Cooperative and collective organising by the self-employed

What’s the answer for those people in the workforce who don’t have employment law protection because they are self-employed but who – far from enjoying the fruits of independent working – face social and economic insecurity?

Could the answer be to make it easier for the self-employed to organise together, perhaps through freelance cooperatives and/or through appropriate trade unions?

This is an issue which interests me a great deal, not just because I am self-employed and not just because I am a member of a trade union with a very sizeable (and very active) minority of members who are freelance.

I was involved some years back in a pioneering project with the global union UNI which brought together trade unions in Europe who were seeking to organise the unemployed, either (like my own union) directly in their own membership structures or through autonomous ‘new’ unions for self-employed members which they helped create. My report for UNI Global Union Opening the Doors Wide to the Self-Employed, although ten years old, is still available on my website, and you’ll also find there various articles I wrote at the time on the same theme.

Quite apart from this past professional interest, I also recall a pleasant day spent walking in the Peak District many years ago with a friend. She undertook similar work to me, also on a self-employed basis, and our walk had been arranged to give us time to ponder whether we could establish a cooperative structure for our businesses which would enable us to benefit among other things from joint marketing. We liked the idea – but the time just didn’t seem right to progress it.

So for all these reasons I am delighted that the British cooperative and trade union movements have collaborated on a new report which explores in detail some possible cooperative, mutual and union self-help solutions for what it describes as the self-employed precariat. The report Not Alone, just published and available on the Co-operatives UK website, identifies some innovative British examples of self-employed collective organising but also points out that other countries are far ahead of Britain in terms of good practice.

As the report puts it, “In the nineteenth century working class self-help organisations included craftsmen’s guilds, co-operatives, friendly societies and the first unions. Together they collaborated and proliferated to improve working conditions, to secure rights and status and to maintain standards of living for workers. In an age of economic insecurity and rapid changes in technology there is now the opportunity to reinvent democratic self-help for the twenty-first century in order to widen participation on a fair basis for all in work.”

There is indeed an opportunity here which needs to be grasped.

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Beyond the capitalist crisis

The UK newspaper The Guardian has run a valuable full-page feature for this May Day with the headline ‘Co-ops emerge from capitalist crisis’. The piece focuses on moves by workers in France, Spain and Greece to turn failed businesses into workers’ cooperatives. This is a welcome reminder of the energy and creativity of the cooperative movements elsewhere in the world. The piece is online here.

Young people: coops should critique capitalism

Censorship at Quebec?  The story is going the rounds that the summit organisers chose not to distribute a declaration from some of the young people who had been taking part in the parallel youth delegation activities because their text included the words (shock horror) ‘capitalist’ and ‘neoliberal’.

I’ve contacted the summit’s press office to see if this can be clarified.  In the meantime you’ll find the Youth Declaration up on the ICA website here. I think it’s rather good.

Here is the paragraph with the (alleged) naughty words:

“Our vision and expectation of the global cooperative movement is for it to transform an economy based on the individual accumulation of wealth and power into a system that serves the collective wellbeing of people and our planet through redistribution of resources and common ownership. We believe that there is an alternative to the capitalist economy. We want to be part of a cooperative movement that critiques the current system and actively rejects its focus on limitless growth. This means not emulating its institutions, looking to its leadership and theory for guidance, or staffing the management teams of our cooperatives with subscribers to neoliberal philosophy.”

Pay inequalities and cooperatives

Richard Wilkinson was at the Quebec cooperative summit this morning, sharing some of the findings of his pioneering research into (more) equal and less equal societies that first came out in the book The Spirit Level, and also calling for cooperatives and employee-owned businesses to lead the way in developing business models which promote more equality.

Which I guess leads us on to the issue of executive pay in coops, always a prickly topic and one which you won’t be surprised to hear hasn’t been on the agenda  (the report I was told a year ago by organisers of the summit would be commissioned on the subject clearly hasn’t materialised).  Perhaps such a discussion would be deemed unkind to our host Monique Leroux of Desjardins, whose own pay packet (comfortably into 7 figures – well, she is a banker) has in the past raised some controversy in her cooperative.

Not on the agenda then, but three of us (a US cooperator from Seattle and another British delegate) made up for the omission by talking about the topic of executive pay in coops whilst eating our lunch today.  Conclusions?  That pay policies for coops are not necessarily completely straightforward, but that this is an issue which mustn’t be ducked.

On men, and women, and cooperatives

One of the most striking aspects of the Quebec cooperative summit is how many of the plenary sessions and workshops have had panels composed entirely of women speakers, sitting together in their business attire but without a single man with them to provide gender balance.  Admittedly, there was a round table this morning where there were two men contributing, but the session I am attending as I write this is back to the norm: six women at the front discussing the way forward for the cooperative movement.

 

This is worth remarking upon, perhaps, if only because the CEO of host cooperative Desjardins is (unusually in the financial services world) a man, as of course is the current President of the International Co-operative Alliance.

 

Hang on a moment, I think this blog is coming out a bit wrong.  Could I ask you to change the above, substituting ‘men’ for ‘women’ and vice versa?

On ‘phoenix’ coops. And Tony Benn.

Tony Benn’s death in March has failed to be adequately acknowledged in cooperative circles, I think. Benn, when he was Secretary of State for Industry in the 1974 Labour government, helped facilitate a number of attempts to establish worker-controlled cooperatives to take over major companies which had failed, including motorcycle manufacturer Triumph Meriden and white-goods manufacturer KME.

This was at a time when the old productive cooperative wing of the movement in Britain was more or less invisible and when the new wave of collectively-run workers’ cooperatives in sectors such as wholefoods and bookselling had yet to arrive on the scene.

Benn’s contribution to the re-emergence of worker cooperation in Britain (partly I think inspired by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) has tended to be played down probably because none of the ‘phoenix’ coops he was associated with managed to break through to enjoy a commercially profitable second life. There were things done wrong in those experiments, too, albeit often for the best of reasons. Tony Benn was very sound, though, on the importance of cooperatives being genuinely member-led and bottom-up. He wrote, in 1976, that “the impetus, the imagination, the energy, the organisational ability was coming from the people on the shop floor itself”. And he added, “Unless a Labour Government can find some way of discovering and encouraging, harnessing and working with this sort of feeling, it is inevitably going to be driven back on to a plan for industry thought out at the top and imposed from the top”.

I’ve been reminded of Tony Benn’s engagement with coops because I’ve been writing today on some successful very recent initiatives in France, which – partly through trade union involvement – have seen insolvent businesses brought back to life as workers’ coops. These include the 150-year old textile company Fontanille in the Auvergne and the printing company Hélio-Corbeil in the Loire region, both significant local employers. (You’ll find some interesting short films about both on YouTube).

It’s always hard to turn around a failed business and create a successful genuine cooperative. But it can be done. And Benn’s pioneering efforts in this respect should not be forgotten.