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.
I visit my local Co-op Group store at least once a day and sometimes more often, not because I just can’t keep away from the place but because it’s about 100 metres from my front door and I have adopted the just-in-time approach to shopping.
So I get a pretty good sense of what’s going on there. At the moment, the staff are unhappy. Their hours of work are being renegotiated. The HR person comes on visits and is available to talk to in the office. One employee tells me his evening and weekend shifts already keep him away from his family, and he will be forced to leave if asked to do any more. Concerned customers have started writing to the local paper about it all, criticising the co-op.
And as the staff keep saying to us as we queue up at the tills, they get paid less than Tesco staff anyway.
Businesses have to be able to restructure and reorganise their way of working, and that includes their staffing provision. But I would expect an ethical business to be going about it in a significantly different way to that of a conventional business. I don’t see that happening here, I’m afraid.
(And by the way, I have a feeling the Tesco bit is true).
The Co-operative Group’s chief executive Richard Pennycook is clearly a busy man these days, and not just in sorting out the Group’s business. An interesting anonymous email to arrive in my inbox draws attention to the fact that Pennycook has three lucrative non-executive directorships.
He drew a salary last year of £62,400 as a non-exec at house builders Persimmon. He joined the joinery business Howdens in September last year and was paid £15,000 for the two and a half months as a non-exec up to December; he would appear to be in line for around £43,000 this year. And he is non-executive Chairman of the Hut Group. (“Remuneration not available – however has £35,172 shares at a reduced option price which will be considerably enhanced once, as expected, the company goes to the Stock Exchange” claims my source.)
As for his pay at the Co-op, his target remuneration package (again according to my source) is £2.3m. Lovely jubbly.
Activists have pointed out that the recent governance changes at the Group open up its Board to the usual coterie of non-executive directors, who may or may not be skilled in managing businesses but are certainly skilled in scratching each others’ backs. It’s interesting to see that the Group’s senior management is already practising what it now preaches.
The International Trade Union Confederation, together with several of the sectoral Global Union Federations and a host of national trade union organisations, issued a call yesterday for pension funds to fight against tax avoidance schemes by companies they invest in. “The global scale and influence of pension funds creates an opportunity to further advance responsible tax policy and practices”, the unions say.
There’s a lot of activity in this area going on at the moment. Last month’s newsletter from the UK charity ShareAction (it used to be called Fair Pensions) suggests that institutional investors should ask all the companies they invest in a set of questions about these companies’ tax strategy, including the size of tax savings brought about by intra-group financial arrangements.
These are useful initiatives, but do they fall within my self-imposed restriction in this blog to cooperative matters?
I think they do, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s been encouraging to see some UK cooperatives (most notably Midcounties and the Phone Coop) taking a lead in endorsing the ‘Fair Tax’ mark, itself an initiative of the (cooperative) Ethical Consumer group.
There’s another reason. The world’s cooperative insurers and banks hold phenomenally large amounts of investment funds on behalf of their customers. The members of the international coop and mutual insurers’ federation ICMIF (some of whom have a commendable track record incidentally in promoting socially responsible investment) alone have over one and half trillion US dollars in assets.
The necessary work of campaigning against companies’ manipulation of corporation taxation is an area, in other words, where cooperative businesses can take a lead.
(If cooperatives are to claim the ethical high ground, change the verb in that last sentence of mine from ‘can’ to ‘must’.)
I had an interesting couple of days last week in Brussels looking at the original minute books of the executive of the International Co-operative Alliance. The records date back to 1892, three years before the ICA’s founding Congress in London in 1895. My thanks to the ICA team for making the visit very useful.
My Brussels foray constituted the very last part of a research exercise which I’ve been engaged on more or less since Christmas, as part of work for a book I’;m writing on productive coops (= workers coops) of the nineteenth century. These early manufacturing coops are a very interesting, but very neglected, part of our coop heritage. Be warned, you can expect me to say a lot more on the subject here next year, in the run-up to the book launch. (The book now has to be written, and is scheduled for summer 2015 publication.)
But in the meantime I want to highlight a more recent period of cooperative history, the workers’ coop movement of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It’s vital that as much as possible of the raw material from this very creative period (all the minute books, the correspondence, the account books and the other material which historians rely on) is saved.
If you were involved in the workers’ coop movement, or in the local Cooperative Development Agency network of the same period, I hope you’ll want to take an interest in the Workers Coop Archive project, which is just starting up now. You’ll find all the background at the dedicated website at http://www.workerscoopsarchive.wordpress.com/
I mentioned previously that I’d sent in a photo or two for the photography exhibition of cooperative buildings being organised by the Rochdale Pioneers museum. The exhibition is now up, and I dropped in earlier today to Toad Lane in Rochdale for the cheese-straws-and-cocktail-sausages-and-chat launch event.
As you’d expect, there’s an eclectic mixture of photos which have come in, ranging from images of the golden years of the Victorian cooperative period to the (perhaps somewhat tarnished) present day. It’s good to be reminded about the way in which members’ pride for their cooperative societies in the early years was reflected in the fine architecture they commissioned. In those days the coop was often much the most impressive secular building in many towns and villages, at least in the north of England heartlands. So there’s an inevitable sense of sadness to see some of these buildings photographed in their twenty-first century guise, boarded up and derelict.
The photos at Rochdale reflect not only the Victorian architecture but also the often very exciting art deco architecture chosen by cooperatives in the 1930s. I’m pleased to see a photograph of Huddersfield’s once-mighty coop department store, put up in the mid 1930s and now sadly awaiting the return of better times, in the exhibition for example.
The Pioneers museum at Rochdale remains an important place of pilgrimage for many cooperatively minded visitors from overseas. Sometimes it gets rather less attention from British visitors.