Monday, 14 June 2010

52 Ways to Change the World (Co-operatively)


As part of Co-operatives Fortnight I am speaking at an event this Saturday at the Central Hall in Westminster with the theme: Co-operatives and Trade Unions: Working for a Common End.

See more:

Some of you may remember the event last year that I organised in collaboration with Unions21 and Co-ops UK with a very similar theme. Coincidentially Dan Whittle, who is the Director of Unions 21, and who chaired last year's Manchester-based event, is also chairing Saturday's discussion.

The issue of the overlap (or not) between trade union membership (and activism) within the context of an employee-owned enterprise is one that is little-debated within the trade union movement in the UK (on the continent, this is not a problem and, as usual, they are much further ahead in investigating and supporting collaborative activity) although, where it does arise, it tends to lead, in my experience at least, to be killed off fairly quickly, not least now that Cameron has 'found' co-operatives as a useful vehicle to further assault the public sector.

Regardless of this we must, again from my own personal perspective, firstly acknowledge the legacy that co-operativism has bestowed on the wider labour movement and try and make sense of this within a modern context. We cannot contine to ignore what employee ownership can mean to trade unionists.

For example, on Saturday I am speaking on a platform with James Stribley (regional lay convenor for South Yorkshire with the GMB) who will outline the inovative way in which former Remploy employees have formed a workers' co-op following the closure of their workshop in York earlier this year. The co-operative (which formally became a legal entity in May) has its own web-site:

So, for me, a knee-jerk reaction against employee ownership within the UK labour movement is no longer (and never was) a legitimate, credible response, not least (as in the case in York) for workers able to own the means of production and create a form of employment in the face of unemployment.

I do hope that this posting elicits some robust (although respectful) feedback.




fortune said...

Not sold!

I remember seeing the ad for the event last year, and I was thinking that you are on dodgy ground.

Your comment about the Remploy initiative is interesting and good luck to them, but as we both know worker co-ops don't have staying power.

You (should) know your labour history and need only look at Meriden Cycles, Lucas etc for the picture of failire when unions think they can run worker co-ops.

What you are doing is confusing a pretty straight forward message that should be going out to the government and across the TU leadership in this country: prepare to defend the public sector through struggle, not backbench deals where parts of the sector is hived off to the private under the guise of 'social enterprise'.

Ian Manborde said...

Thanks for the item and by the way I am not selling 'co-operation', it exists, get used to it.

You can appreciate that I feel I am not confusing the way in which the labour movement responds to the government's agenda for the public sector. I am simply asking that the movement investigates and better understands all options.

The reason for the crisis in the state of the labour movement is an inherent willingness sometimes to admit structural/organisational weaknesses and adapt appropriately.

The global recession has, interestingly, placed organised labour in an interesting position regarding its status. The best example being the majority share ownership of GM by the United Auto Workers of America (UAW).

Now, the UAW has come in for much criticism for its stance however, they took a pragmatic, long term view of the most strategic way in which the union could aid measures to safeguard workers' employment.

You might have suggested that it isn't for unions to adopt that perspective. I would argue, if not a workers' union, then who? And who else would have the long-term interests of the workers as their central concern if not the union?

I'd welcome feedback.


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fortune said...

That's an extremenly weak response. The UAW are seen globally as having sold their members down the river, not least by enusring the GM were able to dismantle long-established welfare and medical benefits. How can you say that they took a pragmatic view when it;s more the case that the union sold out! The recesssion hasn't put unions in a good place, it's out them with their back against the walls and the only answer is to fightback. As I said first time, this co-op nonsense just obscures the real issues and wastes time. enjoy yourself on Saturday, I'll be somewhere else doing something much more useful and important.

John Atherton said...

I always like it when people hark back to Meriden and use it as an example that worker ownership can never work. Don't get me wrong it was a failure, but that does't make a rule.

If your looking for Black Swans, have a look at Tower Colliery, which ran perfectly well for 12 years until the workers decided themselves to close the business after they had exhausted the viable seams.

For other examples look at a very succesful worker co-operative that has been running since 1977 and continues to grow. Union Membership is also over 80% (there is another myth that trade unions don't have a role to play in a worker co-operatives).

Further a field you have the "social co-operatives" in Italy there are now over 7000 primarily delivering social care, employment and training. A mix between worker and user membership.

I can completely understand fears, and the wish to defend public servics to the very last.

But given the choice between straight privatisation, "social enterprise" not democratically owned or a model that has worker and user ownership at its core?

At least look at the Co-operative option.

Wilf said...

I think if the trade union movement is serious about protecting and representing the interests of working people than we should be pushing the case for worker ownership and industrial democracy much more.

The reality is that our economy is at the mercy of the money markets and institutional shareholders. Breaking this means thinking about how to develop a stong alternative especially in the real economy. It seems to me that if ecomony is going to be more balanced and there is going to be an emphasis on developing green industries than there is a perfect opportunity for the trade union movement to both try to influence and to take direct action to make this a reality.

The danget is that iof we don't most of this country will porbably end up resembling Detroit

Alan said...


I agree with the spirit of the last two posters, and not the abusive, ignorant character before them.

You and I have discussed in the past the 'head in the sand' and the 'we'll fight them at the barricades' mentality that has essentially reduced this movement to a shell of what it was.

I always remember that old saying 'another world is possible' and we just need the guts to go and find it.

Good luck for Saturday and unlike your man above I won't be doing anything interesting!


Ian Manborde said...


Many thanks for your comments, all of which put a much more positive light on the discussion scheduled for Saturday.

Thanks John for placing examples like Tower Colliery and SUMA as firm, clear illustrations of the compatability of trade unionism and employee ownership: they are not mutually exclusive. I agree also that we need to reflect on the European experience of co-operative development and ask what trade unions have to learn from this.

Wilf - as ever, straight to the point. There was a point in time when the discussion about workers' control and industrial democracy was squarely on the TU agenda. The reason for the slide is debateable and part of the date, as you say, is the TU role in creating radical, alternative economic models.

Alan - thanks as ever for your no-nonsense approach to opening debate and challenging complacency.

Really helpful points raised.



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