Co-operatives and the gig economy

I’m back from a seminar today in Manchester’s Co-operative College which brought together people from both the co-operative and trade union movements, to discuss ways of helping self-employed workers and those suffering from the worst effects of the gig economy get themselves collectively organised.

Pat Conaty and Alex Bird, who together wrote the useful report Not Alone: co-operative and trade union solution for self-employed workers last year, were there as were representatives of some British unions which in different ways are trying to help their members who are not in traditional employment relationships (I was going to say, people who are in ‘atypical’ work, but these days I think what was once atypical is now regrettably becoming the norm).

There are, we agreed, no easy answers but there are lessons which we in Britain can learn from elsewhere. We heard accounts, for example, of the ‘union coops’ in the United States supported by both the Mondragon Corporation and several labor unions there, of efforts by the main Dutch trade union centre FNV to organise independent workers, and of steps being taken by those in the arts industry in Belgium to co-operate through a shared servicing agency. And we reminded ourselves of ventures further afield, including the inspiring story of refuse collectors in Pune, India, who have improved their condition of work and obtained greater work status through formalising themselves into a co-op.

The gig economy is in the news, and it’s encouraging that there are attempts to fight back against multinationals such as Uber and the major courier companies who are using allegedly ‘independent’ ‘contractors’. The co-op movement needs to get much more actively involved in these sorts of issues.

Congratulations to Cilla Ross at the Co-operative College for making the arrangements for the seminar.

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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.