A Better – More Co-operative – World is Possible

Mary Holmes was funded to update ICOM/Co-ops UK worker co-operative database by CHS India (UK network). As newcomer to the sector she was moved to write about the experience:

One sometimes reads of outstanding examples of business organisations that combine meeting customer needs, realising the full potential of their staff, involvement with the local community and concern for environmental impact. What is so impressive about worker co-ops – as a group – is that with co-operative businesses such shining stars are the norm. I have recently been involved with sending out questionnaires to members of the national support organisation for co-operatives and have been amazed by the replies. Why?

In a world awash with lyrical mission statements about ‘excellence’, ‘service’ and ‘ethical dimensions’ worker co-ops actually have their values at the centre of the business not just as add-on extras. Worker co-operatives are businesses which are democratically controlled by the employees. Internationally recognised co-operative principles also include: equitable distribution of any surplus, limited return on capital, co-operation between co-operatives, and social and educational aims.

Of course worker co-ops vary enormously. They may be set up with a specific aim like the radical bookshops which extend the range of literature available, or they may be geared to providing employment, often aimed at some particular group which might otherwise have difficulty accessing the labour market, for example those with learning disabilities.

Though often seen as essentially small businesses with only a few staff there are co-ops in the UK with hundreds of staff and turnover in millions. The Mondragon Co-operative in Spain involves around 53,000 people and was commended for being more efficient than private enterprise by a World Bank study.

The work undertaken reflects the wider economy with the majority of new co-ops being service providers, ranging from creches and childcare to marketing and business advice. However despite the differences between co-ops some important common features remain.

First: the workers were extraordinarily nice people to deal with deal with. They returned completed questionnaires in time and apologised if they were late. Telephone calls were responded to by pleasant well-informed people who spoke with enthusiasm about their organisation. All this in a modern business environment where companies are usually barricaded behind automated switchboards, and replies to requests for information are not always immediate. 

Second: if you are ever tempted to ask `Why doesn’t someone ….

  • Go round to businesses and collect recyclable waste material
  • Set up an organisation to advise farmers who want to diversify – or
  • Provide studios to artists so they can work in a congenial atmosphere and have access to exhibition space? 

You will find there is a worker co-operative already doing just that. These businesses are concerned about doing things that are useful and socially desirable – not just about maximising profit. The Centre for Alternative Technology which aims ‘To inspire people from all walks of life to explore sustainable solutions, to provide the information needed for this and to support people as they change to a more sustainable lifestyle’ is a worker co-operative. So too are New Internationalist and The Ethical Consumer, a magazine which analyses the social and environmental performance of the companies behind the brands. There are numerous worker co-ops providing childcare and homecare for the elderly and at the same time ensuring work for local people who want flexible hours. It’s not the bottom line that counts but what’s above it – for co-operatives.

Third: the vital question of responsibility. Worker co-operatives are very aware of their responsibilities – not just to their workers but also to the local community, and to the environment and the wider world. Worker co-ops are usually started by the workers themselves and it is the workers who make the decisions, so the organisation by definition will have the interests and concerns of its staff at its heart. Worker co-ops will also often see themselves as having a duty to maximise employment opportunities particularly in their local area. A different approach from conventional companies.

This responsibility extends to the community as a whole. Many co-ops make facilities, like photocopiers, workshops and studios, available free or at low cost to the community especially to groups which might otherwise not have access. This applies also to services such as business and media advice. Theatre and dance groups take performance arts to communities and may also provide teaching, or use participatory drama to focus on local concerns. Co-operatives exist in communities and are very much part of those communities.

Co-operatives often mentioned their environmental concerns in their replies to the questionnaire and how they were seeking to reduce their environmental impact. Some – architects, designers, energy and transport consultants – are specifically looking for solutions that reduce environmental damage. Several firms are designing buildings for low energy use. An organisation that provides outdoor activities for children and young people also teaches them about the need for sustainability. While acting locally co-ops still think globally. Fair trade for developing countries is important to food wholesalers and retailers. Co-op publishers, booksellers, media and arts organisations are deeply concerned with issues of social justice.

Fourth: talking about responsibility leads on to the last point – the fact that there is always more to a co-op than meets the eye. Taxi co-ops are not just driving taxis, but they are also providing additional services for people in wheelchairs. Cafes are not just providing healthy vegetarian food but also act as information centres for local people. How can you tell there’s something different about co-ops? Just look at The Accountancy Co-operative which aims to ‘work as part of the local community and take part in projects to enhance and support minority and disenfranchised groups’. Accountants helping marginalised groups? Something definitely is different!

Anyone interested in local sustainability and the Bill for which the New Economics Foundation (NEF) is currently campaigning might find it interesting to learn more about the contribution worker co-operatives can make to local economies. Locally based, locally staffed and happy to work with other co-operatives and socially aware groups, worker co-operatives must also be helping with Plugging the Leaks from local economies (part of NEF’s Local Money Flows Programme). 

No outline of a single worker co-operative would do justice to this splendid, principled and far reaching movement. It stretches from the Highland Wholefoods Workers’ Co-operative supplying organic and natural wholefoods to shops, hotels, restaurants and institutions across the Highlands to London based consultancy, Travel Light, which advises firms on more environmentally friendly travel schemes and to many more excellent organisations. 

Mary Holmes: October 2002 – and just as relevant today

Co-operatives UK’ s website says that anyone wanting information about starting a co-operative can email us, or call us on 0161 246 2900 to discuss how we can help.

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