Unions representing almost half of the 90,000 employees at the Co-operative Group have called for society to “present a clear and coherent strategy” following a year of troubles.
As the Group is bidding to turn around the co-operative, the three unions – Usdaw, Naco and Unite – all collectively called for elected members to end “uncertainty”. All three are also trade unions recognised by the Group.
“The problems at the Co-operative Bank have been a real concern for some time and we were saddened to see the Co-operative Group lose control of it, which raised many questions over the future ethos and strategy of the bank and on the wider Group’s businesses,” said John Gorle, national officer for co-operatives at Usdaw, which represents 38,000 staff members. “In addition to the problems with the Bank the much publicised instability at main board level with recent resignations over the future direction and governance of the Group is causing more uncertainty for our members.”
Neil Buist, general secretary of Naco, the National Association of Co-operative Officials, which represents managers at the Angel Square head office, said he was pleased the board has committed to a reform process. He added: “The instability in both governance and future business strategy needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency to provide a stable environment for colleagues. This does not mean a ‘quick fix’ but requires decisive action from both the democratic structures and the senior management to ensure that the Group can continue to trade effectively and profitably.
“At the same time we need to ensure that the values and principles of the co-operative movement are adhered to and that the co-operative difference remains integral to all that we do. This applies not only to the future democratic structures that govern the business, but also in relation to business strategy and the manner in which senior management run the business.”
Meanwhile, Adrian Jones, Unite’s national officer for the Co-op, confronted elected members in a letter addressed to regional board delegates over the proposals for governance changes proposed by Lord Myners. “The future of the Co-op is not just about the make-up of the board and the influence or perceived influence of regional boards and independent societies,” he said. “It is also about the families of thousands of Co-op workers whose futures are on a knife edge.”
Asking board members to “secure a future” for its members, he said employees “fear that the board level power struggle is putting their livelihoods at risk”. Mr Jones added that Unite, which represents 1,200 members mainly in retail logistics, is fully in support of the interim review of governance put forward by Lord Myners that suggests a plc-model be adopted by the co-operative, with a board controlled by executive management and independent non-executive directors “on a par with plc competitors”.
He said the Group need to keep up with the “speed the [retail] sector is moving” and that the society without governance changes will not be able to “compete in such a cut-throat sector”.
“Unite believes that the basic proposals put forward by Lord Myners secure a structure that meets the organisation’s needs and has the potential to meet the challenges faced in the current economic climate,” added Mr Jones. “We further believe that strengthening the “one member one vote” principle returns the Co-op to its natural roots.”
Usdaw’s John Gorle, who represents staff from the shop floor to head office, added: “While there will be no quick fix for the problems at the Group there is a growing anxiety with our membership over long-term job security going forward. The Co-op need to present a clear and coherent strategy for the future as soon as possible to help address our members concerns.”