A commitment by trade unionists not to turn their back on a factory closed as part of a national modernisation plan was rewarded last month when a new workers' co-operative was officially launched.
The York Disabled Workers’ Co-operative has emerged from the shadow of Remploy York which was one of 29 factories closed by the organisation which supports workers with disabilities.
When it closed in March 2008 the factory employed 51 people. While the new co-operative is not on the same scale, it is determined to grow. That it exists at all is a tribute to a small group of union activists who, despite setbacks, and — in their view — broken promises, continued their campaign to find a viable alternative to the closed factory.
Kevin Hepworth of the Unite union was a member of a consortium formed by Unite and GMB members and officials. “The York closure had been a very emotive one,” he says. “We felt the people had been treated badly and we were determined not to abandon them.”
Mr Hepworth, who is also an active Co-op Party member, says a 2008 meeting with Gordon Brown had raised hopes of government intervention, but this failed to materialise so alternative strategies were explored.
“We started to look at different business possibilities and eventually settled on the idea of the small scale manufacture of timber garden products,” explains Mr Hepworth. “From the outset we said that if we did manage to create anything it should be a workers’ co-operative. We didn’t want to set something up that was owned by the unions. This business belongs to the workers and it’s for them to develop it.”
One of those taking up that challenge is John Wilson who previously worked at the Remploy factory and is now employed in the co-operative. He says: “Setting up the co-operative is a big achievement for everyone concerned. When the factory closed we felt that people with disabilities in the York area still needed back-up and support.
“We ran a campaign to try to get the factory re-opened with all sorts of marches and demos, but when that failed we started to look at the feasibility of a co-operative. A six month feasibility study suggested it was worth doing and a fighting fund was set up by the unions. This has managed to raise more than £50,000 and the lease on the premises has been guaranteed for the next two and a half years.”
Mr Wilson says the inclusiveness of the co-operative model makes it ideal for people with disabilities: “Even people doing low skilled jobs within the co-operative can still feel part of the business.”
The co-operative provides work for three people — a deliberately cautious start — but Mr Wilson hopes that eventually the co-op will provide work for at least 15 people with learning difficulties.
Those new recruits may, ironically, come via Remploy which maintains a presence within the city but one, which John Wilson argues, is nowhere near significant enough.
“The original plan, following the factory closure, was for Remploy to operate a fully equipped centre providing opportunities for people with disabilities. That has not materialised and while it runs an employment services outlet, many of the former factory workers have not been able to find suitable alternative employment. I know of people who have been reduced to stacking shelves, washing up or helping out in charity shops.
“We won’t be making people millions of pounds, but at least we can provide jobs that people can feel pride and dignity in. And people will be learning practical skills that can benefit them both inside and outside of the workplace.”
Even before the current agenda of cuts, opportunities for workers with disabilities were scarce. Despite plenty of anti-discrimination legislation, many employers are reluctant to employ people with disabilities and the anticipated job losses in the public sector will only exacerbate that situation. Against that backdrop, the importance of the York Disabled Workers Co-operative is clear.
But it is not just about creating employment. Mr Wilson is keen to point out that, as the wood used in the co-operative’s products has been reclaimed, it has strong environmental credentials too.
The co-operative’s product range includes fencing, decking and garden furniture and visitors are welcome at the James Street unit. The co-operative’s long term vision is one which offers hope and opportunities for future generations of disabled people in York and a model which perhaps becomes a blueprint for similar situations elsewhere in the UK.
It is a vision that so far has been realised thanks to donations in cash and kind from the trades’ union movement and the co-operative continues to welcome further donations.
• The York Disabled Workers’ Co-operative can be found at 26 The Raylor Centre, James Street, York YO10 3DW with further information available online: www.yorkdwc.co.uk.