The annual Congress of the Mondragon family of cooperative businesses took place on Monday this week in San Sebastián – or, to give it its proper Basque name as we should, Donostia. 650 delegates were there, from across the whole range of cooperatives, to hear the incoming General Council president Javier Sotil call for Mondragon to reinforce its commitment to cooperative values but also to focus on running profitable and sustainable businesses.
The delegates welcomed Sareteknika, which provides after-sales servicing for domestic appliances, as a new member cooperative of the federation and approved the corporate budget for the coming year. They also discussed “The Mondragon of the future”, a document which has been prepared over recent months partly in response to the collapse of Fagor Electrodomésticos a year ago, the first failure of a federated Mondragon cooperative. (My Guardian story covering that event is here.)
Introducing “The Mondragon of the future”, Sotil stressed the need to be both a ‘cooperative enterprise’ and a ‘competitive enterprise’, operating successfully throughout the world. The need he said is for strong solidarity mechanisms between Mondragon companies and better early-warning of trading difficulties.
“The Mondragon of the future” strategic document now goes to member cooperatives for further discussion, before being discussed again at the 2015 Congress.
I was down on Saturday at the excellent Bishopsgate Institute in London’s Spitalfields for an informal gathering of co-operative historians, arranged by the UK Society for Co-operative Studies. As well as being taken down to the archives store (Bishopsgate has a strong social history collection, including much from the co-operative movement), we had the opportunity during the day to talk to others who are working on aspects of co-op history.
My own research, as I have mentioned briefly here before, is for a new book which I’m entitling All Our Own Work. It’s the story (a little-known one, but a very interesting one, I think) of a textile mill which was run during the later nineteenth century by its workers. It became one of the most celebrated manufacturing co-ops of its time.
We tend to know (or think we know) about Rochdale and the history of co-operative stores; the early history of what we would now call workers’ co-ops has received much less attention.
All Our Own Work is due to be published next summer, by Merlin Press. Don’t be surprised if I mention it again before then. It’s currently taking much of my time.
To Bradford on Wednesday afternoon to have a drink with Bob Cannell of wholefoods distributor Suma and Co-operative Business Consultants. We talked among other things about the Workers’ Co-operatives Archive Project of which I’m one of the coordinators. If you remember I blogged about this idea a month or so back, but I think it’s time for another plug. The aim is to ensure that attics and spare rooms are raided to ensure that potentially valuable records from the wave of workers’ coops in the UK in the 1970s-1990s (and beyond) are not lost into skips and landfill sites. Much has probably gone already.
Co-op News has now picked up on the story, and you’ll find their news article on the Archive Project here. And let me mention again the main website of the Project: workerscoopsarchive.wordpress.com. As you’ll see, we’ve already had a good initial response since the site went live a few weeks back.
What’s happening at the moment is a scoping exercise to see just has survived – the next stage will be to try to encourage the holders of key material to get it safely secured in a properly-equipped records office.
And by the way Suma, one of the great coop success stories from that era, still has its archives. That’s a good start.
I perhaps need to draw to your attention the extended debate that’s going on in the comments section of my post earlier this week (bottom up: ‘cluster’ idea) on the Co-op Group and grassroots member engagement.
My own response is that pretty well the only thing that the Group has to separate itself from other supermarket chains is its members, and that this could be turned into a competitive advantage. For this to happen members need a way to engage. For example, there are a lot of things I could contribute to make my own Co-op Group store rather a lot better, and probably rather a lot more profitable, but I have at present no vehicle for communicating my comments.
This debate is, quite rightly, about member democracy. But it’s also about making the Co-op Group a better business, too.
This was the headline on the front page of last Saturday’s edition of the French regional paper Nice-Matin celebrating the successful outcome of the struggle to save their jobs at the paper by turning it into a workers’ coop.
You may have read my blogs here on the Nice-Matin story earlier in the Autumn. The paper had been driven into liquidation by its previous owners and although several other bids were received by the liquidator all the others would have involved swingeing cuts to the workforce. The cooperative sought funds partly through a successful crowdfunding initiative.
As the group say to their supporters, one battle over, another is starting: “We’ve got to succeed. For ourselves. For you. To prove the point. To silence the sceptics. So… to work! But for the moment, we’re taking a deep breath and savouring the moment”.
(That’s my translation; feel free to do better yourself. The link is here.)
The Co-operative Group’s old governance arrangement, where area committees (usually with a motley bunch of members all drawing some dosh) had almost no power but were supposed in some way to be in touch with grassroots customers, was never something which I felt worked well.
But the idea of reinvigorating the Group’s democracy and membership from the bottom-up is certainly something which needs exploring and I’m very interested to see that this is what was tried last Saturday in the Chorlton area of south Manchester, An experimental ‘cluster’ meeting brought together local members of the coop (ie shoppers) with staff, with the support of the Group’s membership team.
The event was arranged by Manchester Area committee, which (despite what I said in the first paragraph) is showing it has some real energy and ideas. They launched the Co-operative Springboard website last year to encourage debate about how the Group’s governance review could help create a ‘21st century co-operative’, and they are now keen to see the Cluster idea tried elsewhere. Go for it, I say.
I’m a bit shocked to realise that it’s twenty years since I first wrote about the Network for Social Change. In fact the Network has been operating, quietly and below the radar, since 1985. It brings together people who, in one way or another, have acquired a relatively significant amount of money and want to use their wealth to help – as the name suggests – to achieve social change.
The Network has spawned a number of other initiatives over the years, including the Funding Network which I wrote about in the Observer a mere ten years ago. And now an email comes through from one of the founder members of NSC telling me of another similar venture, Edge Fund.
Edge Fund is a venture designed to make the process of giving money away a collaborative and collective experience. It is structured as a cooperative and also aims to work cooperatively: “Edge Fund members make decisions together about how we give out money and how the organisation is run,” it says. The Edge Fund also tries to break down the usual barriers between donor and recipient, with all the difficulties and power inequalities that represents.
It is deliberately not a charity, so that it is not limited in where the money goes. As it says, Edge Fund is overtly radical, supporting communities, campaign groups and activists struggling for social, economic and environmental justice.
I rather like what it’s trying to achieve.