A step forward for French coop newspaper plan

A quick update on the attempt by the workers at the French regional Nice-Matin to turn their newspaper into a cooperative, which I blogged about recently.

The workers have now successfully raised the 300,000 euros they had initially hoped to get on the crowdsourcing website Ulele, but are still keeping their appeal open for a few more days for further contributions. They made their formal offer last week to the newspaper group’s administrator, where they are competing with five other bids which, they say, would all involve significant staff redundancies.

In the meantime they celebrated with a well-attended benefit concert in Nice last Sunday.  It was, they report, super chouette.

Photo project to celebrate coop movement

The Pioneers Museum at Toad Lane in Rochdale have come up with a terrible word (‘coopography’) but really quite a good idea.  They’re inviting people to contribute photos of coop buildings (past or present, though I suspect the old ones will be the most interesting) for an exhibition they’re putting on later in the year.  Photos need to be sent to coopography@co-op.ac.uk, or via Twitter or Instagram (#coopography).  The museum’s manager Jenny Mabbott told me this week that the deadline for photo submission is fast approaching: Sep 20th.

I’m minded to contribute myself – perhaps a few snaps of Co-operative Terrace, the little row of houses put up by a village coop society a few miles from here in the late nineteenth century, at a time when housing was increasingly on the agenda in the  cooperative movement.

More details here.

Voting time for the Midcounties Board

Democracy at Midcounties Co-operative is as keen as ever, I see.  18 candidates are standing this year for the six Board positions. I did my bit last night as a society member to cast my vote, hopefully choosing the candidates who’ll be the best ones for the cooperative’s continued success.

Good practice, of course, for the new member voting arrangements for the Co-operative Group.  Let’s hope democracy becomes as lively there.

Coop banks and the Robin Hood Tax

You may know the Financial Transactions Tax as the Robin Hood Tax, or – if your memory goes back a long way – as the Tobin Tax, named after the economist who first proposed it.  It won’t make the world a fairer place overnight, but the fact that the current British government has been implacably opposed to it (as has the City of London) makes it fairly clear to me that it is a step in the right direction.  Certainly the international trade unions back in 2010 endorsed a FTT as a way of helping find the money to finance economic recovery, job creation and climate change costs.  The excellent radical French organisation ATTAC even took its name from the tax (ATTAC stands for Association pour la Taxation des Transactions financière et l’Aide aux Citoyens).

Ten Eurozone countries took the decision this May to progress with a (limited, cut down) FTT, to be introduced by 2016.  Not ideal, but still probably better than nothing.

But what’s this?  A press release from the European Association of Co-operative Banks coming out against the tax. It’s a short document of five sentences which hardly gives much opportunity to understand its reasoning though the EACB does among other things claim that small investors will suffer, a line of argument which I find particularly suspect.

I’m also baffled by the reason that the EACB have press released this.  I can’t imagine that the FT tomorrow will clear its news pages to report the news.  So it will be left to cooperatively minded journalists like me to shake our heads sadly and post our blogs.

The Co-operative Group after the Vote

Unhelpfully, perhaps, I was away on holiday last week in the run-up to the Co-operative Group general meeting last weekend which voted in favour of the new governance arrangements (just to remind you, these are in summary the arrival in the Board Room of independent business-types as non-executives, plus a new 100-strong members’ council). My holiday meant that that I didn’t have a chance to comment here on the last-ditch efforts led by Co-operative Business Consultants to build a coalition against the proposals, though I was interested to see that CBC had persuaded the original Rochdale Pioneers to email me to solicit my support.  (Actually I’m not sure that nineteenth century cooperative history can be co-opted quite so easily:  I’m pretty sure, for example,  that CWS leader JTW Mitchell, himself from Rochdale, would have been very comfortable with the new governance arrangements.  He was always impatient of any appeals to cooperative democracy if it got in the way of building the powerful CWS empire).

But anyway…..

…the vote has taken place, and cooperative governance in the Group now means something different.  I have two particular observations.  Firstly, I think it important that careful public scrutiny is made of the appointment of the Group’s new Chair and non-executives.  In other words, CBC and everyone else who cares about member control and democracy in the Group mustn’t relax.  I agree with Pauline Green who is quoted in latest Co-operative News as saying “It is critical that right from the beginning the members of the new council take control of the monitoring of the next three years before there will be a review – and that they don’t suspend their critical judgement.”

The second point is that, whilst the Group’s cooperative credentials are very important so too is its competence as a retailer.  It was disappointing to shop on holiday in a different Co-op Group store from my usual home-town shop, but to find there many of the same problems.  For example,  why was it the Budgen store round the corner which had shelves full of locally produced food whilst the Co-op just had the regular stuff shipped in from the warehouse?  There are significant management issues with the Group’s retail offering which urgently need attention – but then I think we all know this.


Crowdfunding may help French daily paper become a coop

I’m interested in a story which is just breaking in France, where journalists and other staff at the regional daily newspaper Nice-Matin are successfully tapping into crowdfunding to raise money for a potential cooperative take-over of their title.

The French press is in as much of a mess as the British.  Nice-Matin (the main daily for the Med coast in the Nice area) is currently in receivership, reportedly losing EUR 500,000 a month.  Various commercial media interests are expressing interest in buying the title, but only on the basis of major compulsory redundancy programmes which could shave perhaps a third off the current workforce tally of 1180.

Is there a better – a cooperative – answer?  François Roubaud, one of the journalists (and one of the union reps at the company) hopes that there is.  He has been the leading light behind the idea to work for an employee-based takeover of the newspaper (which also includes sister titles in Corsica and the Var region), which would be registered under French worker cooperative legislation as a SCOP (Société coopérative et participative).  There’s been a lot of this going on recently in France:  I researched recently for a client the stories behind the successful worker takeovers of the Auvergne textile firm Fontanille, formerly a family-run business,  and the print company Hélio-Corbeil, and I’ve also blogged here about the conversion of the Channel ferry service formerly run by Seafrance into a SCOP.  All these cooperative buy-outs were strongly aided by the trade unions.

The Nice-Matin workers are appealing on the crowdfunding website Ulele for EUR 300,000, and last time I looked had successfully got to the half-way stage.  The crowdfunding is part of a much larger recapitalisation plan, which includes a major investment by the employees (around four hundred employees are committing to investing EUR 3500 each) and by the regional cooperative association URSCOP, as well as by external investors and the banks.

I have written a news story for Co-operative News about the Nice-Matin developments and will draw it to your attention when it is published. In the meantime, the piece I wrote for the Guardian last year on proposals for cooperatively-run local newspapers in Britain is still available online.

If you have the odd few euros available, Nice-Matin’s Ulele website is at http://www.ulule.com/sauvons-nicematin/

Compromise on the cards at the Co-op Group

“Take my proposals in their entirety or you’re doomed.”  I am exaggerating Paul Myners’ ultimatum to the Co-operative Group’s Board on corporate governance reform earlier this year, but only slightly.

We now know that Myners’ proposal for a Co-op Group board full of the usual sort of independent non-executive directors is likely to be sweetened by a small number of places left open for representatives of ‘ordinary’ members (… as I predicted here at the time of the Co-op Group’s AGM).  Whether a handful of ‘democrats’ can adequately prevent the Group for heading off in the same direction as all those building society boards notionally accountable to their members is debateable, but my prediction this time is that the compromise will be accepted.

What’s disappointing is that the presence of ‘ordinary’ people on the Co-op Board’s has been seen (pace Myners) as a problem.  It could and should be seen as just the opposite – as potentially giving the Group a competitive business edge over non-cooperative competitors.  (Admittedly, I accept that that word ‘potentially’ is necessary in this assertion).

I think we can now start to make an early assessment of Myners’ contribution to the Group during his short time on the Board. I fear that my verdict would be a negative one. I think Myners was too hidebound by his experience of traditional finance sector Boards and their way of doing corporate governance, and too autocratic in the way he approached his task at the Group.  This is a pity: a leader with more sensitivity to cooperative heritage and culture could have led the movement towards taking a historically momentous step towards a more accountable and democratic way of operating.