Coop movement partners with trade unions in Spain

An interesting press release arrives from the Spanish workers’ cooperative organisation Coceta which has today signed a partnership agreement with one of the two main trade union federations in the country CC.OO.  The aim is to work together to try to turn failing conventional businesses into cooperatives, as well as to convert businesses where the owner is retiring into worker-owned ventures.

The two organisations say they want to work more closely together with the aim of “not losing a single further worker’s job”.

Cooperatives and unions are increasingly rediscovering their common roots. Let me remind you of the 2013 ILO report on this theme Trade unions and worker co-operatives: where are we at? It’s worth a reread.

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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.

Making links: cooperatives and trade unions

Deadlines (and life generally) have meant that I have not had time  to report on an interesting seminar on links between coops and trade unions which was organised by the Co-operative College last Wednesday in London.

There were some stimulating presentations, including one from the Musicians Union who described how in various parts of the country school music teachers – as a response to the loss of their previous employment status with local authorities – are banding together in cooperatives. The MU has produced an excellent handbook Altogether Now:  A Guide to Forming Music Teacher Co-operatives, based on experiences gained at a pioneering cooperative in Swindon set up in 1998.

Both the trade union and the cooperative movement know that they share the same historical roots and the desire for a deeper relationship today was clearly expressed at the seminar.  The development of cooperative schools has seen a useful link made between the Co-operative College and some of the teachers’ unions.

But there remain tensions. As Matt Dykes from the TUC said, his first objective is to see workers who deliver public services remaining as public employees. The implication was that some sort of cooperative arrangement may be better than outright privatisation, but is still something of a fallback.

More fundamentally it was hard to disagree with Cliff Mills of Mutuo, who called for the traditional assumption that public ownership means just state ownership to be re-examined. Like Cliff, I’d maintain that there are other ways that public ownership can be established (some of which may take us back to ideas tried out in the early days of the coop movement in Britain).

If you’re interested in this area and haven’t already come across it, the ILO report from 2013 Trade Unions and Worker Cooperatives: Where are we at? is worth a good look.

Co-op Bank to shed its Unity Trust link

I’ve mentioned previously that the Co-operative Bank has been a minority shareholder in Unity Trust, the trade union bank which it helped set up thirty years ago this year.

Another part of the fall-out from the Co-op Bank debacle is that this 26.7% stake in Unity is now to be sold.  Unity put out a short press statement on Tuesday about this:  “Discussions are at an early stage and any decision on a changed ownership structure would be subject to regulatory approval,” it says. Unions have the option to acquire the Co-op’s shares in Unity first, before they are disposed of more publicly.

Unity does not provide retail banking for individuals but it does a useful job as bankers not only for unions but also for a wide range of charities, local authorities and community organisations.  My experience of them has generally been positive: helpfully, they were early adopters of an electronic equivalent to the standard ‘two signature’ rule for cheque signing, so that charities and other organisations with this rule in force can make payments on-line.

Shameful: coops that fail to endorse good labour standards

Here are the names of some well-known non-cooperatives: Primark, H&M, Tesco, Adidas, Marks and Spencer, Lidl.

They, and some ninety or so other businesses, have signed up to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between international trade unions, non-governmental organisations and retailers in the textile industry.  The Accord was launched in May, a few weeks after the terrible collapse of the Savar factory outside Dhaka which killed over 1100 people.

And here are the names of two major cooperatives:  Migros, Coop Swiss.

Both are giant retailers in Switzerland (both are separately bigger by turnover than the UK’s own Co-operative Group). And both, despite trade union pressure, have not signed the Accord.

Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, and Philip Jennings who leads UNI Global Union (representing trade unions in retailing, among other things) recently held a mini-demo outside one of Migros’ stores.  Good for them.

If cooperatives want to claim the ethical high ground – as they should – then they have to be at the forefront of initiatives like this.  My own view?: personally I’d like to see compliance with the International Labour Organization’s agreed core labour standards written in to the International Co-operative Alliance’s cooperative principles.