The closing event of the Ways Forward conference featured prominent speakers from the co-operative community presenting their views on ‘people’s power’ in the workplace.
Chaired by Martin Meteyard from conference organiser Co-operative Business Consultants (CBC), the five speakers spoke on a range of topics from the local to the international.
Sheila Coleman, community co-ordinator for the north west of Unite, spoke about her involvement in the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. Ms Coleman stressed the importance of hope in society (“If we lose that, we lose everything”) in reference to the ongoing fight for justice for those who died in the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989.
She spoke about the disbelief felt when David Cameron publicly accepted a cover-up had taken place to discredit the victims and protect the police. She called for people to never stop campaigning, and to “break the rules if they’re not fair rules”, drawing parallels with Unite’s work fighting the bedroom tax.
Alan Semo, from the Democratic Union Party in Rojava, northern Syria, told of how the region was pulling together to rebuild towns and villages shattered by so-called Islamic State (Isis). After Kobani, the main city of the region, improbably repelled an Isis attack in 2014, its people resolved to create a new community-focussed society based on a model of mutualism.
The region, bidding to be a peaceful model in the Middle East, based the re-build on three points:
1. Democracy: The community made their own rules, not those imposed by politicians outside influences.
2. Equality: Rojava women were empowered to make their own decisions and shape their own futures, both personal and professional.
3. Co-operative projects: Self-managed and mutually beneficial projects, many of which were agricultural.
More locally, Debbie Clarke from the Unicorn Grocery worker co-operative in Chorlton, south Manchester, spoke of the humble beginnings to the enterprise – formed 20 years ago by five people with visionary ideas. The grocery provides fair trade and organic products and is owned by its workers. Each member is paid equally and works on all aspects of the business. Ms Clarke believes this model is crucial to the grocer’s success as it makes people more engaged, and requires values of integrity and authenticity.
“We’re trying to create community wealth, not wealth for private shareholders, and that resonates with customers,” she said. “Once you’ve experienced working in that way, it’s very hard to imagine another way of working.”
Mike Shaw from Students for Co-operation was equally supportive of co-operativism, but spoke of his concerns that the movement was too insular.
“We need to get out of our comfort zone,” he argued. “We can’t offer an alternative without engaging in the outside world.” Mr Shaw urged co-operators to think about Robert Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers and to work together to expand the true spirit of co-operation to the rest of the world.
He spoke about taking the power back, and warned against “remaking capitalism in our own organisations”. Finishing with a plea to “be stronger and be bolshy”, he echoed Ms Coleman’s call for positivity, stating “there is an alternative and there is hope”, before adding “even if things are sometimes a bit shit”.
Final speaker, the writer Andrew Bibby, spoke about the need for compromise in order to advance. He talked of the need for state action as well as models that empower workers, and for the co-op movement to be more innovative in its approach.
The conference ended by looking out to co-ops overseas as Cath Muller from CBC and the Radical Routes federation of co-ops called for a statement of support to be sent out the people of Rojava. Reading out a suggested statement, the idea was roundly supported by the crowd.
The statement read:
Statement of support and solidarity for the communities and co-operatives of Rojava and Kobani.
We are inspired by the people of Kobani and Rojava, by their determination, by their sense of solidarity and by their commitment to fairness, to ecological sustainability and freedom for all.
We have much to learn from you and to share with you.
We look forward to developing mutually beneficial links between co-operatives here and there.
- You can find all of our coverage from the Ways Forward conference here.
In this article
- Alan Semo
- Andrew Bibby
- Consumer cooperative
- David Cameron
- Debbie Clark
- Democratic Union Party
- Hillsborough stadium
- Martin Meteyard
- Middle East
- Mike Shaw
- northern Syria
- Robert Owen
- Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers
- Sheila Coleman
- The Co-operative Group
- Unicorn Grocery
- Ways Forward
- Worker cooperative
- United Kingdom
- Top Stories