative movement and our patron, the great patriot Dr. Franciszek Stefczyk, conducted. Both the montes pietatis and the pre-war Stefczyk credit unions were created to oppose usury. Today our credit unions protect people against usury, which in practice means serving those who have been harmed by usurers. The same is happening in other countries. When during the big crisis in the 1930s the Americans lost confidence in the collapsing banks credit unions were created. They were like our SKOK unions. They were organisations gathering less affluent people, mostly workers and those with poorly paid jobs. Those credit unions improved the economic conditions of the poorest people who experienced most the results of the crisis. They succeeded to oppose usury that reached an unprecedented scale. The inhabitants of the USA became convinced that instead of going to usurers they could get help from the American credit unions where they could deposit even their smallest savings, could receive loans or buy insurance. The situation in Poland is similar. Our credit unions have helped people who were in really difficult situations and for many they have been their last resorts. And that has continued.
– Why should the cooperative movement be a social movement free from external interference?
– It is especially important after years of the economy of orders when it was the cooperative societies obliged to realise the tasks given to them in the central plan even if those activities caused losses. If cooperative societies want to be really cooperative they must be independent from any external influence, first of all from the state and its officials. It is very important to their members: the boards of co-ops will either follow their orders or will be subordinate to the will of the state officials. Unfortunately, the present economic crisis is an excellent pretext for the officials to enlarge the range of their power. They make terrified societies believe that more controlling, more orders will protect them against further maelstrom. A co-op is an association of free people and it needs independence to be able to act for their interests. It is a fundamental principle of the international cooperative movement.
– What do you think about the situation that has, unfortunately, occurred that after 1989 in Poland, when the communist regime collapsed, the idea of cooperative movement has not been taken up as the activities of the reviving state and we have been doomed to the foreign capital that has been breaking the Polish ownership?
– Cooperative movement has proved to be an effective form to build national capital. One can show many foreign investors in Poland that have acted as co-ops in their countries of origin. After 1989 we were made believe that the basis of our economy was foreign investments. Of course, I have nothing against them. But I oppose preferences for foreign investors, preferences offered at the cost of Polish taxpayers, preferences that disturb fair competition. Recently I have read about the closure of some factories in Walbrzych because labour force has become too expensive and now these factories are being moved to Romania. Only strong national businessmen can ensure welfare. We can learn a lot about it from the Germans or the French whose cooperative movements are, by the way, especially strong.
– Do you think that Poland has not lost the big battle concerning her own property? And perhaps the battle is not lost yet?
– I would like this war has not been lost although my optimism is diminishing. I can repeat what I have said in my interview for another opinion-making weekly that in the 1990s we gave power over our financial institutions to foreign capital. Under the slogan of privatisation the best Polish firms were taken over. Today even the government speaks about the necessity to regain control over the financial institutions. As for the state companies few have been left to be taken over. Therefore, those firms that were built only on the Polish capital and Polish thought are subjects of interest now. The thesis that the first million must be stolen has proved false since after the first million there is another and yet another one. This is not optimistic news and one must hope that there will come the times – may they come soon! – when our fate will depend only on us.
– Finally, a question about free media. Shouldn’t Poland as a country show more concern about her own and at the same time Polish media which during the times of the so-called democracy should inform our society about the most important matters and the future of the Polish generations?
– Poland as a country should, naturally, show a much bigger concern and sensitivity to essential matters affecting millions of her inhabitants daily, citizens whose living conditions are getting worse day after day, which most media do not notice at all or mock them. And it is a very dangerous situation. If the media neglect completely real problems, the most important matters and the future of young generations the cost can be very high and we can face some really serious social unrest. History teaches us that the easy and prosperous life of narrow groups, without giving the same possibilities of access to the other inhabitants of the same planet, will have a bad end. It will end badly for everyone. Fortunately, there are Catholic media in Poland as the only ones that are Polish and far-sighted and which, especially in the context of what I have already mentioned, fulfil very important functions in transmitting an honest insight into the surrounding reality.