Worker Co-op weekend 2019: a restorative, sociable, inspiring get-together

'There's a sense that going for a walk and talk is probably as useful as going to scheduled workshops'

May’s Worker Co-op Weekend was a restorative, sociable, inspiring get-together for worker co-operators, at the serene ‘Rock UK Frontier Centre’ in Northamptonshire.

As always, it was a collaboratively organised affair (although, of course, thanks to John Atherton and Gareth Wright at Co-operatives UK, who did the bulk of the organising), with the programme collated online on a publicly accessible GoogleDoc, by folks offering workshops.

The beer came from Bartleby’s Brewery workers co-op, food was provided by Leeds Bread Co-op and Suma, the cooking was done by Co-op Culture. The campfire songbook, compiled through suggestions on the worker co-ops’ Loomio forum, got bigger again for 2019, coordinated by Delta-T Devices, and there was a very active and effective liftshare forum, which meant more time getting to know each other and making friendships.

The vibe at the Worker Co-op Weekend is relaxed, practical and DIY, with a sense that going for a walk and talk is probably just as useful as going to scheduled workshops – that is definitely the case when chopping veg or washing up while chatting to Mark Simmonds!

Getting out into the country is a key part of the attraction for many of us, and we took advantage of the setting by having Sunday’s workshops out on the grass in the sunshine. Camping and dorm accommodation options also makes it cheaper and the now traditional campfire was the biggest ever (gulp).

Over the weekend, three main themes emerged: how to do non-hierarchical versions of, for example, HR, strategy, governance and peer appraisal; how to address climate change, ecological collapse and capitalism; and a desire to do more to grow worker co-operation.

This year’s numbers were at around 60. I do wonder how well the attendance represents the demographics of UK worker co-ops in general. There were some accurate reflections: about half the participants came from the wholefoods sector and the age range was pretty broad. The gender balance was about 3:2 male:female, which I think isn’t true of the sector and we were nearly all white (though not all British).

I don’t know the ethnicity stats for the worker co-op sector – definitely not all white, but it’s probable that people of colour are majorly unrepresented.
I came straight from the Ctrl-Shift ‘Emergency Summit for Change’ and last month organised the ‘Ways Forward’ conference – the lack of ethnic diversity was articulately called out at both those events, so it’s clearly a broader issue than just worker co-ops.

Related: Co-op News reports from the Ways Forward conference

Those co-ops able to send lots of people brought new and young members, who were keen to learn more, and their presence helped keep the weekend grounded. However, beyond them the majority of us were old hands. We need to broaden participation to a wider range of co-ops, of co-operators and of prospective worker co-operators and make the event really welcoming and useful.

Thornbridge Outdoor Activity Centre in Derbyshire is already booked for the 2nd weekend in May 2020 and murmurings of a more family-friendly event are being murmured. See you there!

Here are some of the pledges made during the weekend

  • Green City Wholefoods aims to teach 4,562 Glaswegians about the difference between co-ops and The Co-op.
  • Worker Co-op Weekend 2020 will welcome 40 prospective worker co-operators alongside 60-70 worker co-op members.
  • A series of different pledges will eventually lead to co-ops on the curriculum, so by 2023 lots more young and working class people will be setting up co-ops and expecting them to succeed.
  • Worker co-ops offering work experience and careers fair stalls mean that 30% of all school leavers will have heard of a ‘worker co-op’ and know what it means.
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