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).
“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.
How can I fail to respond to the press release that has come through from the Manchester-based workers’ co-operative Unicorn Grocery?
The press release is advising me of some good news which, in fact, I had already heard elsewhere: that Unicorn has carried off the prize in the BBC Food and Farming awards as the best food retailer.
Unicorn, one of the country’s most successful workers’ co-ops and one which has contributed a great deal to the wider co-op movement, is 21 years old this year. It demonstrated the success of raising investment funds from within the community long before everyone else was talking of community shares, and it has already taken the BBC prize once before, in 2008.
One of the things I learned when I was researching the later nineteenth century co-operative movement a couple of years ago was the strength and importance of the co-operative flour mills in several northern towns, most notably the societies in Sowerby Bridge (which also had a mill in Hebden Bridge and was the largest in the country) and in Halifax. What we would now call food politics was an issue early co-operators understood, too. It’s good that co-ops like Unicorn continue the tradition.
Over the last few years I’ve been stressing the importance of ensuring that key archives from the co-operative movement are identified and preserved. In particular I’ve mentioned several times the initiative some of us have been engaged in to focus on workers’ co-op records from the 1970s-1990s.
We’ve had several generous offers of financial support from current workers’ co-ops, from co-operative organisations and from individuals, but we needed the Heritage Lottery Fund to come in and support the project as well.
I’m delighted to say that HLF have indeed now agreed to contribute £43,000 towards the project – so green light to go!
To crib a little text from the press release which has just gone out: “The project, called Working Together: recording and preserving the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement, aims to identify and make accessible for the first time records from some of the major workers’ co-operatives of the time, together with co-operative support organisations. A trained archivist will be employed for a twelve month period to undertake the work of finding the material, and then in ensuring that where possible it is deposited either at the National Co-operative Archive or in the relevant local county record office or public archive. An oral history element to the project will mean that recordings of the memories of some of those most involved in co-operatives during this period will be made.”
I hope you share my satisfaction that a little part of our history will now be more easily understood by co-operators of the future.
You’ll know, if you are a regular visitor to my blog, of my involvement in a project which is aiming to ensure that primary material from the upsurge of interest in workers’ coops in Britain in the 1970s-1990s is saved and preserved. I was at a meeting today in Manchester of the informal committee which is seeking to ensure that this initiative (what we calling Working Together: recording and preserving the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement) gets the resources it needs to get going.
We worked up a detailed grant application for the project which was submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund this summer, and we have now heard back from HLF. They say that they had applications for three times the money they had available for distribution – and disappointingly we have been one of the unlucky ones.
However, all is definitely not lost. HLF accept resubmissions, and we are now going to talk to them again about how we can strengthen our bid and maximise our chance of success. We hope a revised application can be submitted before Christmas. I’ll keep you posted.
A nice email arrives from Debbie Clarke at Manchester’s workers’ co-operative store Unicorn Grocery, letting me know that Unicorn has just been awarded the Fair Tax mark. Debbie goes on, “we’re not particularly concerned about receiving coverage or accolades for getting accredited as we feel it should be pretty standard business practice, but as it isn’t we are keen to do what we can to promote the mark and make it more visible nationally. It also feels like a really good opportunity to talk about co-operative values and principles and how they are being put into practice.”
Well done to Unicorn, an excellent example of successful worker co-operation.
I shared a drink (a modest half-pint of real ale, since you ask) in a local co-operatively run pub on Saturday with members of the Leeds and Wakefield co-operative history group who were spending the day exploring the co-operative past of my part of northern England.
They were telling me of the problems of researching the history of co-operation in Leeds, the result of records from the early days (and indeed more recent times) being lost. Keeping important archive material away from the Great Skip of Destruction is vital if future historians are to be able to do their work.
As you may know from past blogs here, I’ve been working with a few colleagues recently on an archive project to try to preserve records from the late twentieth century workers’ co-op movement. Our project application is currently being assessed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I’ll let you know how we get on just as soon as I know myself.