A SCOPing exercise for the British co-op movement

I said in my last blog that I wanted to return to the question of what the British co-op movement (and, hopefully, a future co-operatively-minded Labour government) can learn from recent developments in France, where workers’ coops (SCOPs: Sociétés coopératives et participatives) have been growing in numbers in recent years.

There are currently around 2300 SCOPs.  They include start-ups, employee buy-outs of existing companies (for example, when the owner wants to sell up), and employee rescues of failing businesses (always the hardest option of the three).  In the last category, I mentioned here the worker-led rescue of the daily Nice-Matin newspaper chain at the time the co-op was being established.  I’ve also mentioned several times the Sea France ferry co-op, now unfortunately no longer trading.

I got talking to Eleonore Perrin Massebiaux at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester last month, and afterwards she kindly gave me the link to a recent article she’s written which provides a very good introduction to what is happening n France.  Elly also sent me a link to a useful publication Beyond the Crisis from the European worker co-op federation CECOP, which somehow I missed when it came out a few years ago. CECOP’s report gives detailed information on what’s happening in France, Spain and Italy. (The version online claims to be a draft, but since no final text appears to have been published we won’t worry too much about that).


Learning lessons from European co-op development

“Co-operatives are a successful business model, innovative, resilient and effective in both the short and long term, capable of working at both small and large scale, appropriate for all sectors of economic activity, and the generator of millions of jobs worldwide.”

Indeed yes, although these are not my own words.  This is my best effort at translating some of the text on the website of the Cooperatives de Treball de Catalunya (the Catalan Federation of Workers Co-ops), which I’ve been browsing through with interest.  There are around 4000 co-ops in Catalunya, just under three-quarters of these being workers’ co-ops. And Cooperatives de Treball de Catalunya has reported an upsurge in interest in the co-op business model recently, with 2016 being the best year for co-operative growth for twenty years.

The Labour Party is making welcome noises about strong support for co-operative business when it is returned to power. We will need to ensure that this latent support is converted into real long-term achievement (learning the lessons of both the Tony Benn ‘phoenix’ co-ops of the 1970s and the work of co-operative development agencies in the 1980s).  My view is that there is much in mainland Europe to help us.  As well as looking at developments in Catalunya I’ve also been looking into what’s been happening in France – a subject for another blog shortly, I think.

Mytholmroyd – easy to say when you know

There are, I know, people who struggle to know how to pronounce the West Yorkshire town of Mytholmroyd.

The poet Ted Hughes was born there, and when Hollywood made the biopic of Hughes’ life with Sylvia Plath the actor playing the poet at one stage mentioned that he came from (deep breath) mith- om – m – royd.  Cue the sound of tittering at every cinema showing in West Yorkshire.

It’s migh- zhum –royd, with the emphasis on the first and third syllables.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I will be giving a talk at the Mytholmroyd Community Centre this Friday on Joseph Greenwood and the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative Society, in my opinion one of the most important co-operatives in Britain during the later years of the nineteenth century. The talk is hosted by the Mytholmroyd Historical Society.  I am sure they would not turn away visitors.

The community’s Right to Bid

The Community Right to Bid (part of the 2010-2015 coalition government’s enthusiasm for localism) is on the statute book. It allows communities to nominate buildings or land for listing as assets of community value. If these assets subsequently are put up for sale, communities are given six months to find the funding to purchase them.

Our businesses are assets of public value, too. We need an equivalent Right to Bid for employees. If a take-over bid is made for a firm, workers there should have the first option of acquiring the business and converting to a co-operative.

Radical? Only if you think it is. What a pity, for example, that Cadbury’s ended up part of Kraft Foods when for the last six years we could have been welcoming representatives of the Cadbury’s Workers’ Co-operative at UK co-op events.

Selling tomaytos (and much else) co-operatively

Know your history.

I’ve been going on here about the importance of ensuring the experiences and lessons of the ‘new wave’ of co-ops established in the 1970s are not forgotten, so I’ve been pleased to read a history of one very successful wholefood co-operative, founded in 1974 and still going strong today.

Ah, there is twist. The book (Co-opportunity, The Rise of a Community Owned Market) tells the story not of a British co-op but of the co-operative business Co-opportunity based in Santa Monica, southern California. But, to be honest, it could so easily be a British co-op being described.  Here are the same tales of early triumphs against the odds, of the development of decision making structures, of difficulties and disputes and of how they were resolved, and of how the spirit of improvisation could sometimes save the day. As in this entertaining extract:

“While building the new addition, we wondered how to provide space for meetings…. With ground floor retail at a premium, we came up with the idea of building a loft above the cold storage coolers. A couple of our members who were carpenters built the contraption. You got there by climbing a ladder and then sat under the wide strips of silver-backed insulation and the unfinished roof.  There were no windows; it was very warm in summer…”

The book is written by David J Thompson, a Lancastrian by birth (Blackpool, to be precise) who has lived in the US for all his adult life.  David was one of the founder members of Co-opportunity and is a lifelong co-operative activist. It was good to see David at the recent Ways Forward conference in Manchester when I was able to buy the book off him.  I’m not sure how it’s distributed normally but I am sure David himself would tell you: his email is dthompcoop@aol.com.

What responsibilities do co-op members have?

I want to tackle today what I think is quite a difficult question.  It’s this:  what responsibility do ordinary members of a co-operative have, if their elected directors are not making a very good fist of things in terms of governance and member democracy?

A little while back (and for obvious reasons I’m going to be imprecise and will be fictionalising some things) I went to the AGM of a co-operatively run organisation I’ve been a member of for some time. It has around 6000 members and it operates in the area where I live: let’s imagine that it’s a locally-based consumer co-op.

The AGM pulled in perhaps twenty-five members, if you include the directors and one member of staff who was there. So at least we just met the quorum, which was sensibly set very low.  You can do the sums: about 0.05% of the members were there.

We were given refreshments beforehand, perhaps as a not-very-effective bribe to try to persuade more of us to attend, and then we began the formal business.

The accounts (handed out as the meeting started) did not look good and no dividend was possible, but there were perhaps one-off reasons for this. Every co-op can have off years. But more than this, there was a sense of an organisation struggling to get to grips with governance. The chair has been in post for almost as the organisation has existed and he dominated the meeting, including barging in in the middle of the treasurer’s report. He, and two other directors, were re-elected to the board in an uncontested election.

I asked some questions, trying to strike the difficult balance of being a responsible member asking necessary questions while at the same time showing that I supported the voluntary board and appreciated their efforts. A few other people asked some questions but mostly we listened.

So what responsibility do I have, and what responsibility do my fellow members have? I could of course put myself forward for the board, but I am already actively involved in several other co-op and community ventures and frankly this doesn’t seem like a priority for me. So if I rule myself out in this way from engaging directly, is it enough just to turn up once a year for the AGM?

Unfortunately I am prepared to predict that next year’s AGM will be almost a re-run of this year’s.

Co-operative heritage in the Pennines

There’s a cold easterly wind blowing over my part of northern England today and Spring, let alone Summer, seems a long way away.  But here’s some very early news of an event I’m organising on the UN’s International Day of Co-operatives, Saturday July 7th.

The small mill town of Hebden Bridge, between Leeds and Manchester in the south Pennines, has a strong co-operative history, part of which I recounted in my book All Our Own Work which tells the story of the highly successful worker-run co-operative textile mill in the town which ran from 1870 to 1918.  I have persuaded myself to run a Co-operative Heritage Walk in the town on July 7th, starting at 11am at the Tourist Information Centre.

The walk will last about two hours, and I think we’ll have to end it firmly in the twenty-first century, in the town’s co-operatively run pub, the Fox and Goose.  More info nearer the time.