Lilith is a Finnish model of a creative cooperative. Built from scratch in the late 1990’s, it has now over 400 members and it’s the biggest cooperative of its kind in Finland. How did it happen?
About a decade ago I was walking down the street in my neighborhood in Helsinki. I was on the phone to Kikke Heikkinen, one of the founders of Lilith. She explained to me, there is an alternative model for working in the creative fields and – together with many other culture and arts people – she had been doing it already for 10 years. The model was a cooperative.
I was a cultural worker then, just fresh from university. Those days, there were not so many jobs available in culture management, and frankly, there were no workplaces that interested me much. I wanted to be free.
Well, freedom is probably overrated. What I really needed, was some collective form of organization to take care of me so I could focus on doing my work.
This is exactly what Cooperative Lilith was doing. It was hiring creative professionals, giving them freedom to pursue their multi-professional careers. The collective would take care of the back end management so that the workers would be paid a salary. They didn’t have to think, how to pay social contributions, taxes and pensions. They simply work, and Lilith takes care of the rest.
I understood the concept in a second.
In practise it wasn’t that easy. During the years I basically learned what a salary really means. It’s not just money that arrives on your account. But it’s something that needs to be earned and someone is in charge of making that happen.
In a cooperative this someone is everyone. To come close to a “real” workplace, we need to organise ourselves so that we have services and benefits that we need in order to do the work well.
In the “capital” companies, we work to make money for the owners. The owner takes risks, and if the company lose, everyone loses.
In Lilith, all are owners, all are workers. I don’t work to make someone richer, I work to make a decent living for everyone in the co-op. If the co-op wins, everyone wins. If one fails, the co-op helps them to get back on their feet.
This is the basic idea of a cooperative. And that is the basic idea of Lilith.
The name, by the way, came from the times of the founding members. No-one seems to remember why this name was chosen. But for the time being – 22 years – the name has given the company the “anarchist” and alternative feel that still remains today.
In the bible, Lilith was a controversial character. The first wife of Adam, but then later deported from paradise as she refused to lay under the man. She was deleted from the bible as a rebel and a demon. But all she actually wanted was equality. And this is one of the basic values of the cooperative movement.
Lilith is not the only cooperative of its’ kind in Finland. Those days in the 1990’s, artists position in the market economy was much worse that today. Cooperative was all about commitment and doing things together, instead of being a sole entrepreneur or starting a production company.
But there is a paradox. Finland is the promised land of cooperatives with its 7 million memberships and only 5,5 million people. But Finland, as part of Nordic countries, is probably the most individual countries in Europe.
Why are we so into co-ops?
The whole movement started in late 1800’s by a couple named Hannes and Hedvig Gebhard. The model was adopted from Germany, and basically saved the poor farmers of Finland. The tools were simple: cooperation and education.
In a couple of years, they got their own bank and a retailer. Those days Finland was under the Russian rule. The climate was harsh and many years people suffered from starvation.
The cooperative movement was strong enough to sustain through independence in 1917, civil war and the world wars. Still today, the biggest bank and the biggest retail company is a co-op, founded within few years of Gebhard’s ideas travelling across the country.
But is the cooperative way really about cooperation?
For many it is. But for all it’s a way of allowing people to work together by choice, sustainably, creating long-term employment. It is also a support system for being financially stronger as a unity, balancing the flux of income.
When people cooperate, they are also stronger towards the country officials, demanding equal treatment and social protection. In the arts and culture, workflow is unpredictable and risky in terms of financial security, it’s based on projects and different kinds of income, including public grants and IPR (intellectual property rights). Together these streams, often small and sometimes large, create the income.
The way to Slovenia
In the summer of 2013 I had been hanging out in Ljubljana already for some time and, there was this idea of piloting Lilith model and the platform in a different country. Slovenia seemed like an inspirational place where lots of fresh ideas and organisms were popping up.
Not long after, we were invited to organise the Go! Create. conference in Maribor.
The event spinned off a lot of interest and we went along trying to find a way to find the local ownership. It seemed there was a need, there was a will, even funding could come about – but the ownership was missing.
It’s understandable. Compared to Finland, Slovenia has a more complicated status system, where different type of income is treated differently in terms of taxes, pension and social contributions. In Finland, there is only two kinds of statuses, entrepreneur and an employee.
Even this simplified model does not serve the creative sector very well. At the moment the Finnish government is preparing for the elections next spring. All parties have a program for the basic income model. It could actually become a reality.
No matter the statuses, the current work and enterprise laws were updated in the times when we only had the traditional labour market – hierarchical and stiff. The limited company is still the only “real” type of organisation that the support system understands without complications.
Cooperative is still the anarchist.
And now we have this megatrend of freelance economy in our hands – independent professionals are leading the way. The rest of the workforce are predicted to follow the trend eventually.
As the work life is becoming more project based and scattered, there is no clear cut between the employer and the employee and people pursue parallel careers to secure their income. This movement is elemental for the labour market to function. Freelancers bring in the necessary flexibility. They work inside different networks, online spaces and co-work places.
At the same time we have moved into the platform economy. There, the traditional shareholder way of operating is to move all the responsibility and risk to the freelancers.
The platforms can function also in a stakeholder way. And this is what cooperatives represent. It’s all about giving the power back to the people, with shared risk and shared value creation. It’s about ensuring the quality of work by building a safe place to work.
The Lilith model is a Finnish way of making it happen. The Slovenian way could be a smart mix of freelancing, employment and platform built into a one good place.
Netta Norro je project manager v zadrugi Lilith, zadolžena za komunikacijo in mednarodna sodelovanja, je pa tudi članica ekipe projekta Z zadružništvom proti prekarnosti.