This year’s Co-operative Congress, organised by sector body Co-operatives UK at Unity Works, Wakefield, included a session on Inspirational Co-operatives.
Three co-operators were invited to share their co-op stories – Rosie Wilkinson, from Leeds Bread Co-op, Mark Hooper, from Indycube and Jenny Carlyle, from Suma.
From their stories came a common thread – of how moving from working for conventional businesses to a co-op helped them feel more “human” and find a better way of doing things.
And the session touched on recurring themes of the Congress, such as how co-ops can help to foster communities and help people struggling in the freelance economy.
Rosie Wilkinson – Leeds Bread Co-op
Rosie Wilkinson told delegates she had worked in bakeries run on conventional lines and found it demeaning work, until one day she had had enough.
“I thought sod that, I’ll go and work for the good guys,” she said. “I wanted to make food that I was unequivocally proud of – no short cuts, no compromises.”
That uncompromising alternative was the Leeds Bread Co-op. “We all mutually work towards one common goal,” she said, “the distribution of good bread around Leeds.”
The bakery uses organic, locally sourced ingredients. “We want you lot to eat really nice sandwiches but we also want to educate people about what it takes to make those sandwiches,” said Ms Wilkinson. “What we do differently is we look after ourselves, it’s from within. The bakery is an ethical community that promotes democracy, inclusion, community and autonomy.”
But, she added, the co-op couldn’t work without a community of suppliers and friends – “a community that appreciates our goal and our mission”.
She added: “Co-ops are a modern way of business, a future industry, but actually the parallel is a bit more archaic – I started thinking about how, prior to agriculture, we had tribes of hunters and gatherers, where everyone in those communities contributed to survival. No one had control over commodity so they had no control over anyone else.”
That changed with the development of agriculture, where “the creation of surplus led to accumulation of wealth and power and inequality”.
Co-ops can be a solution to this, she said.
“I guess what I love so much about working at Leeds Bread Co-op is the extinction of overarching power – get rid of investors and big shareholders, replace that with a bunch of normal people, and then I guess really good things happen.
“I like being recognised as a human and not just as an employee. I feel blessed that at some point I decided to reevaluate the way I work. I’ve got it good, I’ve got a stake in this business and a voice.”
Mark Hooper – Indycube
Seven years ago, Mark Hooper founded Indycube, which provides co-working spaces in 27 locations across Wales, plus another in Wakefield.
He says co-working involves creating shared spaces where freelancers can come together to work; when he began freelancing himself, he realised it made for a lonely working life and observed the co-working solution in the US, London and Manchester, and decided to set up a venue in Cardiff, which he successfully marketed through word of mouth.
“It’s now spreading across Wales,” he said. “Wales isn’t working well enough. The third sector work there is very dependent on a grant culture. If you’re dependent on grants you haven’t got a voice. Not being dependent on grants gave us a voice.”
By opening Indycubes in smaller towns such as Port Talbot and Pontypridd, Mr Hooper gave people the chance to stay in their own communities.
“You get a conglomeration of work to the big centres and that ignores the extremities. That’s not good enough, we want people to be able to work in these smaller places too.”
And he said his work with freelancers meant they had needs which the co-op and union movements could help to meet.
“I found a precariat of freelancers who were struggling in this economy,” he said, “a lot of people in Indycube with no sick pay, no holiday pay.
“A lot of people who run their businesses have mental health problems, or are partially sighted – they have to go down this route because they can’t get a job. I realised unions have a requirement to get in there and help these people.”
Indycube has taken its own step towards meeting those needs. “We can offer invoice factoring, and free legal support if someone doesn’t pay their invoices. We’ve started something quite different – and on 1 September we became a community benefit society.”
Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, who chaired the session, said this process was “transformative – turning those workers into co-owners”.
And Mr Hooper told delegates he has also benefited on a personal level. “I had a career outside co-ops – and I felt very inhuman outside it,” he said. “I felt like a cog in a wheel who was there only to benefit shareholders.
“I like being a human again.”
Jenny Carlyle – Suma Wholefoods
Suma, which was sold to its workers two years after its foundation in 1975, is celebrating its 40th anniversary of being a co-op.
It now notches up £53m in sales, and is approaching the point where it has 250 full time employees – a landmark which will making it officially a large business, rather than a small or medium enterprise.
It is also established as a brand, worker-member Jenny Carlyle told delegates. This earns the co-op 22% of its income – but also gives it the chance to talk about its co-op values.
“Working for a co-op is different from working in an industry which doesn’t value people and make them feel human,” she said.
Suma Wholefoods has stuck to its own environmental principles – for instance with a new range of handmade soaps, made purely from olive oil, with no palm oil. The packaging used plant-based inks and local manufacture keeps production mileage low.
And it also meets the co-op principles – for instance, principle six, co-operation among co-ops; Suma sources its pasta from Iris, an Italian co-op. “We helped them expand by investing funds in them,” she said.
Ms Carlyle said the co-op structure allows Suma to be flexible – which helps it to adapt products for the needs of different countries. This has helped it grow exports to 13% of its turnover , selling to than 63 countries.
The co-op structure is also better for workers, she said, contrasting warehouse work in the conventional businesses with the Suma model, which sees workers earn the same salary and rotate job duties.
“Warehouse workers at Amazon make £7.73 an hour,” she said. “The average UK pay for a workhouseman – and they are men, there are few women working in these places – is £16,287; there are few prospects, and it is very insecure, agency work.”
At Suma, there are women at work in the warehouses alongside men, and the working environment is a happier one – with equal pay of £15.60 an hour, flexible working, holiday pay, sick pay, a pension scheme, staff discount and free food.
And workers trade jobs there. “I’ve done everything,” said Ms Carlyle. “I’ve done sales, quality control, been a chocolate buyer, driven a forklift truck, worked in freezer.
“We’re all human, we can make these place of work better for people.”