Please also see the paper Power in Utopia? Analysis of two UK workers’ co-operatives through Steven Lukes’ three-dimensional lens which is the sister paper to this one. With my friend Rebecca Napier-Moore we interviewed workers together for our different papers
Are workers’ co-operatives schools of democracy? A case study of two UK workers’ co-operatives
“[T]he individual worker must be regarded not simply as a ‘hand,’ a decreasingly important adjunct to the industrial machine, but as a man among men, with rights and responsibilities, with a human soul and a desire for self-expression, self-government and personal freedom.” – G.D.H. Cole
“As it happens, there are no columns in standard double-entry book-keeping to keep track of satisfaction and demoralization. There is no credit entry for feelings of self-worth and confidence, no debit column for feelings of uselessness and worthlessness. There are no monthly, quarterly, or even annual statements of pride and no closing statement of bankruptcy when the worker finally comes to feel that after all he couldn’t do anything else, and doesn’t deserve anything better” – Barbara Garson
“To build cooperativism is not to do the opposite of capitalism, as if this system did not have any useful features… Cooperativism must surpass it, and for this purpose must assimilate its methods and dynamism.” – Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta Madariaga
“We own it lock, stock, and barrel…I’m not working for that turkey in the office; he’s working for me. And when I go into that office and want some information, I demand it and get it!” – Worker in American Plywood Workers’ Cooperatives (cited in Greenberg 1986)
“We hire the manager. Running the mill is up to him. If we don’t like the way he’s running it, we can fire his butt.” – Worker in American Plywood Workers’ Cooperatives (cited in Greenberg 1986)
There has been a recent resurgence of workers’ co-operatives, especially in Argentina (The Take 2004) and Venezuela (Five Factories 2006, Bowman et al. 2006), and interest in the subject has become widespread yet again after many such attempts during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as in Britain (Cole 1944, Greer 1955, Coates 2001), in Spain during the Spanish Revolution (Dolgoff 1974) and afterwards with the emergence of the Mondragon Co-operatives (Lux 1990: Chapter 10, Nairn 1984, Huet 2001) and with Workers Councils in Yugoslavia (Pateman 1970) as well as many others. In this paper, I briefly introduce the concept of workers’ co-operatives and the principles that guide them before attempting to ascertain whether, and to what extent, workers’ co-operatives are training grounds for democracy. Specifically, do workers’ co-operatives develop communal values and democratic capabilities as well as influencing the amount that workers participate in politics outside the workplace? By taking part in the democratic process in the workplace, do workers, as Bacrach et al. suggest, “acquire enough of a sense of political efficacy to prompt their taking an active part in local and national politics”? (Bachrach et al. 1992: 32)
Much emphasis has been put on “empowered participatory governance”, “deepening democracy” (Fung et al. 2003, Gaventa 2006), “inclusive citizenship” (Kabeer 2005) and “creating, supporting, and strengthening civil society” (Carothers 1999, Howell et al. 2001) in the recent development and governance literature; however, if citizens are not socialised into democratic norms and practices in their day-to-day lives and workplaces, one must ask to what extent they will participate within existing governance systems or help to create more participatory systems themselves? There is surprisingly little focus on the workplace and its impact on democratic norms within recent development literature. In other fields, many theorists (1) believe that the work place provides the all-important arena for the educative effect of participation, for it is in work place that most citizens spend a large amount of their life. Outside the citizens’ relationship with government, the worker is involved to the greatest extent in relationships of superiority and subordination in the work place. Within that literature (see, for example, Pateman 1970), democratic participation in the workplace is often seen to be crucial to help workers transcend mere private interest and to expand their sympathies to include others as well as developing political competence and know how. For example, workers’ co-operatives are frequently seen to help develop financial management skills (e.g. working with budgets), skills related to meetings (facilitating, minute taking, working to agenda, consensus or voting methods), community organisation skills (working with and supporting local communities), knowledge about political systems that affect the workplace and co-operatives more generally, the self-confidence or ability to give opinions or assert rights, the ability to speak in public, the ability to work towards a common goal, as well as many other skills.
I have expanded upon the theory surrounding these questions, and have explored, through semi-structured interviews with people who work in workers co-operatives in the UK, to what extent these claims are true in practice. I have chosen, through case studies, to compare two workers’ co-operatives in the UK (Brixton Cycles and Magpie Recycling) not only for logistical purposes but also to try and keep as many external factors as constant as possible, such as the prevailing political context, to ensure that any comparison between them is consistent. This paper is also an attempt to look at how the modern day co-operative movement has survived since it initially began here with the ideas and practices of Robert Owen, Dr. William King and the Rochdale Pioneers as well as many others (Cole 1944, Zeuli et al. 2004). (2)
While there has been much work comparing the efficiency and profitability of workers’ co-operatives over non-co-operatives (3), relatively little work has been attempted on the questions of how citizens’ economic identities and activities affect their political identities and activities. This is partly due to the difficulty of ascertaining the effects of working in a workers’ co-operative on broader systems of democracy. However, after building on existing work (Pateman 1970, Greenberg 1986, Bachrach et al. 1992), an initial attempt has been achieved to extend the discussion to the UK. While this paper provides analysis of two case studies, it can not claim to provide final, definitive conclusions on this question due to the limitations of the research, but it is rather an interim study that is intended as an invitation to more thorough research on this important but neglected topic.
The paper begins by explaining what constitutes a workers’ co-operative, before moving on to the participatory democracy literature, specifically concentrating on those theorists who claim that workers’ co-operatives develop communal values and democratic capabilities which can then transcend into other spheres of activity, before looking at two case studies of workers’ co-operative in the UK in an attempt to test how much these claims hold up in practice.
The Statement on the Cooperative Identity, agreed upon within the framework of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), and incorporated in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Recommendation 193/2002 (ILO 2003) on the Promotion of Cooperatives, defines a co-operative as:
“an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” (ICA 1995) (4)
There is a wide variety of different types of cooperatives, including worker, marketing, consumer, social, building, housing and banking cooperatives. As noted by Ivan Emelianoff, “the diversity of cooperatives is kaleidoscopic and their variability is literally infinite” (cited in Zeuli et al. 2004: 1). Co-operatives exist in probably most – if not all – work sectors, including farming, retail, financial, funeral-care, utilities and transport. Indeed, according to the International Cooperative Alliance, over 800 million people are members of co-operatives around the world, which provide over 100 million jobs (ICA 2006). (5)
For the purposes of this paper, I focus solely on workers’ cooperatives in the UK, given the significant differences between them and conventional businesses as outlined below and in Annex 2. The number of people working within workers’ co-operatives are much smaller. In December 2005 it was estimated that there were approximately 390 worker owned and controlled co-operatives in the United Kingdom, 92 of which have started up since January 2003 and with a total of around 1,548 members (Co-operatives UK 2005) (6). Unlike in Spain or Italy, they play a much smaller part in the overall economy (Ammirato 1996: 31). (7)
There are many definitions as to what qualifies as a workers’ co-operative. For example, the International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Cooperatives (CICOPA) gives an 8-page definition in their World Declaration on Workers’ Cooperatives, which was approved by the ICA General Assembly in September 2005. For the purpose of brevity I only reproduce the section on the basic characteristics of workers’ co-operatives (8):
- They have the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, in order to improve the quality of life of the worker-members, dignify human work, allow workers’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
- The free and voluntary membership of their members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
- As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise are members and vice versa.
- The worker-members’ relation with their cooperative shall be considered as different to that of conventional wage-based labour and to that of autonomous individual work.
- Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the worker-members.
- They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labour relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production. (CICOPA 2005) (9)
Many workers’ co-operatives also follow the Rochdale Principles and values, which are a set of core principles for the operation of cooperatives. They were first set out by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale, England, in 1844 and have formed the basis for the principles on which co-operatives around the world operate to this day. These principles were last updated in 1995 by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) and are reproduced in Annex 1.(10)
Ultimately, there is no universally accepted definition of a workers’ co-operative. However, for the purposes of this paper, they can be considered to be businesses that make a product, or offer a service, to sell for profit where the workers are members or worker-owners. They work in the business, govern it and manage it. Unlike with conventional firms, ownership and decision-making power of a worker cooperative should be vested solely with the worker-owners on an equal basis and ultimate authority rests with the worker-owners as a whole. Moreover, worker-owners control the resources of the cooperative and the work process (e.g. wages, hours of work). As mentioned above, the majority – if not all – of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise should be worker-owners, although some casual or wage workers may be employed with whom profits and decision making are not necessarily shared equally. Workers also often undergo a trial or screening period (such as three or six months) before being allowed to have full voting powers (11). Participation is based on one vote per owner, regardless of the amount of shares or equity owned by each owner. Voting rights are not tied to investment or patronage in the workers’ co-operative, and only worker-owners can vote on decisions that affect them.
As noted by theorists and practitioners alike, the importance of capital should be subordinated to labour in workers’ co-operatives. Indeed, Adams et al. see workers’ cooperatives as “labor-ist” rather than “capital-ist”:
“Labor is the hiring factor, therefore the voting and property rights are assigned to the people who do the work and not to capital, even though the worker-members supply capital through membership fees and retained earnings…Any profit or loss after normal operating expenses is assigned to members on the basis of their labor contribution.” (Adams et al 1993: 29)
Workers’ co-operatives have often been seen as an alternative or “third way” to the domination of labour by either capital or the state (see Annex 2 for a comparison). Indeed, the present or modern form of worker co-operative was originally sparked by “critical reaction to industrial capitalism and the excesses of the industrial revolution.” (Adams et al 1993: 11) The formation of some workers co-operatives, such as those by the Knights of Labour in 19th century America, were designed to “cope with the evils of unbridled capitalism and the insecurities of wage labor” (Adams et al 1993: 16).
In short, workers’ co-operatives are organised to serve the needs of worker-owners by generating benefits (which may or may not be profits) for the worker owners rather than returns to (often external) investors with capital. This worker-driven orientation makes them fundamentally different from other corporations. Additional cooperative structural characteristics and guiding principles further distinguish them from other business models. For example, worker-owners may not believe that profit maximisation is the best, or only, goal for their co-operative or they may follow the Rochdale Principles.
Profits earned by the worker’s co-operative (or losses) are shared by worker owners. Salaries generally have a low ratio difference which ideally should be “guided by principles of proportionality, external solidarity and internal solidarity” (Adams et al. 1993: 36) (such as a two to one ratio between lowest and highest earner), and often are equal for all workers. Salaries can be calculated according to skill, seniority or time worked and can be raised or lowered in good times or bad to ensure job security.
Worker control can be exercised directly or indirectly by worker-owners. If exercised indirectly, members of representative decision-making bodies (e.g. a Board of Directors) must be elected by the worker-owners (who in turn hire the management) and be subject to removal by the worker-owners (for an example of such a structure, see Annex 3). If exercised directly, all members meet regularly to make – and vote on – decisions on how the co-operative is run (sometimes a consensus decision making model is used for these meetings – see Radical Routes 2006a: 28-29). Direct worker control ensures a formally flat management structure rather than a hierarchical one.
Under UK law there is no special legal structure for a “co-operative” (Radical Routes 2006a). As noted by Catalyst Collective, an organisation which helps set up and register co-operatives in the UK, “Co-ops are registered under either the Company Acts, or the Industrial & Provident Societies Acts (IPS)” (Catalyst Collective 2006). A number of model rules have been devised to enable co-ops to register under both acts; for worker’s co-ops, these rules restrict membership to those who are employed by the workplace (12). According to Radical Routes, “[m]ost [workers’] co-operatives are incorporated bodies” which limits the liability if it fails and goes into liquidation (Radical Routes 2006a: p.6) (13)
As mentioned, I am purely concentrating on workers’ co-operatives. Although I recognise that a lot of the above mechanisms exist to varying degrees across different workplaces (e.g. some degree of participation in management decisions), I have decided to focus only on workers’ co-operatives due to the significant differences outlined above between them and conventional businesses.
The advocacy of workplace democracy, in particular with the fullest expression of worker self-management, such as within workers’ co-operatives, is rooted within three intellectual or political traditions: that literature addressing the problem of alienation in the workplace and its alleviation, especially in regard to Marxist thought; that which is concerned with the encouragement of participatory democracy; and that which has searched for radical but popular-democratic strategies for the overthrow of capitalism, for example, several strains of anarchist thought. (14) (15)
This paper only expands on the participatory democracy literature. By participatory democracy, I refer to the tradition rooted in Greek forms of direct democracy (rather than the tradition of liberal representative democracy), which was later picked up by theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and more recently by Carole Pateman, Archon Fung, Erik Olin Wright, John Gaventa and others.
Within that literature, I focus on the impacts that workers’ co-operatives have on workers’ communal values, democratic capabilities as well as their participation in politics outside of the workplace. When discussing participation in “politics” outside of the workplace, I will use two definitions which are frequently used to describe politics, and will be analysing if people who work within workers’ co-operatives participate more or less in narrow and broad forms of politics:
- Narrow politics – a range of actions and thinking that people undertake in relation to the state and to the actors and institutions of government (e.g. voting, party membership, taking part in meetings for elections, individually or collectively lobbying politicians, group demonstrations which protest – or celebrate – government action).
- Broad politics – This includes everything within the definition of “narrow politics” as well as including non-state orientated pursuits of power or influence. For example, this can include making statements and expressing identities, such as in gay pride marches, instead of only trying to achieve precise policy objectives through the state. Other examples include boycotts, giving money to charity, recycling, helping to set up or support other co-operatives as well as disputes over pieces of local land in developing countries where no government agency is involved. (16)
Many participatory democracy theorists (Pateman 1970, Greenberg 1986, Bachrach 1992) see workers’ co-operatives (or self management in the workplace) as necessary for the enrichment of democratic citizenship or as a vehicle for teaching those skills, attitudes, and behaviours most appropriate to a fully democratic society. Through the practice of democratic social relations and ownership at places of work, it is suggested, people gain the confidence, knowledge, and perspectives that enable them to be effective citizens at local and national levels. The more they are involved in participatory forms, the more imbued they become with citizenship or democratic attributes. Furthermore, the experience of direct participation in workplace decision making helps people to transcend mere private interest and to expand their sympathies to include others. In the practice of democratic decision-making at the workplace, it is argued that individuals come to learn to reconcile their self-interest with the group and/or public interest.
One of the goals within the participatory democracy literature is to develop and sustain more substantive and empowered citizen participation in the political process than what is normally found in liberal representative democracy (Gaventa 2006: 7) so that people can better represent themselves in the political arena and hold those in power to account. Carole Pateman, in her book Participation and Democratic Theory, puts this issue very convincingly:
“The theory of participatory democracy is built round the central assertion that individuals and their institutions cannot be considered in isolation from one another. The existence of representative institutions at the national level is not sufficient for democracy; for maximum participation by all the people of that level, socialization, or “social training,” for democracy must take place in other spheres in order that the necessary individual attitudes and psychological qualities can be developed. This development takes place through the process of participation itself. The major function of participation in the theory of participatory democracy is therefore an educative one, educative in the very widest sense, including both the psychological aspect and the gaining of practice in democratic skills and procedures” (Pateman 1970: 42).
While advocates of participatory democracy often emphasise the democratisation of all spheres of life (17) to ensure the maximum socialisation of citizens for democracy, I have chosen to look at the literature on how workers’ co-operatives affect the communal values and democratic capabilities of workers, because it is there that citizens spend a large amount of their life. Outside the citizens relationship with government, the individual is involved to the greatest extent in relationships of superiority and subordination in the work place. These organisations also provide a chance to study some of the “highest ideals of democracy” (Adams et al. 1993: xviii) in practice, as well as how, and if, these democratic ideals in the economic sphere transcend into the political sphere.
These theories can be seen to be especially relevant for poorer people and groups which have long faced social exclusion, because their socio-economic and political situations often impedes their ability to share in the benefits of democracy or democratisation. As Jim Manor points out, the least well off tend strongly to be:
- the least confident;
- the least well organised;
- the least capable of articulating their concerns;
- the least knowledgeable about the political and policy processes;
- the least able to gain access to those two processes, to benefits that flow from them, and to public services and legal protection;
- the least skilled at exerting influence over those two processes;
- the least well connected (with one another and with influential people); and
- the least independent of larger economic forces (Manor 2004: 5) (18)
While many of the formal structures of representative democracy exist in the UK (a constitution (albeit “uncodified and eclectic” (Moran 2005: 71)), a differentiated party structure, and periodic acts of choice, between parties, by an electorate for elections to legislatures), participation in many of the realms of narrow politics has been decreasing over the last few decades (Power Inquiry 2006). If the promises of workplace democracy on political participation are true, then not only could disadvantaged groups acquire the values, democratic capabilities and confidence to begin to compete with prosperous interests who possess these things in abundance from the start (Manor 2004) but overall political participation could increase from all sectors of society.
Participatory democracy theorists, such as Bachrach et al., emphasise the “developmental and educational role that…participation plays in the cultivations of one’s most fulfilled self.” (Bacrach et al. 1992: 10) (19). Authors such as Greenberg, even state that for the traditional theorists of democracy, participation is the “the principle social process by which human beings, practicing the arts of self-direction, cooperation, and responsibility, liberate their capacities and thereby become whole, healthy, and integrated persons” (Greenberg 1986: 19). Both authors see participation in the workplace as integral to the process of personal growth and self-development. This self-development is seen to not only develop workers’ internal selves but also has the potential “for expanding their self-interest to encompass an identification with and a commitment to the well-being of others” (Bacrach et al. 1992: 21).
Unlike in many conventional companies, where workers can be alienated, try to “get one over each other” as well as trying to do as little work possible because there is little incentive, apart from the threat of being fired, to work hard and/or together, it is suggested that when workers acquire a stake in the governance and ownership of the workplace, they become less cynical about how the workplace is run and more willing to work together. The workers’ self-interest, due to the structure and dynamics of the workplace, expands to “encompass an identification with and a commitment to the well-being of others.”
Bachrach et al. do nevertheless recognise criticisms of this theory. For example, they point out that the very meaning of “self development” of the worker:
“gets diluted given the complexities of the human condition and the wide differences in disposition, attitude, values, and outlook among individuals. Moreover, the participationists must know that the participatory experience can have a psychologically dysfunctional effect, since it can feed the egocentric traits of some and demean others who feel shy and inadequate. Finally, we cannot lose sight of those whose self-esteem is enhanced precisely by their systematic rejection of democratic values in their struggle for personal gain and power.” – (Bacrach et al. 1992: 29)
However, overall, the above authors feel that democratic participatory experience usually fosters participants’ self-development and promotes communal values, which “leads to a sense of solidarity and individual well-being” (Bacrach et al. 1992: 30) within the workplace.
They theorise that this democratic participatory experience nurtures and heightens the group’s identity though dialogue and interaction with others, as well as leading to a new sense of self or “self-interest” for the individual. This process is also said to be heightened by the fact that the workers own the workers’ co-operative and thus all have more vested interest and power in working together, both as a group and individually. In essence, communal values and the groups interest becomes a more embedded part of the self-interest of the worker.
Workers not only have a shift in attitude or in the way they consider their “self-interest”, which are slightly nebulous concepts, but workers’ co-operatives can also contribute to political participation in more concrete ways. Workers, who can be alienated from political parties or other forms of politics, may gain the skills at the workplace which are conducive for both broad and narrow political participation. Workers’ co-operatives can provide hands-on organisational and management training as well as developing workers “leadership and problem solving skills and [the] confidence in their ability to help themselves” (Zeuli et al. 2004: 77) – skills which are transferable to other domains, including political spheres. As Adams et al. outlines:
“With the worker-owned firm itself, democracy encourages leadership and skill development. Workers – often for the first time in their working lives – have an opportunity to participate in a broad array of economic and managerial responsibilities. From shop floor to the board room, workers can be their own bosses.” (Adams et al. 1993: 9)
Even the International Labour Organisation, with the passing of Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives, acknowledged that “cooperatives in their various forms promote the fullest participation in the economic and social development of all people.” (ILO 2002) This is especially the case because within the co-operative movement there is a large emphasis on education (see, for example, the 5th Rochdale principle). Workers sometimes receive training in basic management and economic skills, as well as rotating jobs and responsibilities within workers’ co-operatives. Where a relative scarcity of certain skills occurs, the self-managing process can lead to training or retraining of worker-owners to overcome such scarcity and this further contributes to the training and educational process.
The idea, at least on paper within the co-operative movement, is to also teach new workers the basic values, knowledge, and skills relating to co-operatives and the co-operative movement, with the objective of those workers understanding how co-operatives work, embracing the way co-operatives are run, and becoming participatory workers within the workplace. As noted by Zeuli et al.:
“Cooperatives are democracies and as such depend on the active participation of all constituents. Therefore, the most important obligation of cooperative members is participation in the governance of the cooperative. In practice, this means they need to: keep informed about the cooperative…, attend cooperative meetings, and take their turn at committee and board service [if it is an indirect workers’ co-operative]” (Zeuli et al. 2004: 49)
This hands on and long-term instruction of democratic principles in the workplace is very different to much teaching of democracy. As pointed out by Carothers:
“The experience of many civic education efforts points to one clear lesson: short-term formal instruction on democracy that presents the subject as a set of general principles and processes generally has little effect on participants. Such information is too abstract and usually too removed from the daily lives of most people.” (Carothers 1999: 232)
In workers’ co-operatives they are not just taught abstract ideals of democracy, but get to practice and learn about them within the workplace itself. Instead of democracy promoters trying to sell the concept of democracy to people who may already disillusioned with the liberal representative democratic system that exists, the art of practising it in the workplace, it is suggested, helps to cement democratic ideals within the workers. This resonates with many participatory democracy advocates who emphasise that learning a democratic participative ethos can only take place through the experience of participation in democratic decision making itself. Indeed, if true, workers’ co-operatives could help overcome the paradox of participatory democracy which states that “although participation in democracies helps people increase their capacities, those who have not yet had the experience of participation will sometimes not have the sufficient capacity to bring off a successful democracy. What they need is precisely what, because of their need, they cannot get.” (Mansbridge in Fung et al. 2003: 177) Workers’ co-operatives, it is suggested, help to develop these very same democratic capacities or capabilities. As outlined above, this is especially relevant for poor and poorly educated citizens who have little experience of political participation.
Below I outline a preliminary list of democratic capabilities which could be gained or enhanced through working in a workers’ co-operative:
- Workers become better able to organise and run meetings, which includes:
- Learning how to operate consensus and other decision making models (e.g. majority voting)
- Ability to facilitate meeting, such as trying to get all worker-owners to speak and/or trying to get different perspectives raised
- Ability to minute meetings
- Ability to work to – and contribute to – an agenda
- Workers self-confidence improves as well as their communication and arguing skills, which means they are:
- Better able to speak in public meetings
- Better able to formulate arguments
- Better able to more informed decisions within the workplace
- Better able to respond to arguments made against them by other members
- Workers become more able to understand and work to a budget
- Workers become more able to read and write official documents
- Workers become more able work together towards a common goal, which includes:
- Respecting other workers knowledge as well as increasing the empathy, caring or solidarity for others within the workplace.
- Increasing ability of workers to work together
Some, but not all (due to logistical reasons), of these factors are tested in the interviews (see Annex 4) and are expanded upon below in the case studies.
Perhaps one of the most famous advocates of work-place democracy is G.D.H. Cole, who believed that democratic participation in the workplace was crucial to socialise people into participating in political spheres outside of the workplace. Cole suggested that the majority of workers are trained to subservience, and that this training largely takes place during the course of their daily work. Cole goes even further by acknowledging what he calls the paradox of modern democracy:
“Why are the many nominally supreme but actually powerless? Largely because the circumstances of their lives do not accustom or fit them for power of responsibility. A servile system inevitably reflects itself in political servility. Only if the individual could become self governing in the workplace, could this training for servility be turned into training for democracy, and the individual gain the necessary democratic character for an effective system of large scale democracy.” (Cole 1918: 35).
Cole outlines how repetitive and alienating workplaces, where the majority of workers have little to no say over how the workplace is run, inevitably leads to “political servility” because workers are socialised into taking orders and not challenging figures of authority. According to Cole, only if the individual could become self-governing in the workplace could this training for servility be turned into training for democracy and the individual gain the familiarity with the democratic procedures, and develop the necessary “democratic character” for an effective system of participatory democracy. The intense horizontal interactions in workers’ co-operatives, the increase in responsibility and ownership as well as the incentives to work together (such as shared profits) help shift peoples’ thinking to be more co-operative. This reduces the apathy, alienation and cynicism that is so often prevalent in many workplaces and, Cole would suggest, makes it a much more empowering environment.
Theorists such as Bachrach et al. go further when they suggest that:
“Workers who take up the struggle for workplace democracy could be expected to experience a comparable enlargement as a result of participatory politics. As they gain experience in the democratic process, workers acquire an appreciation of democracy in the context of their own lives. By taking part in the democratic process, workers…may also acquire enough of a sense of political efficacy to prompt their taking an active part in local and national politics.” (Bacrach 1992: 31)
Bachrach and Cole’s theories both suggest, although not always explicitly, that some form of conscietisation (Freire 1996, Gaventa 1980: 18) occurs within workers’ co-operatives which helps workers become more aware of the social, economic and political contexts which they exist within, and which in turn encourages political participation outside of the workplace. This is unlike groups which “cannot articulate their interests or perceive social conflict. Since they have been socialized into compliance, so to speak, they accept the definitions of political reality as offered by dominant groups, classes or government institutions.” (Mueller 1973:9 cited in Gaventa 1980:18) It is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper to expand on theories of conscietisation, although some of the case studies below touch upon it. However, the core argument of whether workers within workers’ co-operatives participate more in broad and narrow forms of politics outside of the workplace, is explored in the case studies below.
Measuring the impact of workers’ co-operatives on workers’ communal values, democratic capabilities and political participation outside of the workplace is difficult. It requires methods which can elicit the perceptions of workers as well as attempting to attribute causality. This is especially problematic because workers’ have tacit knowledge, official knowledge and actual experience. Or, in other words, what workers say, what they do not say and what they do are often very different. There are also underlying ideas, values and norms which workers think with or through (Schumacher 1973: 63-64) which determine their behaviour and which are often tricky to reveal. Therefore, we must bear in mind that it was very difficult to determine how open and honest workers answers were as well as if the workers interviewed tried to second guess what the interviewer wanted to hear.
Before continuing, we must also recognise the multi-dimensionality of workers, the plurality of their identities (for example, they can be radical in one dimension and conservative in another) and the coexistence of contradictory motives and interests. Thus, workers on the one hand may strive for profits but also have a social conscience that is nurtured for the “public good”. All of these different factors can also change over time. Also, some of those who had worked at the co-operatives for longer periods of time found it more difficult to differentiate the impacts of the co-operative on them than those who had worked there for a shorter period of time.
Questionnaires often make it difficult to attribute causality as well as often overemphasising quantitative data when some crucial changes within people can only be understood through qualitative analysis (such as the changes in workers’ self-confidence). Therefore, instead of empirical research, I have chosen to conduct semi-structured interviews with clear, specific and neutral before and after questions (see Annex 4 for a list of the questions used) about workers’ communal values, democratic capabilities and political participation before and after joining the workers’ co-operative. The questions used were neutral, so respondents could speak of damaging outcomes as well as positive ones. One-to-one interviews were also used to ensure that certain workers were not intimidated or remained silent within, for example, focus groups. When certain responses indicated important changes within workers, subsidiary questions were asked to elicit specific details and examples. Patterns were discerned from all of the responses to indicate the changes within workers since joining the workers’ co-operative. While more thorough research methods, such as immersions or participant observation, would be needed to explore these issues further, the semi-structured interviews gave initial patterns and indicators. One worker within a workplace was also selected to help explain how the co-operative works in detail.
These methods helped to reveal the nuances of peoples behaviour and perceptions as well as showing the crucial changes of workers behaviour over time. They also helped the interviewer grasp the changing political contexts and dynamics within which workers operate.
In preparation for the paper, I attended a national meeting of UK co-operatives organised by Radical Routes on the 10th February 2007, to discuss co-operatives and test the ideas present in this paper with members and ex-members of various workers’ co-operatives. The semi-structured questions developed were also piloted on two students who have had experience with workers’ co-operatives as well as with members of two other workers’ co-operatives. The interviews were recorded and later transcribed to ensure that all quotations of workers were exact.
Two workers’ co-operatives were chosen to be studied. One a recycling company, Magpie, based in Brighton, and the other, a bicycle shop named ‘Brixton Cycles’ in Brixton, London (see Annex 5 for full details of each). These two workers’ co-operatives were chosen because they were both relatively small as well as being situated within the south east of the UK with similar socio-economic contexts. According to Ammirato, although outdated, the average UK workers’ co-operatives has only 4 workers, whereas within Mondragon the average is 304 workers (Ammirato 1996: 31). The workers’ co-operatives chosen were slightly different in size, but given logistical restraints (such as many co-operatives being too busy to be interviewed) they were the ones which were finally chosen. They were also comparable case studies because they both had broad environmental agendas (one promotes cycling, the other promotes recycling).
Unfortunately, I have not been able to look at – or define – a “conventional” business as a control due to time and resource constraints (see Annex 2 for an initial comparison), so any results found should be taken as initial indicators rather than a comprehensive study of the effects of different types of workplaces and organisations on political participation.
Four workers from both Brixton Cycles and Magpie were interviewed. A diversity of workers were intentionally chosen. At each co-operative, it was ensured that at least one worker from each of the following categories was interviewed (all workers fell under more than one of the categories):
- Workers who had worked at the co-operative for long and short periods of time
- Part-time and full-time workers
- Managers and non-managers (not applicable for Brixton Cycles)
- Workers with information related jobs (e.g. accounts) and workers with more physical jobs (e.g. waste collection)
- Older workers and younger workers
- Male and female workers
It was clear that both co-operatives promoted communal values. As one Brixton Cycles worker stated:
“It is the collective decision making…it leads to a sense of shared responsibility and camaraderie.”
Another worker within Brixton Cycles stated:
“If you don’t pull your weight and do stuff then you’re only screwing yourself…It’s in our own self-interest to communicate and be nice…we kind of love each other but we might irritate each other at times…It’s more than the sum of it’s parts it has an energy…the whole thing is built on trust and respect. But we also have a laugh.”
A worker within Magpie made a similar point:
“I’ve gained…because it’s not like going into work and being a number. It is a very much community feel. Working within that kind of atmosphere, I suppose I’ve gained from that.”
They continued by stating:
“I like sort of belonging. Being a Magpie worker there’s a real sort of solidarity because some of the work is quite nasty, especially in the winter when your out and dealing with people’s trash. But there’s a real feeling of solidarity, so that’s good…We’re all in this together”
Phrases such as “solidarity”, “support”, “community”, “shared responsibility”, “being appreciated for what you do” were often mentioned by workers in relation to both co-operatives. Indeed, one worker from each co-operative told me that they had decided against working elsewhere, even when they had been offered higher salaries, because other workplaces would not have the same community values.
All workers said that working in co-operatives was different to other types of workplaces. As one Brixton Cycles worker succinctly put it:
“I don’t like working for someone, I like working with people. And what I do has made an incredible difference…I just respond better to being part of something…it is getting recognition about what you do and being an important part and just feeling valued for that. But also caring about what I do, whereas when I ended up working for people I ended up more disassociated and I don’t care so much.”
While it was very clear that the workers’ co-operatives helped develop communal values within the workplace, it was not as clear how much these communal values extended beyond the workplace. Do these communal values stay “consumed in the bubble” as one Magpie worker put it, or do workers’ self-interest expand to include citizens outside of the workplace ? A few workers within both workplaces seemed to think that it did extend beyond the workplace. When asked if working in the co-operative had shifted their way of thinking in any way, one worker at Brixton Cycles responded:
“Absolutely, absolutely. I think that if you work in a bog standard pyramid management structure, there’s a very obvious boss and worker system. Then you project that into the rest of your life, and your life is probably less co-operative, probably less empathetic. There is probably less understanding. You’re probably more likely market driven about what you have, what you do, rather than about your community, your family, your neighbours.”
Another worker within Brixton Cycles even stated that:
“Sometimes I’ll be at home and people will be having a bit of an argument and I just bring in a bit of the co-op thing and say, ‘oh lets have a meeting’.
While one Magpie worker stated:
“Overall it sort of makes me a more relaxed and happy person because I do love my job. And, that’s probably affected the way I am with my house mates or other people around me. I just get a buzz of what I do. Sometimes I get carried away and don’t even take a lunch break. Because I do like working here.”
It was clear that communal values were strong in both workplaces, however it was not possible to determine to what extent these values extended beyond the workplace. Although more thorough research would have to be carried out to determine this, the answers given above give an initial indication that working in a workers’ co-operative do affect these values outside of the workplace.
Also, the question of what extent the size of the co-operatives affected the communal values was not explored. As one worker stated within Brixton Cycles, “because we’re still small we can be compassionate to each other.” More research would have to carried out to determine the effects of size on communal values.
It was very clear that workers in both co-operatives gained democratic capabilities. As one worker in Magpie put it:
“You aren’t taught about democracy at school and when you try and make it work at work, and people coming into it not knowing how it works, it’s best to sort of know by getting involved and…asking more questions and treating it like it is yours. But it’s really hard. People need to be taught about democracy and we try and do that at work. Because people come in here and think ‘it’s really cool to work for Magpie’…but you have to come to meetings and it’s good if you participate.”
When asked, all of the workers said that since working at their workers’ co-operative they had improved their ability to speak in public, to compromise and see other peoples perspectives, to better argue their case and also in the amount of self-confidence they felt about themselves. The extent to which this occurred varied with each individual worker, but there was a clear pattern that it did exist to some degree for all workers interviewed.
For example, when asked if they could argue their case better since joining the workers’ co-operative, one Brixton worker said:
“When I first started I wouldn’t say anything at a meeting. I was really shy, not very confident, that kind of stuff. Now that I’ve been working here for a few years…it’s much easier to express my ideas.”
And when asked if they could argue their case better they replied:
“Maybe a bit more. Not so much shouting. I’m definitely a bit more clearer about what I want. I wont come into a meeting and just say something. I know beforehand what I’m going to say.”
Another Brixton Cycles worker made a similar comment:
“When I first started working at the co-op I was so shy and found it so difficult to talk when we first had meetings…it was so scary to speak in front of people and I think that just having to do it every week, not necessarily that I would have to say something, gave me the confidence as well as learning a skill and making a difference. All those things I think made it for me personally…it has supported me in being more involved and being more confident…we have to look to each other. I think that’s always part of me but to have that in your daily work…it must have an effect.” [my emphasis]
Similar statements were also made in Magpie:
“I am more prepared from being here because there have been meetings where it’s made me more willing to talk things through. I would definitely say that from being here it’s done that. Because at meetings here I had to stop being so complicit about things and putting myself forward.”
Increasing workers ability to compromise was also very clear. As two different workers within Brixton Cycles responded when asked if they had gained an ability to compromise or see other peoples perspectives since working in the co-operative:
“yeah I’m definitely better at doing that. You kind of have to be…It’s not just about you, it’s about the bigger picture and everyone’s ideas and making it work for everyone”
“There are a lot of different perspectives and you have to learn to understand why different people do things differently.”
In terms of learning skills related to meetings, such as facilitating and minute-taking, it was clearer within Brixton cycles that all workers gained these skills. This is due to facilitating and minute-taking roles being consistently rotated within Brixton Cycles, whereas the same workers within Magpie almost always did them. Meetings were also more regular at Brixton Cycles than at Magpie. However, within both workplaces, it was clear that workers gained understanding about how consensus and majority voting works as well as learning how a democratic work place operates first hand.
When asked about general and financial management skills, workers from both co-operatives (but especially Brixton Cycles) frequently responded that instead of learning to manage other people, they had learnt to better manage their own time and work. For example, when asked if they had improved their general management skills, one workers within Brixton Cycles stated that:
“Yes I’m sure I have, but it’s not neatly defined. I manage my workload in a timescale, I am able to present the information that I work with to my colleagues…and I think we people manage ourselves.”
However, unlike Brixton Cycles which has no managers, Magpie has one for each department. The management skills learnt by managers within Magpie were different from conventional companies:
“yeah, I had to learn…managing a co-op is different to managing elsewhere …I was working in IT software under a manager…I learnt working under him how to deal with people on a work basis. But when it comes to a co-op you can never demand something of somebody…it’s always that we agree to do this. And as a manager I’ve been tasked with making sure that all resources are there to get the job done effectively so to stress to do it this way…but it’s different.”
Managers had to learn to manage in a much more co-operative manner.
In terms of finance, the workers who dealt with financial matters on a daily basis inevitably learnt gained more skills in this area than other workers. Although almost all of the jobs within Brixton Cycles were rotated, the accountancy position was not due to logistical reasons. Similarly, within Magpie, only a few workers were allocated to deal with financial matters. However, as financial decisions were made collectively in meetings by all workers in both workplaces, even those not involved in a day to day basis, had to discuss and sometimes vote on financial matters. One worker in Brixton Cycles went as far as to say that:
“I’m more careful with the co-operatives finances than I am with my own.”
Workers within both workplaces had to learn to discuss and vote on financial matters within meetings.
To summarise this section, the workers’ co-operatives analysed undoubtedly helped develop a whole range of democratic capabilities. Indeed, the structure of these workers’ co-operatives seem to make this inevitable. However, these democratic capabilities were further enhanced in Brixton Cycles because roles such as minute-taker and facilitator were consistently rotated as well as meetings being more regular. Also, all jobs, apart from the accountancy position, were formally rotated within Brixton Cycles, whereas much less rotation occurred within Magpie. The more jobs were rotated, the more workers were able to make informed decisions about a variety of areas within the workplace. Finally, although all workers had to discuss and vote on financial matters, those who did not deal with these matters on a day-to-day basis were at a definite disadvantage within meetings when matters of finance were raised. To further enhance the development of these democratic capabilities, more rotation should be explored within both workplaces (as suggested, for example, by Burrows 2003 and Albert 2003).
The extent to which workers’ co-operatives affect political participation outside of the workplace was extremely hard to determine. This was especially problematic because many citizens only associate the word “politics” with narrow conceptions of politics and the negative associations that they have with it. Bearing this in mind, I intentionally did not mention the word “politics” in all but one question near the end of the interview. Indeed, when asked “Do you consider yourself to have become more or less politically active since joining the co-operative?” near the end of the interview, two interviewees responded negatively because they thought of politics only in terms of narrow politics, such as being involved with political parties or voting. For example, one worker within Magpie responded in the following manner:
“No, I just don’t like politics. I mean, for what they stand for really. Co-operatives are not a perfect word. I mean, campaigning for change, yes. And pushing for change. But that’s through saying and showing there is a different way of doing things. That there is a different way of making money. That there is a different way of dealing with the cities waste. That there are different ways of treating citizens or human beings than animals…to undermine decent society, absolutely. Change yes, but through politics no.”
One the other side, a few workers did consider themselves to be more politically active since joining the co-operative with one Brixton worker even noting that “the personal is political”. As another Brixton Cycles worker answered:
“I think it’s had a massive influence. Less shouting and less pointing and more thinking…I think that it is very easy to just have a knee jerk reaction to world events. It’s much harder to take on board your inputs and your responsibilities for them…You are hard wired [by working in a co-op] to think about your position rather than to always blame.”
Even if a few of the workers interviewed do not consider themselves more “politically active” since joining the workers’ co-operative, many of the answers that all of the interviewees gave implied that they in fact had become more political in certain areas, especially if you include broader definitions of politics. As Venekalsen et al. note, “All social relationships and dynamics are political, from the home to the corridors of government” (Veneklasen et al. 2002: 12).
One worker within Magpie described working within the co-operative itself as “anti-politics politics” and almost all of the workers interviewed considered working within their co-operative as some form of positive alternative to conventional companies or to show “there is a different way of doing things.” Working within the co-operative was considered political in itself.
In terms of supporting other co-operatives, one Magpie worker was very adamant that they had helped many co-operatives:
“yeah…we always do. We always have done. Real food direct was part of here, we helped that. Brighton composting centre, I spoke to Jon when he started. We just talk and are always happy to help out. And Greendragon bookshop, we spoke to them. It’s part of the principles of being a co-operative that we’re supposed to….it’s in our legal documents, so it’s signed. It’s legally bound really but I’d do it anyway.”
Indeed, the sixth Rochdale principle encourages co-operation among co-operatives, specifically to “strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.” (ICA: 1995)
As noted by Adams et al, “When set in policy [the Rochdale Principles] through company by-laws, they become the principles of governance and decision-making, guides for both organizational and individual behavior, as well as the norms operating in the workplace. (Adams et al. 1993: 26)
Within Brixton Cycles all of the workers interviewed said that they had helped set up up or support other co-operatives and “other businesses with the same kind of ethos” in one way or another. Within Magpie, only the one worker mentioned above, who had been at the co-operative for the longest out of all interviewed, said that they had helped set up or support other co-operatives. Another worker within Magpie, when asked, stated that although they hadn’t helped other workers’ co-operatives, they had helped support other co-operative structures:
“It’s not something that I’ve personally been involved with, although the eco-village collective thing that I’ve been involved in…I’ve been able to input quite a bit into that about structure and…general kind of working together kind of stuff.”
This difference between Magpie and Brixton Cycles, which I will not expand upon here, could be due to any number of factors, such as size of the co-operative, the regularity of meetings, the amount of people who approach each co-operative for help, etc. Although not all workers interviewed within Magpie had helped other co-operatives, all workers gave the impression that if they were asked they would be more than happy to help.
Within Brixton Cycles, all workers said that to some degree they had become more aware of how the local council worked and which government projects or programmes were supposed to reach their locality. Three of the Brixton Cycles workers gave the fact that there was more space to talk to customers as one of the main reasons for this. For example:
“There is a lot more social interaction in the co-op and dealing with customers and the community. There are a wide range of people who come in and I feel that the extent to which I can interact with them is better…because we deal with many types of people and because it’s a co-op, we are free to interact with them in any way. Our interactions are not…well I’ve worked under a boss before and…the co-operative environment helps me to have more fulfilling interactions with the customers”
Another worker within Brixton Cycles similarly stated that they had become:
“A little bit more [aware] when it comes to this local council…We’re next door to the housing office so a lot of the customers work for Lambeth council so learn more about it through the customers that are coming in.”
Both of the above workers explained that working in the co-operative enabled much more fulfilling and in-depth interactions with customers which “you wouldn’t get at working at Tescos or something like that” because they were not constrained by a boss or a pure profit motive bearing over them. Indeed, the fact that workers within Brixton Cycles let me interview them during their working day was testament to this very fact.
Not only was the increased amount of space to talk to customers influential on political awareness, but the nature of the work place itself enabled workers to discuss issues more openly throughout the working day. For example, one worker within Brixton Cycles said that they had become more politically aware since joining the co-operative:
“A little bit. I say I read the paper a little bit more now. I’m more interested in that kind of thing than when I first started. But I’m not fanatical about it.”
When asked if that was to do with working in the co-operative, they answered:
“Yeah definitely…a few of the guys that work here are into their politics. That does rub off on me. Especially because I’m a bit younger as well. I’m easily influenced.”
Because of the structure of the workplaces, there was also more space to suggest and discuss ideas in meetings which may or may not be implemented in the workplaces. Political issues were discussed within meetings of both workplaces, specifically those which affect the workplace in some way:
“…because of Magpie’s positioning. Because it’s looking to influence peoples thinking about the way that they deal with their household rubbish. We end up…discussing and getting involved with politics to a degree. But we are completely apolitical. We don’t support political parties.”
However, within Magpie, workers were generally more aware “in terms of the area of recycling…In other areas, not really.” The increased awareness of the council and the government programmes which were supposed to reach them were frequently only related to each workplaces’ goals (e.g. increasing cycling or recycling).
However, other areas, not directly relevant to the workplace’s goals, were sometimes openly discussed at meetings and at the workplace. For example, when asked about recycling, one worker within Brixton Cycles stated that:
“As a co-op we will try and make decisions. I mean sometimes they have to be financially motivated so we can’t always go the most ethical reasonable route…Lambeth [council]…wont do business recycling and even though we have spent over 2000 pounds on top of our business rates getting our rubbish collected they can’t afford to do business recycling. We’ve got, well me especially, we are concerned that we produce an awful lot of cardboard and just couldn’t bear it. So eventually last year, we should have done it a long time ago, we organised to get our recycling done. It’s costing us a lot more. We have to pay for our recycling from an independent organisation…it reduces our landfill rubbish. But it is actually more expensive than paying the council to put everything in the landfill. But we just decided, well I personally…just couldn’t bear it.
Even though recycling costs the co-operative “a lot more”, they decided to introduce it. This worker admitted that:
“Yeah, I had a big say in it…but it wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t up for it…And I’m really proud that we do that. We need to do more but I was so pissed that we were supposedly in this green organisation, we talk about our green credentials, and we just throwing everything away. So, I’m glad we do that. It’s okay that we pay for it, but I’d rather pay them than pay Lambeth [council].”
This worker went on to suggest that the nature of the workplace gave more space to suggest different ways of doing things and “probably to get heard and be tolerated to do it. It would probably be a lot harder to do it in a different environment.”
More space was also made available for information to be shared around both co-operatives. As one Magpie worker responded when asked whether they had learnt more or less about government programmes locally since joining the co-operative:
“I’m probably a little bit more informed but I still wish I was more informed about it than I am. But definitely I do find out more about how things run locally because people put things up on the wall upstairs in the toilet, in the kitchens, little things about what is going on.”
Similarly, within Brixton Cycles, one worker stated that they had learnt more about government programmes because:
“Quite a lot of local government schemes are advertised in the shop…I read all the leaflets.”
While workers in both workplaces became more aware about how the council operates, especially in terms of the areas of expertise in which they were operating within (e.g. recycling or cycling), the majority of interactions were portrayed as negative. For example, one Magpie worker stated that they were:
“Definitely more aware…in different ways…you know when they did the box scheme they didn’t get us involved at all and they took a building away from us last year because they’re obviously going to put the incinerator there. They doubled the rent for this building and they’re always trying to get us out somehow. So you do know what the council is like in that way. And in that way you do get more involved.”
Another worker within Magpie said that they were:
“More [aware] in terms of how the councils recycling scheme works and knowing where they recycle and where they send their stuff is quite alarming. We try and recycle all of our things as locally as possible but the council apparently sends their stuff of to far flung places. It kind of defeats the objective of recycling if it’s shipped somewhere else. Opened my eyes to their ineptitude.”
While a Brixton Cycles worker similarly stated:
“There are various different things that the council can do which can affect the shop. Occasionally we become aware of them…I’ve gained a little bit of insight but I have low expectations of how the council works and they’ve just been confirmed.”
Both co-operatives had to battle with the local council on various occasions, whether about relocating the premises or increases in rent (as well as many other things). Indeed, all workers were frustrated with the council on one or more levels, especially due to the lack of power and influence they had with decision making at the council level. Although workers became “more involved” with the council in “fighting” with them, many workers suggested that they would have preferred to be consulted or involved with decisions that affect their workplace from the beginning. For example, as one Magpie worker put it:
“There have been times where we used to run contracts for the council going around picking up all the green site recycling but then they took it away because they said we weren’t doing it properly. Two weeks later their recycling points were so overflowing that it was going out on the streets. It wasn’t us or them but just the fact that there weren’t enough bins. There has always been a certain amount of bullying going on. But, I think it’s is slightly better and there are certain departments within the council that we co-operate, we work together with, but there has always been fights. Why do they get a multinational company to get their recycling when we you’ve got people who have 15 years of experience. And you can say, that they’re too small for all of Brightons recycling – but you could still get them involved.”
Rather than confrontation from the beginning, a few workers suggested that they would prefer it if the council involved them in decisions from the beginning rather than imposing decisions upon them.
All of these factors inevitably have knock-on effects on workers within both co-operatives. Within both co-operatives, all workers stated that their personal recycling and the purchase of organic and fairtrade goods had increased since working there. For example, one worker within Brixton Cycles said that they bought more fairtrade and organic goods because:
“We get all our coffee, loo roll wholesale sourced correctly. And I can put my own bits on top of that order.”
Because there was space to introduce such policies in the first place, they spilled over into workers consumption patterns outside of the workplace. This pattern was consistent with both co-operatives.
Workers within Brixton Cycles were also involved in a variety of cycling activities outside of the workplace:
“Yeah. Things to do with cycling. There’s critical mass, there’s reclaim the streets, there’s stop the city. You know, I’m entirely bored with black flag waving trustafarians on welfare slagging off the state. I just have no patience for that. You’ve got to change and not just knock the man.”
and another Brixton Cycles worker stated that he got more involved since joining the co-operative:
“I try to help out with a youth offending scheme in Wandsworth. They basically get bikes which have been stolen and recovered and they get young offenders to fix them up. And then through the LTC they contact people who have had their bike stolen and they meet the young offenders and the bike that was fixed up is given to that person. Which is quite cool. I’m quite interested in that kind of stuff.”
One worker within Brixton Cycles also stated that they had signed more petitions since joining:
“I’ve done that a few times. I never used to do that. I’ve signed a few but it’s normally stuff that is something to do with cycling and that kind of stuff.”
Similarly, the workers within Magpie had become more involved with recycling activities outside of the workplace:
“I’m living in an area where my street doesn’t get recycled so I have been trying to learn more about why that is. And trying to get them to sort it out…”
“I was half hearted about recycling beforehand and now I am…militant”
“Magpie started in Hanover and Hanover does a community day in the summer. We usually have a little stall there and do the recycling there…it’s mainly trying to reach out to people and make it easy for them. It doesn’t take much longer to recycle than put it in the bin…Just hoping that we do influence the community somehow and in that way they will hopefully influence local decisions.”
One worker within Magpie also said that they signed more petitions because:
“we get more information through local stuff or through email because people tend to send you stuff about environmental organisations.”
While it is difficult to determine the impacts that being a workers’ co-operative in of itself had on the workers on their recycling, cycling and consumption patterns outside of the workplace, it was clear that the increased ability to discuss with customers and each other as well as raising and voting on issues surrounding these subjects within meetings enabled workers to become more aware and sometimes more active on them.
All workers stated that voting, belonging to a political party and giving money to charity were not influenced by working in the co-operative. When asked if workers went to more or less protests since joining the co-operative, almost all workers either responded that the co-operative had little to no effect on this or that they had gone to less because they had less time since working in the co-operative. As one Magpie worker put it:
“I went to them [protests] before I came here and I probably go less as I have less time…there are some people wanting to do that bit but I think there is a better way to doing things. Just getting on with it…I’d rather go to talks where people talk about things rather than shout into the air…I’d rather get it out that way by talking to people.”
Another worker within Magpie also stated that they had gone to protests::
“less…because I’m busy. I’m too knackered…it’s weird you know…this almost satisfies that same part of me. So it is like I don’t feel that urge to shout about my views all weekend because I’ve been making them quite clear all week.”
Both of statements reconfirm that working within a co-operative was often seen as some form of positive alternative to narrow, and even some forms of broad, politics. It also shows that workers, since joining the co-operative, became more willing to discuss and debate issues rather than “shout into the air”. As one Brixton Cycles worker put it:
“Most people are very cynical and they blame, blame, blame. I think with a co-op ethos you have to take responsibility for what you can do, rather than asking someone else to give it to you on a platter. After many years of experience, I tend not to expect much. You get what you put in yourself.”
There was a shift in workers’ attitude to politics. And, although many were more aware of how the council operates and how it affected their workplaces, many workers would have preferred to be more involved in, and talked through, the council decisions that affected them. Finally, as two workers mentioned above, there was a perceived inability for some full-time workers to participate in politics outside of the workplace because of the limited spare time available to them. While undoubtedly true to a degree, those same workers had increased their participation in other forms of politics, such as helping set-up or support other co-operatives or increasing their interactions with the council.
Although a very small proportion of the total UK – and global – workforce works within workers’ co-operatives, there are many insights outlined in this paper that can be used to inform the participatory democracy literature. While there are multiple webs in which workers are entangled in at any time, and it difficult to differentiate the impacts of the multiple spheres of identity and activity that workers are involved in, this paper provides evidence that the work place has a direct influence on workers’ communal values, democratic capabilities and their political participation, especially in relation to certain forms of broad and narrow conceptions of politics, outside of the workplace. The experience of participation and co-operation gained through the economic sphere seems to transcend over into the political sphere. In most, if not all countries, the gap between the political elite and the majority of the population is huge. Workers’ co-operatives seem to help span the divide and help develop communal values and democratic capabilities conducive for political participation.
It seems almost inevitable, even obvious, that workers within workers’ co-operatives, who spend eight hours a day, five days a week, within a democratic workplace where they have equal voting power, regular meetings and where they learn to assert their rights and opinions (as well as many other skills), will be socialised into democratic norms and values. This is in complete contrast to those who have no such power under capitalist conditions and are actually controlled by the owners, who often themselves delegate their authority and are never seen in some of the factories or workplaces that they own.
There is a growing concern about how growing democratic deficits, the ‘hollowing out’ of politics and the take over of political processes by special interests as well as the increasing scepticism towards narrow types of politics threaten democratic legitimacy (Gaventa 2006). This has manifested itself in lower voter turnout and falling levels of participation in political parties. If those in power in the UK are serious about increasing political participation to stem this tide of apathy and cynicism by introducing a “double devolution, not just to the Town Hall but beyond, to neighbourhoods and individual citizens” (Milliband 2006: 8), they must realise the fundamental importance for economic democracy on communal values, democratic capabilities and political participation. Workers’ co-operatives help to over overcome the paradox of participatory democracy by providing the very skills which would be necessary for a participatory democracy to effectively operate.
However, it must be noted, that workers’ co-operatives will not make government more democratic or “inclusive” (Manor 2004) by themselves. As Jim Manor points out, “increased participation on its own – without greater downward accountability of government actors to local residents or representatives – is insufficient.” (Manor 2004: 9) Governments must undertake “new policies, institutions and strategies to promote the empowerment and inclusion of ordinary people, especially the poor, and their capacity to take collective action” (Manor 2004: 6) which would further enable “greater influence, autonomy and liberty for ordinary people.” (Manor 2004: 7)(20). As noted by John Gaventa, “a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argues that people remain interested in political issues, but are increasingly becoming frustrated in the political process and feel that Britain is becoming less democratic (Clarke 2002)” (Gaventa 2006: 9) Indeed, many workers interviewed within the two co-operatives were deeply frustrated, especially after a multitude of interactions with their local councils, at the lack of control or influence over the decisions that affect their lives and workplace. Without “working on both sides of the equation” (Gaventa 2001) by looking at how government can be more responsive or participatory, this frustration will continue.
Indeed, many UK citizens would be willing to fill such participatory spaces if they were created. In a survey of over one-thousand citizens by the Power Inquiry, “70% of respondents said that they were either “very likely” or “likely” to take part in 3 forms of direct democracy mechanisms (referendum, citizens’ initiative referendum and participatory budgets) if they were introduced.” (Power Inquiry 2006: 221). Of course, expressing a willingness to do something and actually doing it are two very different things, however the figures and interviews above do show that many workers and/or citizens are not merely apathetic, but frustrated over the current forms and spaces of formal political participation open to them. If government was genuinely more “inclusive” then maybe some of those within workers’ co-operatives would participate in the spaces created rather than perceiving their interactions with the local council as a “fight” or seeing their participation within co-operatives as “anti-politics politics” or some form of alternative to narrow politics. Admittedly, it is difficult to know for certain if those workers would fill those spaces if they were created. There are many other factors which influence workers political activity outside of the workplace, such as the time, education and social capital (Putnam 1994) available to them as well as the political context and time in which they live in, amongst many others. However, based on the interviews above, it seems likely that the workers would be willing to debate and vote on issues at a local level, much like they are socialised to do within the co-operative.
One must also be wary of the workers’ co-operative promoters who subscribe to romantic or stereotyped versions of this attractive, even mesmerising concept. They often overemphasise the importance of this one particular sector of the economy. It must be recognised that workers’ co-operatives are clearly not a panacea for every economic or democratic problem and they may not even be the best choice for every business opportunity. We must bear in mind that not all workers’ co-operatives succeed, although many of them have been able to better survive economic recessions than conventional businesses as they have been able to collectively lower wages or diversify into other sectors, as did the Mondragon co-operatives during the deep recession suffered by Spain from 1975 to 1985 (Huet 2001) (21). Workers’ co-operatives may also not be able to fill the space for projects which need a lot of capital (as in the building of a dam) which only a government could arrange for its construction, or for services and products which are not profitable enough for private business (e.g. military protection and highway construction).
We must also ask to what extent can these locally based workers’ co-operatives actually change society? Many small, dedicated efforts to build up workers’ co-operatives are encouraging, and even heartwarming, but it is far from certain that such efforts can add up to a powerful force for change. Over the last two hundred years in the UK, workers’ co-operatives have created islands of change which have not connected with large sections of the society around them. Many citizens within the UK do not even know what workers’ co-operatives are or how they work (conversations with various citizens and co-operative members).
We must also ask how realistic is it to expect more workplaces to have similar experiences? Worker ownership of business is an old idea and has been tried to different degrees of success across the globe. Indeed, it seems like there are islands of co-operativism in a sea of capitalism. The tide waxes and wanes with varying degrees of political support and capital, varying amounts of leadership by academics and supporters of the co-operative movement as well as differing cultural and economic climates. In some places, the tide has completely washed these islands away. In others, such as Argentina and Venezuela, the islands are clearly growing.
With the spread of global capitalism and the ideology of neo-liberalism there seems to be less space for workers’ co-operatives in the current global economy. As noted by Barry Smart, amongst others, significant changes have taken place in the structure and organisation of economic life since when the Rochdale Principles were first developed or even when the Mondragon co-operatives first began. The neo-liberal programme to deregulate economic life and to free market forces has produced an increase in temporary workers and insecure forms of employment or, in other words, the development of a “political economy of insecurity” (Smart 2003: 153). While the narrowly economistic, neo-liberal perspective that dominated the 1980s has softened a little, there has been a transformation of economic life that has involved “the implementation of flexible forms of capital accumulation, accomplished by means of the introduction of new organizational forms and the deployment of information technology in production processes.” (Smart 2003: 153) Outsourcing, subcontracting and job insecurity (with the idea of a job for life largely disappearing except for the privileged few), as well as volatile capital flows, are widespread. Even the long-standing Mondragon co-operatives are feeling the forces of market pressures and are outsourcing some of their labour. The democratic nature of the Mondragon Co-operatives have been compromised in various ways so as to remain competitive in the global economy (Cheney 2002).
Therefore, one must ask, to what extent can workers have a voice (Hathaway 1993) in our current global economy, which prioritises capital and profit over labour rights and workers’ control? (22) This question is especially valid because there would, of course, be a resistance to promote workers’ co-operatives from many current politicians and owners of the means of production, who have long entrenched interests in retaining the status quo. It has also been over 10 years since Clause IV was diminished and amended at a Labour Conference in 1995, which originally promised “[t]o secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” (The Citizen: n.d.) The text was often seen to assume the nationalisation of the economy, however there are other possible interpretations, such as promoting workers’ ownership or co-operatives. Recently, while Tony Blair and New Labour backed the co-operative commission and its report on co-operatives (Co-operative Commission 2001), little to no promotion of workers’ co-operatives emanates from the Labour Party. The political and economic climate has changed and the unrestrained pursuit of private economic interests has been allowed to intensify. This is further amplified by the fact that, “[w]hereas, we have hundreds of business schools teaching how to organize capitalist corporations, we have very little material and resources to assist those who want to form democratic firms.” (Vanek in Adams et al. 1993: 184) Unlike in Spain, co-operative principles and values are rarely taught at business schools throughout the UK (conservations with Deputy Head of the Brighton Business School).
Finally, we must also realise the limitations of this paper and be wary of generalising the findings. This paper has not attempted to address the question of how different sizes of workplaces with different degrees of complexity and specialisation of labour affect the political participation of workers within them. Indeed, I must ask if it is even possible to create meaningful democratic spaces in workplaces which are very large and have very high degrees of complexity and specialisation? There has also not been space to explore the democratic effects of working within different types of working environments (e.g. working in a coal miners workers’ co-operative vs. working in a graphic design workers’ co-operative). I have also not looked at the differences between workers’ co-operatives that emerge out of claimed spaces (Gaventa 2005) such as those in Argentina where workers seized control of factories after they were closed down after the economic crisis (The Take 2004), and those which fill more invited spaces, for example, where governments are heavily subsidising or promoting workers’ co-operatives, such as in Venezuela (Bowman et al. 2006). There are also questions about what happens with workers’ co-operative over time. Are the people who originally set up the workers’ co-operative more socialised and conscietised about co-operative principles and values (especially if they mobilised to create or claim it) then those who are later invited to join? Also, how has the increasing institutionalisation of the co-operative movement in the UK affected the workers who now join it? We must also bear in mind that the workers in UK worker co-operatives are also currently situated in the context of a buoyant economy, relative affluence, and a welfare state, which provides numerous benefits to the workers in these workplaces. In some Southern countries, where the welfare state may be fragile or non-existent and economic growth stagnant or negative, sources of revenue and support are much more precarious. This makes it especially difficult to generalise the findings across countries.
Nevertheless, because workers’ co-operatives demonstrate unique opportunities for work reorganisation, democratic management structures, economic self-governance and even a redefinition of work and property, as Adams et al. put it, “Worker-ownership offers a vision of what ought to be.” (Adams et al. 1993: 2) The extent to which these economic spheres of activity impact on political activity deserves a far more systematic examination than has so far been possible. However, the two case studies analysed clearly showed that they promoted communal values and democratic capabilities as well as leading to awareness or involvement in certain forms of broad and narrow politics outside of the workplace.
- Tim Huet, who works on co-operative development, is an example of an extreme advocate of such a position: “You cannot achieve true democracy without economic democracy, democracy in the workplace. “You cannot say a society is truly democratic if its adults spend the majority of their waking hours in undemocratic workplaces and do not enjoy control over the basic elements of their lives (no control over their jobs ultimately means no security regarding their homes, healthcare, time, education, etc.). And the undemocratic nature of work for most adults has effects beyond the workplace and outside working hours. Autocratic models of relating in the workplace carryover into the family, larger community, and political realm. Conversely, I believe that members of worker cooperatives learn democratic skills and ways of interacting with each other – and the confidence that comes from taking control over your life – that benefits their families and larger communities, and can carryover into the political realm. “Indeed, I don’t think there is much hope for achieving even limited political democracy (what I refer to as “periodic democracy”) if you don’t have the everyday democracy of workplace democracy. It is a dirty secret that no liberal and few progressives wish to acknowledge: an electorate without everyday democratic experience/perspective/skills, and the security that comes from controlling one’s fate, is too easily manipulated by fear-mongers, prejudice-peddlers, and other rightist political operators. And yet so much progressive energy goes towards state, national, and international campaigns when we lack communities/bases of everyday democracy from which to build – when we have failed to build up everyday democracy from the grassroots, community by community. “So, the more obvious meaning…is that “we wont have achieved true democracy until we have workplace democracy”; but the more important meaning, the one that drives my action agenda, is “we need to build cooperatives as bases for a democracy movement.” (Huet 2004)
- As noted by Zeuli et al. “Groups of individuals around the world and throughout time have worked together in pursuit of common goals. Examples of cooperation, or collective action, can be traced back to our prehistoric predecessors who recognized the advantages of hunting, gathering, and living in groups rather than on their own. Although the word “cooperative” can be applied to many different types of group activities, term is used [here] to reference a formal business model, which has relatively recent origins. The earliest cooperative associations were created in Europe and North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. These associations were precursors to cooperatives. The pioneers of the Rochdale Society in 19th century England are celebrated for launching the modern cooperative movement. The unique contribution of early cooperative organizers in England was codifying a guiding set of principles and instigating the creation of new laws that helped foster cooperative business development.” (Zeuli et al. 2004: 1). For more on the historical development of cooperatives throughout the world, see Chapter 2 in Zeuli et al. 2004.
- For example, concluding his two-factor comparative study, “Henk Thomas found that: ‘Productivity and profitability are higher for co-operatives than for capitalist firms. It makes little difference whether the Mondragon group is compared with the largest 500 companies, or with small-and medium-scale industries; in both comparisons the Mondragon group is more productive and more profitable.’ (Thomas 1982, p. 149) Studies of job creation, worker compensation, and job security yield similar results. (Thomas & Logan; Bradley & Gelb)” (cited in Bowman et al. 2005). The narrative used to explain this usually goes as follows: Whereas under capitalist conditions good work performance must be based on costly supervision, alienating assembly lines or threat of job loss, under democratic self-management workers tend to supervise each other, knowing that losses of efficiency or negligence must be covered from the aggregate income of all participants.
- As noted by Zeuli et al.: “Cooperative leaders around the world recognize the ICA, a non-governmental organization with over 230 member organizations from over 100 countries, as a leading authority on cooperative definition and values.” (Zeuli et al. 2004: 1). The ICA was founded in London in 1895. Its members are cooperative organizations in all sectors: agriculture, banking, consumer, energy, fisheries, housing, industry, insurance, and tourism.
- The United Nations also estimated in 1994 that the livelihood of nearly 3 billion people was made secure by co-operative enterprise. (ICA 2006)
- As noted by Co-operatives UK, “The data held by Co-operatives UK on worker co-operatives is sourced primarily from the registration records transferred to Co-operatives UK from the Industrial Common Ownership Movement. Co-operativesUK may be unaware of worker co-operatives registered via other agencies. As a consequence this figure may be an underestimate. The figure given does not include employee trust owned businesses.” (Co-operatives UK 2005)
- Within Europe, the European Confederation of Workers’ Co-operatives, Social Co-operatives and Social and Participative Enterprises (CECOP) members include 30 national and regional federations of co-operative and participative enterprises representing around 65 000 enterprises employing 1.3 million workers, and 6 organisations promoting this type of enterprises. (CECOP 2006)
- They go on to specify other aspects of workers co-operatives, such as the internal functioning rules, their relations with the co-operative movement, relations with the state and with regional and intergovernmental institutions, relations with employers’ organisations and finally relations with workers’ organisations.
- Other definitions include that by Adams and Hansen, who in their book Putting Democracy to Work, outline the “two most fundamental principles of a workers-owned enterprise” where they also emphasise the importance of “labor-entrepreneurship” and “searching for profitable business opportunities” after reviewing the experience (and expansion) of Mondragon workers’ co-operatives:
- That ownership and control of the enterprise are derived from working in it, not just from capital investment; and
- The concept of labor-entrepreneurship is adopted. Labor-entrepreneurship means that the workforce or a group within it assumes the responsibilities of searching for profitable business opportunities, of obtaining productive resources, while engaging in risk-taking and organization building. (Adams et al.1993: 23)
- These principles have evolved over time and were eventually narrowed down to seven. For a brief history on the evolution of these principles see Thompson 1994. As noted by Zeuli et al., “not all cooperatives adopt the ICA principles. The basic three “defining” principles (user-ownership, user-control, and proportional distribution of benefits) are more commonly accepted as the only principles necessary to guide cooperatives. Many cooperative leaders and scholars believe that the additional principles should serve only as recommendations. They may not be appropriate (or make the best business sense) for all co-ops in all environments. For example, housing cooperatives do not have open membership policies; they are physically limited to the number of members they can admit. Credit unions restrict membership based on financial criteria; otherwise, they could face significant financial risk.” (Zeuli et al. 2004: 45)
- According to Adams et al., “Following initial acceptance a worker undergoes a six-month trial period during which the immediate supervisor assesses his or her social acceptability. Once in the cooperative the members are exposed to an extensive socialization process which includes educational courses in the cooperative ethic.” (Adams et al. 1993: 36)
- Andrew Bibby goes into more detail about the differing legal structures which are used: “Partly because of the perceived limitations of the I&PS Act, a number of co-operatives (mainly workers’ co-operatives and community co-operatives) have chosen to register using the Companies Act. In general, they have incorporated as companies limited by guarantee, without share capital, a legal model also used extensively by charities and other non-profit voluntary organisations. Using this route, ‘membership’ of the venture is effectively given to those individuals who choose to pay £1 (this is also the limit of their legal liability, in the event of insolvency). A number of model rules enabling co-ops to register under the Companies Act have been devised; for workers’ co-ops, these rules restrict membership to those who are employed by the enterprise.” (Bibby 2004: 6) For more information see Bibby 2004 and Radical Routes 2006a.
- As noted by Radical Routes, a secondary co-op (a co-op whose members are co-ops) which helps co-ops “that are working for social change” give each other support, mutual aid and loans, “Most worker co-ops are Companies Limited by Guarantee…all members’ liability becomes limited. With a Company Limited by Guarantee Without a Share Capital, a member’s liability is limited to the amount they guarantee to pay in the rules at registration, normally £1. This agreed amount has to be paid if the co-op fails and goes into liquidation. No personal property of any member can be taken to settle any of the debts of the co-op. If a co-op is not registered this is not the case, and all debts of the co-op are the debts of the members who can be held personally and severally liable to repay. This means that any personal property, including homes, could be seized to pay off the co-op’s debts.” (Radical Routes 2006a: 7-8). They also go on to state: “Any group of people can decide to work together in an enterprise and improve their circumstances, but by registering at Companies House as a ‘Company Limited by Guarantee Without Share Capital’ we separate ourselves from the business. We make ourselves ‘employees’ as well as being ‘owners’ and so remove our personal liability for tax on profits…and also for the co-ops’s debts.” (Radical Routes 2006a: 9). In the UK, if registered under the Company Acts, workers’ co-ops must also have registered workers co-operative Articles of Association and Memorandum of Association as well as well as other legal commitments (see Radical Routes 2006a, Radical Routes 2006b). The Memorandum of Association of a co-op “are the rules that govern its dealings in the outside world. It lists what the co-op was set up to do (its objects), and what it can and cannot do to achieve those objects” (Radical Routes 2006a: 11). The Articles of Association “govern the internal workings of the co-op; how meetings are run, decisions are made etc.” (Radical Routes 2006a: 14)
- Unfortunately, I will not cover syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism (Rocker 1938), national guilds (Cole 1917), Michael Albert’s vision of a participatory economy (Albert 2003, 2006a, 2006b), or any other system where workers are envisaged to have the potential means of both overcoming capitalism and running society or the economy in “the interests of the majority.” Neither will I explore Marxist or other theories of alienation and the potential for workers’ co-operatives to help realise human capacities and creativity in the workplace. For an excellent overview of some of these different fields, see Greenberg 1986.
- The notion of worker control is not just confined to these three areas. For example, Adam Smith, while advocating the specialisation of labour for economic efficiency gains, acknowledged the disempowering effect that repetitive work has on citizens and the implications that it has for broader political participation: “In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour…of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging” (Smith 1776 Bk. 5 Chp. 1)
- Other authors have used the distinction of informal vs. formal politics (Power Inquiry 2006) or old vs. new politics (Hague et al. 1992). There are many clarity problems with these definitions, and therefore I have decided to use broad vs. narrow. For example, it is imprecise to use a formal vs. informal politics conceptual analysis because formal institutions, within conventional practice, are often those recognised by the constitution of the contry in question. This gives the term “formal” politics a very different meaning.
- I recognise that much has been written about the effects of education and educational institutes (Freire 1996, Horton el al. 1991, Linsley et al. 2003), culture (Gramsci 1971, Lessig 2004), family (Liebes et al 1992), technology (Trippi 2004) and other factors on political participation, however I only have space to assess the impact of the workplace on communal values, democratic capabilities and political participation in relation to the theories of participatory democracy.
- This is confirmed by data from “large-scale empirical investigations into political attitudes and behaviour, undertaken in most Western countries over the past twenty or thirty years, [which] have revealed that the outstanding character of most citizens, more especially those in the lower socio-economic status (SES) groups, is a general lack of interest in politics and political activity and further, that widespread non-democratic or authoritarian attitudes exist, again particularly among lower socio-economic groups. The conclusion drawn…is that the ‘classical’ picture of democratic man is hopelessly unrealistic, and moreover, that in the view of the facts about political attitudes, an increase in political participation by present non-participants could upset the stability of the democratic system.” (Pateman 1970: 3)
- While there is a literature on Industrial and Organisational Psychology (see, for example, Hodgkinson et al. 2005), I have decided to focus on the arguments from political scientists because the former literature focuses more on “co-determination” or other mechanisms where workers are given a modicum of influence to alleviate the problems of boredom and alienation in the workplace, without giving complete ownership and voice to the workers.
- However, “if ordinary people find that what first appears to be an opportunity for greater influence turns out, in practice, to be a cosmetic exercise – if they gain little or no new leverage – then they will feel conned and betrayed. Their increased participation will soon lead to increased cynicism, alienation and anger towards government – and there is often plenty of that about already. On the other hand, successful reforms can reduce cynicism, enhance governments’ popularity and legitimacy, and open the way to greater synergy between state and society.” (Manor 2004: 9)
- As noted by Tim Huet, during the period of 1975-1985, “[w]hile the Basque region lost well over 100,000 jobs during this period, the Mondragon cooperatives added workers.” (Huet 2001)
- There are of course schemes such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which have improved certain conditions for workers across the globe, such as health and safety, working hours, wages and child labour. Less impact was felt in relation to freedom of association, discrimination, regular employment and harsh treatment, where serious issues frequently remained (Barrientos et al. 2006). However, schemes such as the ETI and even Fair Trade unfortunately only reach a fraction of the global work force.
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A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.
Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.
The co-operative principles are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice.
1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership – Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control – Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.
3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation – Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence – Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter to agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.
5th Principle: Education, Training and Information – Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.
6th Principle: Co-operation among Co-operatives – Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
7th Principle: Concern for Community – Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members. (ICA 1995)
There are significant differences between ends and means between firms where capital controls labour, or firms where the state controls both labour and capital. Worker-ownership has been described as “a third way.” These distinctions are easily seen when measured by essential elements of commerce: purpose, organization, ownership, control, sources of capital, distribution of profits, dividends, operational practices, and tax treatment. The following chart compares the commercial elements of capitalism, socialism, and cooperative worker-ownership. It is based on US rules and regulations, however most of the points are directly relevant to UK worker co-operatives. (Source: Adams et al 1993: 29-31)
|Commercial Criteria||Capitalism||Socialism||Workers’ Cooperation|
|Purpose||a) To earn profit for owner, to increase value of shares.||a) To provide goods and services for citizens.||a) To maximize net and real worth of all owners.|
|Organization||a) Organized and controlled by investors||a) Organized and controlled by state||a) Organized and controlled by worker-members|
|b) Incorporated under state corporation laws: no federal incorporation laws||b) Chartered by state/central government||b) Incorporated under state corporation laws: no federal incorporation laws|
|c) Except for closely held companies anyone may buy stock||c) No stock||c) Only worker-members may own stock, one share per member|
|d) Stock may be traded in the public market||d) n/a||d) No public sale of stock|
|Ownership||a) Stockholders||a) State||a) Worker members|
|Control||a) By Investors||a) By state||a) By worker members|
|b) Policies set by stockholders or board of directors.||b) Policy set by government planners.||b) Policy set by directors elected by worker-members [or by workers themselves in a direct workers’ co-op]|
|c) Voting on basis of shares held||c) n/a||c) One person, one vote|
|d) Proxy voting permitted||d) n/a||d) Proxy votes seldom allowed|
|Sources of Capital||a) Investors, banks, pension funds, the public||a) The state||a) By members or lenders who have no equity or vote|
|b) From profitable subsidiaries or by retaining all or part of the profits||b) From net earnings, a portion of which are set aside for reinvestment|
|Distribution of Net Margin||a) To stockholders on the basis of number of shares owned||a) To the State||a) To members after funds are set aside for reserves and allocated to a collective account|
|Capital Dividends||a) No limit, amount set by owner or Board of Directors||a) n/a||a) Limited to an interest-like percent set by policy|
|Operating Practices||a) Owners or managers order production schedules and set wages and hours, sometimes with union participation||a) State controlled||a) Workers set production schedules through elected boards and appointed managers [or set by workers themselves with direct workers co-op]|
|b) Except in union shops. workers’ rights depend on unilateral decisions of bosses.||b) Social Audit Council or union and dialogue between members and managers [or set by workers themselves with direct workers co-op]|
|Tax Treatment||a) Subject to state and federal taxes||a) n/a||a) Special tax treatment under federal and in some states|
Annex 3 – Diagram of and example of a indirect workers’ co-operative
(Source: Adams et al. 1993: 144)
- How many people work full-time there (including yourself)?
- How many people work part-time there (including yourself)?
- How long has the co-operative existed?
- What is the salary ratio between members?
- Is everyone a member, or are some half/non-members? If yes, why?
The Workers co-op
- What job do you have within the co-operative?
- Do you work full or part-time?
- How long have you been working within the workers’ co-operative?
- How did you find out about this workers’ co-operative?
- Have you previously worked in other workers’ co-operative?
- Why did you become a member of the workers’ co-operative?
- Do you think working in the workers’ co-operative has shifted your way of thinking in any way?
- Has working in the workers’ co-operative changed the way you interact with your family and/or the people you live with?
- Have you contacted politicians and bureaucrats less often or more often since joining the workers’ co-operative?
- Have you influenced decisions about local affairs less or more since joining the workers’ co-operative?
- Have you become more or less aware about how the council or government operates since joining the workers’ co-operative?
- Are you a member of any other organisations such as a neighbourhood association, social movement or NGO? If yes, which one(s) Did you become a member before or after joining the workers’ co-operative
- Are you a member of a political party? If yes, which one? Did you become a member before or after joining the workers co-op? * Have you become more or less involved with political parties since joining the workers’ co-operative? If yes, which ones?
- Do you participate in other collective or co-operative activities less or more often since joining the workers’ co-operative? If yes, which ones?
- Have you become more or less aware about government projects or programmes that are supposed to reach your area?
- Have you done more or less of the following since joining the workers’ co-operative, and do you think any of these trends are linked to working in the workers’ co-op?
- Buying fairtrade or organic goods?
- Voting in elections
- Giving money to charity
- Signing petitions
- Boycotting goods from a particular company or country
- Going to protests
- Have you tried to help support or set-up other co-operatives since joining the workers’ co-operative? If yes, which ones?
- Do you feel that you have become more or less politically active since joining the workers co-operative? If yes, how? If no, why? What did you do before that was different to now?
- How much have you gained personally from being a member of the workers’ co-operative? A lot, Quite a lot, Not very much, Nothing
- Please give reasons for your answer:
Do you feel you have gained any of the following skills, knowledge or abilities through joining the workers’ co-operative? If yes, please give examples
- 1) General management skills
- 2) Financial management skills
- 3) Skills related to meetings
- 4) Community organisation skills
- 5) More knowledge about your local community
- 6) Ability to speak in public
- 7) Self-confidence or the ability to give your opinion or assert your rights
- 8) Ability to compromise or see other peoples perspectives
- 9) Ability to argue your case
- 10) Other
Annex 5 – Explanation of co-operatives studied
Brixton Cycles has ten workers, nine of whom are cycle mechanics and one of whom is the bookkeeper and administrator. This London workers’ co-operative began in 1982, and no longer has any of its three founding members. It is a direct workers’ co-operative with no managers or executive committee. It has a weekly meeting after work, and a more formal meeting is called occasionally (often once a month) to make large decisions. A mix of voting, formal consensus and informal agreement takes place at the meetings. Roles such as minute taking and facilitating are consistently rotated through all worker-owners. All workers receive equal pay. New hires must be unanimously agreed upon, and their personality ‘fit’ is said to be more important than their skill set. There is a trial period before workers become worker-owners. A newly instituted workshop rota, ensures fair job rotation between the workshop and the shop floor, however the bookkeeper position is not rotated due to logistical reasons.
More information about Brixton Cycles can be found on their website: http://www.brixtoncycles.co.uk/news.html
Magpie Recycling in Brighton has about 18 workers and began operations in 1992. It has several departments, each with a manager. Greenbox household recycling, commercial recycling and its second-hand retail shop are main areas, although it diversifies into gardening, biodiesel, and reconstruction of old bicycles. Diversification has been necessary especially after the city council recently began its own green box recycling scheme. Management, an executive committee and two directors make up the top tier of the organisation, which makes it an indirect workers’ co-operative. Wages are fairly equal with managers getting paid about 50 pence/hour more than others, and casual workers (non-members) getting paid slightly less as well as not receiving holiday bonuses. There is a trial period before workers become worker-owners. There are also a few volunteers who occasionally help out within Magpie. Smaller decisions are made within each department, and more significant ones are made in the monthly meeting after work. There is a paper posted on a wall for people to write agenda items before the meeting. A mix of voting, formal consensus and informal agreement takes place at the meetings. Roles such as minute-taking and facilitating are normally filled by members of the executive committee.
More information about Magpie recycling can be found on their website: http://www.magpie.coop/about.php