After finishing university I lived in a series of rented houses in Birmingham, often with terrible landlords or letting agencies. Some friends and I set up a housing co-operative (Gung Ho) with the help of the Radical Routes federation to take control of our living situation and give us secure access to affordable housing.
Once we’d got rid of our landlord the logical next step was to lose our bosses. Most adults spend the best part of their daily lives carrying out work over which they have no control, which serves no real social purpose, to enrich somebody else. We wanted to set up a democratic workplace, providing rewarding and worthwhile employment. A workers’ co-operative was the natural structure through which to carry out these aims.
Fin, Nancy, Lauren and I, who were the founder members of the Birmingham Bike Foundry, were already keen cyclists. We wanted to work in an area which was environmentally positive, which would improve our city and be useful for people on low incomes. Bicycle recycling was a good fit for these requirements, as well as being something that we already knew a bit about and would hopefully enjoy spending time on.
I quit my job about three years ago to start working at the co-op full time and about two years ago we started renting a shop on our local high street. We have two floors, carrying out our daily shop work downstairs with a meeting and training room upstairs. We have two offices which we sublet to another co-op and to the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World Union, which all our workers are members of.
Every day we take in small and large repair jobs from members of the public, accept donations of unwanted bikes which we refurbish and sell at affordable prices and sell parts and accessories like locks and lights. About once a week we run a training course teaching people bicycle maintenance and every Thursday evening we run a Tool Club, where for £10 a year members can use our tools and workshop to do their own repairs.
Every element of the business is managed collectively meaning that we share responsibility for decisions on everything from stock levels, pay, general strategy and so on. We have a weekly meeting where the big decisions get made, but in the course of a day we trust each other to get on with our work, asking for support if necessary and ready to defend decisions to each other where we didn’t feel the need to directly consult. We reject the idea that a hierarchical structure is the most efficient way to run a company.
It is in our interest that the business succeeds, so we don’t engage in the kind of absenteeism, slacking and pilfering that it is so tempting to do behind your boss’ back. It is a great feeling to take responsibility for your own life and not to work in a stifling environment, constrained by priorities that you don’t identify with.
It is important to recognise that even if you do work in a workers’ co-op you can never have full control over your working environment. The constraints of running a business in a capitalist economy are significant. Even though you can carry out your labour in an internal environment of your choosing, interactions with suppliers, the public and even with yourselves as employees (rather than owners) will necessarily be restricted by the considerations of capital. For instance we would love to be able to pay ourselves a living wage, but wages in our sector are effectively restricted by the operation of corporate bike shops who use their large economies of scale to drive down the value of parts and services in the bike business.
Running a co-operative requires a lot of work from all of us, but the rewards of collective control over decisions which affect our lives are significant. There is more to living your life in a co-operative than the day-to-day benefits. Worker self-management itself presents a challenge to the logic of our unjust and self-destructive economic system in that it points to a potential way forward for human society, whilst helping prepare the collective pysche for that shift. I feel proud to be taking part in such a positive practice.