Workers.coop, the UK’s member-driven federation that unites worker co-ops, individual workers and supporters, held its first Autumn Assembly in October at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, gathering its network for a day and a half of workshops and training.
The event was opened by Dr Owen Powell, a member of the Workers.coop Research Group, who reminded attendees why the organisation had set out on its journey, and looked at what it had achieved so far.
Workers.coop registered as a co-op over a year ago and began taking on members in January 2023. Since then, it has raised over £150,000 and started to deliver a series of campaigns and support activities, such as its Co-op Conversations service, to raise awareness of worker co-ops and help people set them up.
Alongside the Autumn Assembly and Worker Co-op Weekend (held next year on 17-19 May), the organisation runs local meet-ups and other events, has delivered its first phase of member learning webinars, and has launched a range of peer networks. It is also starting to publish guides and case studies in its online resources library.
Highlights of the assembly included a tour of local worker co-ops in Stirchley, including Loaf Bakery, Birmingham Bike Foundry, Autonomic and Stirchley Co-operative Development, and sessions focusing on reviewing the organisation’s vision – how it organises, what sort of member benefits it should offer and what sorts of actions its supporters want to get involved in.
“Our big tagline, which is still evolving, is ‘liberating work’,” says Worker.coop’s John Atherton. “It’s both liberating, working in a worker co-op, but it’s also about liberating people from bad work and bad bosses. If you don’t like your job, why don’t you liberate yourself from the capitalist system and set up your own co-operative?”
Atherton acknowledges that Workers.coop is more on the anarchist side of the socialist movement, as opposed to the traditional left approach of “structures, bureaucracy and towing the party line”. There is an inherent challenge in that, he says.
“We’re all a group of individuals broadly going in the same direction, while trying to keep the central organisation as lean as possible,” he adds. “But that does have challenges because sometimes you put things out that not everybody agrees with.”
He hopes that using a slightly different approach – considering Workers.coop as a campaign as well as a federation – will “unlock creativity and encourage action” and provide a space where members “can take control over their own ideas and services”.
“In my view, the co-op movement in the UK has lost an understanding of how to mobilise the movement,” he argues. “It needs to relearn how to do that because clearly people did that incredibly well in 1844 and beyond.”
Atherton believes physical events like the assembly offer vital spaces for that experimentation. “It’s a space to come together and look at our core vision. Do we broadly think our vision is going in the right direction? What do we think of this messaging and merchandise? Does this look and feel like the organisation you want to be part of?
“The other big element of the assembly asked: What are the things you want to do? What are the member benefits you want? What is the call to our supporters? The whole premise of the federation is getting people to act. It isn’t just about being member-led, it’s about member action. Members actually do the work.”
Workers.coop is heavily influenced by the US Federation of Worker Co-ops, which has been providing support and mentoring. A study trip earlier this year highlighted to Atherton how “the UK movement, from what we understand, was a lot more diverse back in the 1970s. It seems to have become less diverse”.
To that end, the assembly held sessions on exploring power and identity in communications and ran anti-racism training, delivered by Resist and Renew.
“We recognise that something in the way we as a movement are doing things is not appealing to a more diverse group of people,” says Atherton. “And so we’re trying to address that from the start, putting diversity front and centre.”