From the first days of Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the capacity for self-organisation of Ukrainian society was crucial. Where the State could not fulfill its tasks, society organised itself to respond. Consequently, a huge social, humanitarian and solidarity mobilisation developed.
This tradition of self-organisation does not come from nowhere. The Maidan Commune (November 2013 ‒ February 2014) showed the deep willingness of the Ukrainian people to take their affairs into their own hands.
Further, the powerful Ukrainian cooperative movement at the beginning of the 20th century nourished this ability. It was a path and an instrument as much for national (anti-colonial) emancipation as for social and economic liberation.
As part of an exploration of the world of cooperatives and new forms of self-organisation, I spoke to members of Ukraine’s ReSew sewing cooperative (ШвейнийКооператив/Chveïniïkooperativ).
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Please tell us the story of your cooperative and its activities, before and after February 24 . How do you work or decide? What are the prospects for the future?
We organised into a cooperative in August 2016. We saw this project as economic, environmental and feminist and planned to work in the following areas:
1) Popularising the repair and upcycling of clothes and textiles and an eco-friendly lifestyle,
2) Publish[ing] information about discrimination in the production of clothing and textiles (economic, environmental, gender), [establishing] a fair value of labour in the clothing industry, and criticising fast fashion and overproduction of clothing and textiles,
3) Making project participants jointly responsible for the functioning of the cooperative: collective meetings, decision-making by consensus, joint management of social networks using alternative (not aggressive) marketing, communication with customers, procurement/search for materials, formation of a transparent financial scheme controlled by all cooperative members, and other functions.
Later, we started holding workshops where we taught, advised and helped others to repair clothes, modify them to suit the needs of the wearer, sewing pouches and canvas bags to replace plastic ones, and sewing reusable menstrual pads. We started working a lot with the queer and transgender communities, creating comfortable and affordable clothing for members of these communities. This was all important and interesting for us. We had regular customers and workshop attendees, who supported our principles.
Gradually, we earned enough money to buy industrial sewing machines and a steam generator, and we created comfortable conditions in the workshop.
In 2018, together with the ZBOKU art initiative, we rented a joint space and started operating as a community center for queer, trans and non-binary people in Kyiv.
We wanted to inspire sewers to work with us or create similar cooperatives. In general, to popularise the cooperative form as an alternative to the hierarchical one, so we participated in demonstrations against the new Labor Code and artistic, cultural and educational events dedicated to the struggle for labour rights and working conditions.
Of course, we faced a lot of problems: the low cost of products in the textile market, the devaluation and lack of prestige of sewing labour, and even online bullying. But thanks to our own enthusiasm and the fact that we were surrounded by people who shared our principles, the cooperative continued to innovate.
Starting on February 24, 2022 [when Russian invaded], we stayed in Kyiv for about a month. We moved to the workshop because it was a semi-basement, sewed chevrons and underwear for the military and Territorial Defense on a volunteer basis. We helped everyone we could among our relatives, friends and in the neighbourhood where we lived.
[When] two members of the cooperative left for Finland … we started organising events (solidarity dinners, film screenings, and presentations) to raise funds for comrades and initiatives that we know continue to work in Ukraine, including providing humanitarian aid to civilians on the front line and military aid to people from anti-hierarchical, feminist and queer communities.
You are described as “political and ecological, without bosses or employees”. What meaning do you give to this presentation?
One of the ideas and principles of the cooperative was the horizontal structure of the organisation. Tonya (Ton) Melnyk, one of the founders of the cooperative … had experience working in the garment industry in Ukraine in various positions, both as a subordinate and as a production manager.
[I]t was a disappointing experience, because either they save on your wages and working conditions, or you are forced to do so because those higher up in the hierarchy set such requirements for the sake of profit.
All of this leads to the exploitation of oneself, other people, and natural resources, which did not suit Ton, as a person with an activist background.
[Ten] years ago, this idea of a horizontal sewing enterprise was born, where there would be no bosses or subordinates, all decisions would be made on the principle of consensus, that is, taking into account the interests and voice of each member of the cooperative, the profit would be divided equally, or according to alternative principles, depending on how the participants agree.
Initially, the people interested in creating ReSew were from environmental circles, and together with them ReSew was conceived as an upcycling project. But … the idea resonated with leftist, anarchist, feminist and queer circles. The critical attitude of all the members of the cooperative towards fast fashion, overproduction and pollution created by the global garment industry, along with the exploitation of mainly feminine socialised people, gave rise to the fundamental idea of being politically and environmentally opposed to any exploitation.
Do you know of other cooperatives like yours in Kyiv or Ukraine and, if so, do you have relationships with them?
In Kyiv, we cooperated with many grassroots horizontal initiatives and organisations, such as ZBOKU, Salt, Femsolutions, Free Filmers, and others. But if we are talking about production cooperatives, there was Bar Koshchei and the Hleb Nasushchnyi cooperative. The latter cooked vegan dishes from dumpster-dived products and offered them to the community at very affordable prices or for free. We invited them to participate in several of our events, including the Freemarket 2018.
We also know about some cooperatives that existed and some still operate inUkraine, although there was no specific cooperation between us. For example, in Nyzhnye Selyshche in Zakarpattia, there is the Longo Mai cooperative, which produces direct-pressed juices; in Lviv, there is a cooperative that sells sportswear and shoes; in Kharkiv, there has been a food cooperative based on an anarchist squat for quite some time.
We also know several cooperatives from Belarus and Russia that share similar principles to ours, and we have cooperated several times in some joint anarchist events. For example, the printing cooperative Listovka and the Café-falafel shop Horizontal.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Ukraine experienced a significant cooperative movement which was a lever for the national and social liberation of Ukraine. What role do you give to cooperatives like yours in a social transformation of Ukraine?
Cooperatives, in our opinion, are one of the ways to spread the principles and ideas of self-organisation in society. Many grassroots movements owe a debt
Our cooperative is young enough to be able to measure the impact of ReSew’s activities on society. At the same time, over the years of work, the attitude towards recycling, upcycling and environmentally conscious behaviour has changed significantly. Reusable pads, menstrual panties, pouches and canvas bags are already in trend, and they are not associated with the Soviet past.
But, if we talk about the cooperative movement in general, it is a school for people to be able to organise and act in different situations without leadership, which was repeatedly reflected in Ukrainian society at the beginning of the Maidan protests and also at the beginning and during the full-scale invasion.
The ability to self-organise is a tool that allows society to show itself as a political actor that the so-called current government has to listen to. And the direction in which society will move depends on how this tool will be used. That is why it is very important to strengthen the voice of grassroots, feminist and anti-hierarchical communities in Ukraine to prevent the dominance of right-wing discourse, which easily takes over all the best instruments of social organisation against the backdrop of war.
We often associate cooperatives like yours with the term self-management [самокерованість]. Does this term reflect what your cooperative is? Is this a familiar idea among the Ukrainian left or more generally in social activities?
We distinguish between the terms "self-management" and "self-organisation". For us, it is the self-organisation of people, individuals who invest a lot of resources in the activities of a grassroots horizontal organisation that is more applicable.
After all, all the members of the cooperative are not only sewers, they also communicate with clients, purchase materials, advertise activities of the organisation, write educational and activist posts, they are … accountants, cleaners, community managers and activists. All those involved in the cooperative's operation are equally responsible for its functioning.