A co-op activist network’s new book is encouraging worker ownership and drawing on experiences from those working in the sector
The publication, a distillation of many years’ experience from within the workers’ co-op movement, is appropriately enough a collective editorial effort. “With this handbook we want to inspire you to work co-operatively, to take control over your work life and change our society for the better,” say the authors. Workers’ co-ops provide meaningful employment and benefits for their communities, rather than just generating profits for bosses or unconnected shareholders, they add.
Cath Muller from the Leeds-based print co-op Footprint, one of the members of the working group which produced the handbook, senses a new wave of interest in workers’ co-operatives which she links to recent grassroots activism around issues and campaigns such as transition towns, climate change and locally-sourced food. “People are having an in-depth political discussion about the nature of capital and the nature of work, with a view to building something different,” she says. There’s a desire, as she puts it, to grab part of the economy and reshape it in a cooperative way.
It’s a view which Stuart Field of Alternative Choices shares. A long-time active participant in Radical Routes, he points to the success of the sessions on running workers’ cooperatives which were held last year on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral as part of the Occupy movement’s actions. This interest, he says, is reflected in the high numbers (often over a hundred) who attend the quarterly Gatherings of the Radical Routes network, weekend meetings of active members of housing and workers’ cooperatives which have been taking place since the late 1980s. The next Gathering takes place later this month [17-19 August] at a housing co-op in rural Shropshire.
One of the workers’ co-operatives active in Radical Routes is Birmingham Bike Foundry, set up two years ago and now operating from shop premises in Stirchley. The co-op sources and sells second-hand bikes and bike parts, undertakes bike repairs and also runs bike maintenance and cycling training courses, with the dual aim of promoting the social and environmental benefits of cycling and of providing its four co-op members (all in their mid- to late-20s) with employment where there is no boss in charge.
There’s a strong radical and anti-capitalist motivation behind their co-op, combined with an understanding of some of the issues which can arise. “We believe that co-operatives could be a useful tool for building a post-capitalist society. Being in a co-operative is not inherently radical. Rather than eliminating the contradictions of capitalism, co-ops internalise many of them,” says the Bike Foundry’s website.
Chris Tomlinson, one of the four co-op members, says that they are operating in a market economy against their wishes, but that they still need to ensure that their business is financially sustainable. The group produced a business plan before starting, undertook market research and took advice (including from the conventional business advice service). At present, much of the surplus they are generating is being retained to build reserves and the policy at present is that members only take out what they need to live. “At the end of every month we work out how much money people need, and we pay wages on that basis,” Chris says.
He argues strongly that co-operative working can result in better decision making. “I think you’re less likely to make stupid errors if
important decisions are taken together,” he says. He also points to the principle of mutual support between co-operatives, and says that his own co-op has benefited both from its participation in Radical Routes and from advice from other co-ops.
Radical Routes’s newly published workers’ co-op handbook is an extended version of an earlier guide which appeared nine years ago. This edition includes detailed advice on business planning, ways to raise capital, financial management, and collective management. The legal structures section has been extensively updated, and covers both Companies Act and Industrial & Provident Societies Act options. There is also recognition of the co-op’s obligations as employer towards individual co-op members, with a section which looks at the need in coops to have adequate procedures to cope with any disciplinary and grievance issues. An appendix includes a model employment contract.
Radical Routes itself can demonstrate some considerable achievements, not least the creation of its own social investment loan fund Rootstock, which currently has about half a million pounds either invested in co-ops or ready for investment. Rootstock, which began in 1991 with a £4,000 loan to a Sheffield housing co-op, claims never to have had to write off any bad debts, a result according to Stuart Field of the principle of cooperation operating between coops. “Banks call in the lawyers when things go wrong. Radical Routes arranges for people in other co-ops to help when they’re a problem. It’s mutual aid, that’s what it’s all based on,” he says.
Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist
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