Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Building a Co-operative Economy


I do hope you had a good break over August. I am just back from a fantastic family holiday in Egypt and here is a picture of me quad biking in the Sinai Desert. Extremely adventurous for me to be doing this, but my daughters Ruby and Isabella threw down the challenge and I am more scared of them than I am of falling such a piece of machinery!

As usual plenty to blog about and this weekend I am contributing to the annual event for the UK Society for Co-operative Studies - more info at:

The blurb for the event states:

This year's conference provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the unfolding global financial crisis and domestic economic recession on the Co-operative Movement. It will also be a chance to relate these debates to developments such as the launch of the Third Sector Research Centre in the UK and the work of the Commission for Co-operative and Mutual Housing. As our conference will be following the International Co-operative Alliance's research conference in Oxford earlier in the week, this year's research roundtable will have an international flavour.

You may remember that in May this year I blogged about an event I jointly organised between Ruskin College, Unions21 and Coops UK which sought to rejuvenate the historical links between the trade union and cooperative movements through an exploration of modern methods to support employee ownership options for running businesses and social enterprises.

The event this weekend also examines this potential through the session I will contribute to and which is called Public Policy – Towards a Co-operative Commonwealth?

The idea of employee ownership is still a highly contentious one for the labour movement and as the May event demonstrated there is little room for debate around this from, for example, some trade union's perspective in the context of privatisation and externalisation.

Still, as employers seek alternative options to engage employees in share ownership as an alternative to increased remuneration, as with the recent agreement with BA and BALPA, and others like GM transfer stock to the UAW, it is essential that these developments are explored and understood to better support the potential for change in the economic policy of trade unions.

It is not simply enough as trade unions, particularly in the UK, have done in the past to simply ignore economic, social and political trends and assume that to do nothing is an option.

Or am I wrong, and is it heresy to suggest that workers, like those of the John Lewis Partnership, should own shares, and/or control corporate policy, in the organisations they work for?

A good, controversial topic to kick off the new academic year!




Muhammed said...

I think the egyptian sun has fried your brain. Employee ownership and trade unionism are incompatible. We should defend public sector jobs not accept the government's privatisation agenda by agreeing that workers takeover what is being TUPED out.

There is no logical argument where I can agree with what your saying.

Wilf said...

I have some interest in discussing ideas around industrial democracy however I do not believe that that current trend of making deals which transfer share to employees is employee ownership or gives employees power in any real sense.

There are a three main problems with the current trends as I see it. Firstly I do not believe that in the context of privatisation and externalisation share transfer resolves the contradiction of the basic ideas of public services and the profit imperative.

Secondly, I would argue that current trends to create and encourage social enterprises are attempts to create a market in social services from the NGO sector. In my experience this has resulted in working people paying for services that they are in reality already paying for through the tax system.

Lastly, I think the problem with employer ownership through share ownership is that it is not institutional based. Individual workers are not in a position to exert the kind of influence that financial institutions can over business. Even in America where UAW has stock in GM, the reality is that they are a relatively minor institutional share holder.

Don't get me wrong I am not of the view that there is not grounds for debate, and that we should not be exploring how to gain more control over corporate policy, but I am not a post modernist and do not believe that the market can provide solutions for all situations, neither am I a fatalist and believe that we just have to adapt to current economic, social and industrial trends. These trends are all after all the result of the application of political and economic ideologies and can be changed.

I do think that in this context the trade union movement needs to get back to considering how it can effectively exercise power in the workplace and that means increased membership and organisation. The problem with current debates about trade union rejuvenation and organising is that they are conduct as if this was a technical debate rather than a political one. Only when we have resolved these problems will we be in a position to exercise influence.

We should never forget that Thatchers mantra to justify privatisation i.e. the idea of a share owning democracy was not about putting power in the hands of workers.

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Wilf,

Thank you very much for your, as ever, detailed assessment of the topic.

Interestingly the conference I attended this weekend included a focus on the very points you raise e.g. not letting share allocation be a substitute for a real opportunity to effect change within an organisation.

Similarly, I raised the point you refer to about the GM/UAW share allocation and that this shouldn't be seen as some glorious transition to worker's control.

I have a great deal of sympathy with a core feature of your thoughts around strong membership and organisation. I was suggesting this weekend however, that the focus on membership density per se has neglected the impact the the fundamental rejection of employee ownership has had on the deterioration of terms and conditions of workers when jobs are transferred to the private sector.

I suppose many in the cooperative movement would agree that the concept of the 'third sector' allows for an accommodation of trade union and cooperative values within social enterprises and worker cooperatives.

As you state, it is important to at least debate the potential strengths and weaknesses of options that face workers in the context of job insecurity and the cooperative economy, at least in my view, can do that.

Thanks again for your input - hope you are keeping well.



Alan said...

Hi Ian,

A very interesting topic this one.

The comments here remind me of debates in my youth about workers' control and of course the old Claud 4 notion of workers securing by hand and brain etc.

What I don't know in terms of your current work is how this historical position sits with the more modern take on employee ownership.

Of course I can see striaght away that some of the old politics has gone out of the window with the exchange of 'employee' for 'worker' but also I am concerned by the points that your mate Wilf raises when he says 'I do not believe that in the context of privatisation and externalisation share transfer resolves the contradiction of the basic ideas of public services and the profit imperative'.

He also makes a valid point about services being paid for twice and a critical point about workers essentially managing capitalism for capitalists.

All of this makes me somewhat dubious about the extent to which the old-style debates still lives on in the modern manifestations of worker coops or whether modern coops,a bit like Blairites, are an attempt to modernise, ie castrate, essential feastures of democratic socialism.

Interesting debate all the same.



Ian Manborde said...

Hi Alan,

Many thanks for your comments.

I understand your view that the 'co-operative economy' may not look like the socialist utopia of your youth. Not least as you'd probably argue that it's total value (running into billions) essentially confers turbo capitalist status.

I would argue however that you can accommodate much of what you have previously read and discussed within much of what is happening within the context of employee ownership - particularly (as I have been doing recently) engaging in debate with those advising on and running such businesses.

What is stark for me is the illustration of literal power placed in the hands of mainstream workers/communities and the extent to which they can control their long-term future.

Can I suggest that you look at some of the material on the web-site of Co-ops UK to get a flavour?