Unions must fight for democracy in co-operatives, not more management power

This week, Unite national officer Adrian Jones sent a letter imploring the regional boards of the Co-operative Group to accept the proposed, undemocratic dual board proposed by the...

This week, Unite national officer Adrian Jones sent a letter imploring the regional boards of the Co-operative Group to accept the proposed, undemocratic dual board proposed by the former chair of Marks and Spencer and general city bigwig Lord Myners, on the basis that the reforms would purportedly bolster the job security of the 1,200 Co-op employees represented by Unite.

These hugely undemocratic reforms would tear apart the 150 year strong democratic tradition in the Co-operative Group and relegate members’ democratic decision making a rung below an appointed executive team.

The Myners Review calls for increased levels of ‘respect’ for an executive team who have walked away with millions in bonuses and re-attainment packages. He also looks to split the governance of the Co-operative Group into two separate bodies, a technocratic Group board responsible for management and operation of the organisation, while the National Members Council would be in charge of ‘representing’ the views of members.

Myners has fundamentally missed the core issues of democratic control and representation; he states that “elected directors have simply not been up to their task of holding the Executive to account”. His solution is to let management of the co-operative fall into the hands of those who have “similar experience of NEDs sitting on the boards of the Co-operative Group’s primary competitors”. Or in other words corporate management.

The United letter undermines the long-standing ethics of the Group and instead sides with management. Embracing the idea that the co-operative needs to compete as a traditional business is abandoning the core values it does still retain, and will in the long term leave workers worse off. His claim that the only way the Group can compete “in such a cut throat sector” is to abandon the one thing that consumers can still identify with, that co-operatives are there for their communities instead of profit margins.

The problems of the past few years stem directly from the rampant egotism of the executive team in the Co-operative Group. Acquisition fever led to a number of large scale blunders that have brought the Bank to its knees. The acquisition of Britannia to the attempt to buy up hundreds of Lloyds branches were pushed on by executives of the Bank and Group, not by the membership. Accountability of the democratically elected board has been almost non-existent, and I am in strong agreement with Unite that a return to one member one vote, instead of the current tiered system of boards is a necessity. All members should be able to vote in board elections.

Unite national officer Adrian Jones said: “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. It is also about the families of thousands of Co-op workers whose futures are on a knife edge.”

Yes, I believe the Co-op should have a far greater emphasis on the hardship faced by it’s workers and their plight, but I simply don’t think that will happen if management are allowed to fully take the reigns at the Group. What Unite should be pushing for instead is for its workers to have a real stake in the decision making: store level meetings, an ability to pass meaningful policy and a directly elected Group Board. I’m sure they, along with many other members, wouldn’t have opted for an overly ambitious purchasing strategy and eye watering executive salaries and benefits.

One need not look further than the struggles for a living wage for cleaners in the only other large scale mutual retailer, the John Lewis Partnership. The chain is lorded over by an undemocratically appointed board and operated in a top-down manner with the militaristic rigidity of a conventional business.

Cleaners working for John Lewis are employed through a sub-contractor, Integrated Cleaning Management (ICM). They are excluded from the partnership scheme and denied any share of the company’s profits, the cleaners are paid less than the London Living Wage while John Lewis continues to tout itself as an ethical employer for the support it gives directly employed members.

The cleaners resorted to workplace struggle to try to improve their lot (because there are no democratic avenues available to them in the large mutual); they found themselves persecuted by management and even regular ‘Partners’ who expressed support for the cleaners found themselves hounded. One partner, Raph Ashley, was even fired for his outspoken support of the cleaners. I think there is a clear case as has been proved again and again, that a dual board composed of managers, will inevitably try to attack the workforce in future.

Workers in The Co-op are right to be demanding job security, working conditions and a business that can pull itself out of the crisis it is now in, but to accept a dual board solution as proposed by Myners can only make their position worse.

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