Celebrating 100 years of the International Labour Organization


1. Workers at the heart of people-centred business
2. How are employee-owned businesses different from other enterprises?
3. Q&A: Deb Oxley, the Employee Ownership Association
4. Q&A: Lucy Humphrey and Tony Carr, social care worker co-op Leading Lives
5. Should workers have a bigger stake in consumer co-ops?
6. Looking after workers in a people-centred business
7. SEWA’s role in a changing world of work
8. Co-ops and the Global Commission on the Future of Work: Q&A with Simel Esim
9. Q&A: Hagen Henrÿ on changes to co-op law around the world
10. The ILO: from 1919 to current day
11. Catalonia celebrates: Exploring the region’s co-op heritage
12. Co-op College centenary: Working conditions and employee rights
13. Unions and co-ops – a new way forward for workers?
14. Co-ops unleashed? A movement critiqued
15. Solidarity economy: Case studies from Rojava and Jackson, Mississippi
16. Why is Unicorn Grocery using sociocracy principles in governance?
17. Co-ops and the fourth industrial revolution: Ways Forward looks at digital
18. Co-operators look to a radical past to shape the future

1. Workers at the heart of people-centred business

In 1919 the International Labour Organization was founded to advance social justice and promote decent work by setting international labour standards. To celebrate its centenary in 2019 – and to mark 1 May as International Workers Day – we have collected together some of our articles that put workers front and centre.

But ‘workers’ means different things in different organisations, even within co-operative organisations and structures. ‘Worker-owned’ and ‘employee-owned’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but have different consequences for participation, rights and benefits. Co-operatives UK policy officer, James Wright, and Deb Oxley, chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association, are among those who discuss the differences below.

The 2019 Ways Forward conference also focused on workers, from sociocracy models of worker governance to union-co-op collaborations – and looked at how workers in Syria and Mississippi are using the co-operative model as a tool of revolution and liberation. This is happening in India, too, where the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has been helping women in the informal economy since 1972.

We also hear from co-operative consultant Alex Bird, who asks if workers should have a bigger stake in consumer co-ops, and from Amanda Gibbons, personnel manager at Heart of England, who is focusing on colleague training and development, along with retention of staff.

As part of the ILO’s 100th anniversary, we speak with Simel Esim, who heads the organisation’s Cooperatives Unit, and from Hagen Henrÿ, chair of the ICA’s Co-operative Law Committee, who edited the third edition of the ILO’s Guidelines for Cooperative Legislation.

And we hear from journalist Andrew Bibby who reports on an exhibition in Catalonia which explores the region’s co-operative heritage.

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Delta T produces environmental science equipment

2. How are employee-owned businesses different from other enterprises?

Employee ownership can take different legal forms. Is there any crossover between worker co-ops and employee-owned enterprises?

James Wright, policy officer at Co-operatives UK, says the Hive – a co-op support programme run by Co-operatives UK and funded by Co-operative Bank – offers a specific pathway for conversions to co-operative ownership, including worker and community ownership.

In recent years the Hive has helped a small number of conversions to worker ownership – for example, Harcourt Pre School Bristol. It  has also supported the development of businesses that have been worker-owned from their inception or very early in their evolution, such as Leeds Bread Co-op.

Mr Wright thinks expanding employee and worker ownership in the economy is critical to achieving “genuine inclusive growth and local economic resilience”.

There are two key processes driving the current growth in employee and worker ownership. The first is the conversion of SME and family-owned businesses using the Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) model and/or hybrid with employee shareholding schemes. The second is start-up of businesses that are worker-owned either from the outset or very early in their evolution, using the worker co-operative model.

“Practical experience suggests the EOT model is particularly well-suited to the conversion of SME and family-owned businesses,” says Mr Wright. “It allows for a phased, full or partial, transfer of equity and control which locks in collective employee ownership and stewardship of the business for the long term, whilst protecting local jobs and supply chains.”

He adds: “Crucially, from a co-op perspective, EOTs can be designed to allow for genuine accountability and voice for employees to a degree that meets the ICA Statement on Co-op Identity, though that does not seem to be the default in practice. We want to focus on what we do like about EOTs, while also advocating for more democratic governance to be the default.

James Wright

“By the same token, the worker co-operative model is particularly well-suited to start-ups and early evolutions. It is very simple and flexible in terms of legal and governance arrangements and can evolve easily as the business develops. The co-operative model can also be useful for self-employed workers as well as employees. Co-operatives use a wide variety of democratic governance models that, in different ways, put worker-owners filmy in control of the business.

“The ability of the worker co-op model to meet the needs and aspirations of workers outside of traditional employment in SMEs is going to be of growing importance. Work is changing in ways that make worker co-op models more relevant than ever.”

Mr Wright says Co-operatives UK has started working more strategically with the Employee Ownership Association to make the case for employee and worker ownership, and to try to address the biggest barriers to expansion  – “lack of awareness, practical understanding and good advice on the options for would-be founders and SMEs”.

He adds: “There are sometimes differences in emphasis between the employee ownership sector and co-ops but the common ground so significant, and the world is so complicated and challenging, that we have to try and work together to cut through. We intend to campaign together, with our members, for funding to support an expansion of employee and worker ownership in the coming Westminster Spending Review. Watch this space.”

Siôn Whellens from Calverts, a design and print worker co-op in London, says: “The clue to the difference between worker co-ops and other types of employee owned businesses is (EOs) in the name. They both have the purpose of benefiting workers, but they have different modes of ownership and control. Worker co-ops have broader social purposes. They are a global network, with an internationally agreed code.

“The worker co-op version of ownership is at least partly ‘in common’. Rights of ownership are exercised collectively, directly and democratically. In EOs, employees usually have individual share accounts. Rights of ownership are exercised indirectly – if at all – by the members of the share scheme, who may be a minority of the workers. Ultimate control in an EO company is often vested in a trust for employee benefit, with minority worker representation on the trustee board.”

He adds: “The root of the difference between EOs and worker co-ops is in their origin. In a worker co-op, the main actor is a collective of workers, starting a new enterprise or taking one over in a situation of crisis or abandonment. EOs are usually peaceful conversions of existing businesses, by philanthropic owners.

Designers working on a project at Calverts

“The EO shares model can be an attractive way to reduce a firm’s tax bill, by substituting with dividends for wages to reduce national insurance costs, or by recirculating shares within the firm as they appreciate in value, to avoid capital gains tax. This works well as long as the enterprise is growing and profitable, and can be particularly attractive to high-paid managers. It’s also the reason EOs are more complicated, opaque and expensive to set up than worker co-ops.”

Mr Whellens says EOs favour top-down management, while worker co-ops have the goal of collective self-management and minimising hierarchy.

“Where EOs focus on providing employee benefits by giving workers shares and fostering social harmony in the firm, worker co-ops try to maximise wages and practice equality,” he argues. “Worker co-ops develop the capacities of all workers and elect delegates; EOs develop individuals with the potential to be promoted. In other words, worker co-ops have a critical approach to power.

Sion Whellens

“This is why advocates of EO and worker co-operation have different messages, and succeed by addressing different audiences. EO is promoted as a way to ensure durable, efficient businesses with frictionless labour relations, that can help underpin a vibrant, healthy capitalism. Many politicians, policymakers, business owners and professional advisers are responsive to this idea. Worker co-operation is more relevant to workers and community organisers, where people are responding to injustice or collective need.

“Looking at worker co-ops in the UK, you find they have a social, economic or political purpose as well as being concerned with workers’ wellbeing. That could be ‘tech for good’, changing the food system, mitigating environmental harm, ethical manufacturing or providing services of social interest. Their products and values of production are blended. EOs are more likely to trade in conventional business areas, and to express themselves in the language of corporate social responsibility.

“These observations are broad brush. In reality, worker co-ops and EOs overlap. Some EOs are relatively ‘co-opy’, while some businesses set up as worker coops are little more than management scams.”

Mr Whellens says Co-operatives UK’s current strategic focus is on sectors it perceives to have more growth potential than classic worker coops.

“The Worker Co-op Solidarity Fund, created four years ago, has raised more than £110,000 from individual worker co-operators and supporters to enable worker coop education, autonomy and mutual support. Targeted support for worker ownership is available in Scotland and Wales, although the agencies in those countries lean towards EO-type models. Some local authorities are also interested in worker co-operatives, as part of an approach to community wealth building. In London, there are early stage discussions to create a co-op development hub, focusing on work, housing and decent care.

“While there is potential for more worker co-ops in sectors like health, social care and technology, in general the movement needs to connect more effectively with working class social currents and groups. I expect that worker leadership will increasingly be recognised as an ingredient of successful of community and mixed/multi stakeholder co-operation. The same is true of traditional housing and consumer co-ops, where a relatively disengaged membership leaves the enterprise open to management capture – the ‘agent-principal’ problem. Worker and worker-led community co-operatives are leading the way in new techniques of openness and democratic innovation.

“If the movement can communicate effectively and work alongside other solidarity movements , there are limitless possibilities to increase worker co-operation, and grow the network of worker co-ops. At the moment, there isn’t a widely-heard story about worker co-ops’ potential for improving the situation of workers and communities, and boosting workers’ self-confidence. A worker co-op is a type of union, and a workers’ union is a type of co-op.

“Union-co-op collaboration has unrealised potential. We’re more likely to see this from industrial and small fighting unions than from business-style trade unions. In the future, we may see activists in a repurposed union movement starting new worker co-ops, and co-ops embodying new forms of union organisation.”

Mike Ridge, who also sits on the Worker Co-op Council is planning coordinator at Delta–T, a Cambridge based co-operative specialising in instruments for environmental science. He joined the co-op in 2011, which, he found “revolutionary”. Having taught business studies in the past, he says that standard teaching did not cover co-operative enterprises.

“I had spent all my life in traditional enterprises and to come to a co-op was extremely eye-opening,” he says, adding that in a co-op all employees have all the information a director would have in a company.

Delta-T is registered as a society and regulated by the FCA.

“In terms of policy-making, it would be nice to see a workers’ co-op enterprise is at least legally regulated the same as other business structures. And we’re not,” he added.

The business set up by Edmund Potter in 1971, initially as a partnership. Once the enterprise became large enough to quality, it became a co-op in 1980.

“The structure coincided with Ed’s view of people being equal,” said Mr Ridge.

He adds that the co-op faces the same challenges as any other enterprise in terms of customer service or profitability.

“The main challenge we have in a co-op business is that over time the organisation’s ethos of everybody working together can disappear. We’re running a business so we employ people with a specific set of skills and I would say that because we are a high tech company the emphasis has been on getting people to do their job before looking at their suitability for wanting to be a member of the co-op.

“So the challenges are getting people to want to contribute and be part of the co-op – everybody is good at doing their job. Not everybody wants to be a member. They want to do their job and go, being a member of that means more than that,” he said adding that the co-op was exploring having non-members employees.

The co-op includes 34 employee members. It hosts quarterly meetings where the business activity is reviewed. A management committee is in charged of running the business but major decisions go to full co-op meetings.

“Compared to some of the other co-ops, we do not have as many informal meetings. Our meetings are quite formal.

“Unfortunately, major decisions will take longer because you have to have consensus,” he added.

He warned that asking worker co-op members to adopt certain political views or a specific lifestyle can deter some people from becoming members.

“We’ve got to involve as many people as possible. Everybody is equal.”

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Deb Oxley from the Employee Ownership Association

3. Q&A: Deb Oxley, the Employee Ownership Association

In May 2019, to mark International Workers Day, and the centenary of the International Labour Organization, Co-op News looked at the workers in the co-op movement. This includes highlighting the difference between worker co-ops and employee owned models, and the ways the put people at the heart of their thinking. Here, we speak to Deb Oxley, chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association.

What are the benefits of the EOT structure?

A transition to employee ownership at the point of succession for a business provides a route to ensure the legacy of the business, recognise the contribution of their employees and at the same time allowing founders/current owners to recognise full financial value from their investment, means that this is now a growing option for many UK SME’s and family owned businesses.

The EOT provides a route for all employees to have a stake in the future of the business, sharing in any financial success through tax-free bonus payments, and to have a voice and influence in the strategic direction of the business through formal involvement in its corporate governance.

What tax breaks are available for employee owned businesses?

The Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) was introduced in Finance Bill 2014 and allows for complete exemption from Capital Gains Tax on the proceeds of a sale to owners who sell a minimum of 51% of the equity of the business to the EOT.  There is also an additional benefit to employees, where bonus payments paid via the EOT can be paid tax free to the sum of £3,600 per employee per annum.

How are employees engaged in the enterprise in general as well as in how it’s run?

Regardless of which model of employee ownership a business chooses, the resulting involvement of employees in the corporate governance of the business is a natural and necessary feature in a business where the employees have a stake.

The culture of involvement by employees is generally supported by regular sharing of business information, more transparent financial reporting and very often, the holding of account of the board to its employee owners  in the case via the EOT through the trustees – this very often includes at least one elected employee rep who becomes a Trustee Director that in some cases also sits on the main Board of Directors. In other cases the Trustee Director heads up an employee council which feeds information to the main board. Each set up is different but usually includes representation of the owners in some way at trust and board level.

The flexibility of the EOT model allows for solutions that include more than one type of ownership. For example other big brands to recently adopt the model include Aardman, which has put 75% of the business into an EOT while some of the shares staying in the hands of the founders, and Sawday’s which has become an employee owned, family owned charitable trust creating a hybrid model of both direct and indirect ownership.

The EOA’s report the Ownership Dividend published in June 2018 revealed that employee ownership has a dramatic effect on the behaviours of individual employees, caused by both them having a stake and a voice. The impact is on the individual, the business and the wider regional economy.

The extra discretionary effort and joined understanding and purpose sees employees drive better performance and productivity which one business called the ‘whoosh effect’ of employees realising they can effect business performance and also share the reward as well as the responsibility.

As heard in the story of Cambridge Weight Plan engaging employees in meaningful ownership, where the ownership stake is accompanied by influence and a voice, can have a dramatic effect on the financial and business performance of the business.

In their evidence they said: “Our employees are now more interested in the bottom line, what profits we are making, employee voice and how they can get involved in deciding what happens to profits and how we spend those.

“Since becoming employee owned, UK sales have gone up by 17%, export has gone up by 22% and out total sales profit has increased by 25% – a lot of that has been driven by the fact that we are all working towards a common goal.”

How many EOA members are co-ops?

We have one worker co-op as a member – there is a real difference in needs for each type of business and our proposition is set up on helping businesses to become employee-owned at the point of succession, to support businesses to bring EO to life in their business and learn, develop and grow as  employee owned businesses. Meanwhile co-ops tend to be formed at start-up or early on in the businesses life cycle so tend to need different support.

How do you see the two movements working together in the future?

Going through the Inquiry and publishing the Ownership Dividend report helped us have more clarity on where there are obvious political synergies with other parts of the economy which includes worker cooperatives.

Whilst the democratic model of a worker coop may be different to that of an EOB, there are many shared values – not least giving all employees the opportunity of a stake and a say.  However, possibly more importantly, these two areas of the economy also share some of the same challenges; including a lack of awareness, a lack of professional advisory capacity and challenges around access to finance.

We have a shared belief that an increase in the number of businesses that give employees a voice and a stake will benefit the economy making it more inclusive.

Working together to create understanding of the opportunity of supporting more co-operatives as a pipeline of more inclusive businesses at start-up or early in its business cycle and more employee ownership as a succession option for SMEs and family businesses allows us to combine our efforts to campaign and lobby government for more attention and support to help grow a more inclusive economy to the benefit of individuals, businesses and the communities they serve.

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4. Q&A: Lucy Humphrey and Tony Carr, social care worker co-op Leading Lives

This month, to mark International Workers Day, and the centenary of the International Labour Organization, Co-op News is looking at the workers in the co-op movement. This includes a look at the difference between worker co-ops and employee owned models, and the ways the put people at the heart of their thinking. Here, we speak to Lucy Humphrey and Tony Carr, social care workers from Leading Lives Co-op.

How are worker co-ops different from other enterprises?

They provide a unique opportunity for employees / shareholder members to take greater responsibility in and having greater influence over the running and development of their enterprise. Shareholder members within Leading Lives not only elect board members but also get to vote / decide on other key issues. We also have a shareholder council that feeds views and thoughts to the board and are consulted by the board on key topics.

When was Leading Lives set up? How?

Leading Lives was registered as a new company in November 2011 in readiness to start trading in July 2012. The company was formed as part of a ‘spin-out’ from Suffolk County Council.  A small group of council staff registered as founder members of the new enterprise and set about building the business / getting things ready for transfer.  Leading Lives set up as a registered society – a employee owned social care cooperative and social enterprise.

How are employees involved?

The board is made up totally of employees (shareholder members) elected by their peers (there are five locality board members and four general board members. Additionally, there is a staff forum whereby staff can be elected to be locality representatives on a staff stakeholder/council forum which reports into the board. Shareholder members get to vote on various issues periodically.

What were the main challenges faced when setting up? Have you received support from any organisations?

The main challenges when setting up were:

  • Establishing a new £11m social care company from a standing start with no history (trading, financial etc) and no money in the bank (cashflow, safety net etc)
  • Lack of experience in the independent sector (our 390 employees were all transferred from Suffolk County Council – public sector)
  • Culture – staff used to operating in the public sector
  • Managing the concerns and anxieties of our customers (we support some of Suffolk’s most vulnerable adults), their family carers and our staff – the transfer followed a number of years where we had had to make savings (austerity measures) and closed a number of services. Some people saw moving out of the county council as losing the ‘security’ we enjoyed within
  • Gaining new business / customers whilst retaining existing ones
  • Establishing the infra-structure required to run a business of this size
  • Imbedding a culture of employee ownership and the co-operative principles into such a large organisation rather than growing it organically in a smaller emerging group.

We have received support from local companies (i.e. legal, finance, HR and IT) plus Co-ops UK, Social Enterprise UK and Employee Owned Association (we are members of all).

How does your co-op work with the wider co-operative sector?

We have representation on the Co-operatives UK Worker Co-op Council, which has enabled us to develop links and contacts with other worker co-ops, as well as discuss and explore the challenges we face as a large worker co-op. we have used links from the council to sound out ideas around engagement, changes to governance, processes and shareholder involvement. We have a representation on the Co-ops East regional co-operative council that is helping us to develop links and relationships with our local cooperative as well as gain an understanding of the local challenges and drives around cooperative business.

Cooperatives UK is a contact that we refer to when we need to sound out ideas with other co-ops or on developments we want to explore within our co-op, they link us to other similar co-ops who have or are experiencing similar challenges or developments.

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Eroski’s multi-stakeholder sets a good example in retail, says Alex Bird

5. Should workers have a bigger stake in consumer co-ops?

The precarious world of work – with zero hours contracts and the gig economy – has brought calls for new ways to empower workers.

But while the co-operation been held up as a solution for issues surrounding the future of work, there has also been concern about how well workers fare within the movement, for instance in the retail sector.

At last month’s Ways Forward conference in Manchester, Co-operative College vice principal Dr Cilla Ross said: “Some of our consumer co-ops are the worst payers, and there’s an urgent need for proper union organisation.”

Examples include Saskatoon Coop in Canada, which has just reached a tentative deal with unions after the introduction of a two-tier salary scheme sparked a five-month strike.

Alex Bird, from Consultancy.coop LLP, suggests the solution to such problems lies in switching to a multi-stakeholder model, which would bring more worker engagement.

“Some consumer co-ops are making an attempt at changing their governance slightly, with more worker representation, but it’s a bit half-hearted,” he says. “The result means you don’t get all the advantages of a multi-stakeholder co-op, and keep the disadvantages of consumer co-ops.”

He suggest Eroski, the Spanish retailer which is part of the worker co-op federation Mondragon, points the way forward. Its governance is equally split between workers and consumers.

“When you go into an Eroski store it’s amazing how engaged the staff are,” he said.

Mr Bird says there is a view at Mondragon that an organisation is not a co-op if it is not run by workers.

“I wouldn’t go that far but if the staff aren’t engaged at all then it’s not a co-op – that’s my view. When you see an organisation where the workforce are engaged, you see a difference.”

Looking at the British retail movement, Mr Bird said workers are identified as colleagues and given staff discounts, and attempts are made to engage them on boards. But there is not enough engagement in management or governance structures, he argues.

Alex Bird

There has been some progress, for instance at Midcounties. “It has two seats on the board for staff so there is a lot more engagement.

“It’s a good start, credit where credit is due, but I really like the Eroski model which is 50/50.”

He says one reason to adopt a multi-stakeholder model is that staff have a much greater reason to be engaged in a co-op.

“If a store closes and you’re a customer, you might feel sad but you can shop somewhere else,” he says. “But for a worker, if the shop closes the stakes are higher.”

Even membership doesn’t necessarily mean that much to shoppers at a co-op, he argues. “I’d say only a small proportion of members understand or are engaged in membership,” he says. “For the rest it is just like a loyalty card.”

By focusing on workers, a co-op retailer would benefit from empowered colleagues working more effectively.

This could be achieved by setting up a workers’ council alongside a co-op’s members’ council offering a formal route to a multi-stakeholder structure.

“By empowering staff, by getting them into governance at high level, and by bringing more power down to shop manager level, you can improve the operation.”

Mr Bird says moving decision-making powers to store level would offer managers more local buying power, and would lead to an engaged workforce “driving the spirit of co-operation on the high street”.

“Our stores should be leading in high street development. Our store managers should be high street leaders – but that would mean a complete change in the management system.”

Looking at the global picture, Mr Bird said he was not surprised to hear of the dispute at Saskatoon, and said there was a need for a greater involvement by unions in the co-op movement.

He has been working with Dr Ross and Pat Conaty from Co-operatives UK on the development of the hybrid union co-op model. Inspired by Mondragon, this form is taking root in the US after been adopted by steelworkers in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Under Spanish law, worker-owners of a co-op are classed as self-employed, said Mr Bird, leaving unions unsure of their role at Mondragon.

“But they came up with a system where the workers are classed as owners but also represented as workers. They set up a separate committee – the social committee – which represents them as workers. And there are separate elections to the board which represents them as investors.

“That model has been taken up by unions in the USA, working with Mondragon. They replaced the union committee with the social committee. So there’s a huge opportunity for unions to get involved.”

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Amanda Gibbons
Amanda Gibbons

6. Looking after workers in a people-centred business

Taking care of employees is vital in retail – but even more important in people-centred businesses, such as co-operatives.

At Heart of England Co-operative Society, colleague training and development, along with retention of staff, is among the key aims for the organisation’s new personnel manager.

The move to a role at the 187-year-old society marks a return to her roots for Amanda Gibbons, who was born in Coventry – the home of Heart of England’s new head office – but raised in the west of Ireland.

After graduating with a BA in human resource management from the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology, Amanda worked as HR manager for leading Irish retailer Dunnes Stores, and later SuperValu, also in the west of Ireland, as group HR manager. Between them, the two retailers hold the largest grocery market share in Ireland.

Now, her latest job move has brought her to the UK co-operative sector.

“I joined Heart of England as I wholeheartedly share its ethos and values,” she said, adding that the society’s colleague engagement and training was core to these.

“The society already has an excellent track record for the training and development of its staff, and for staff retention, with many colleagues seeing at least 25 years and some even reaching 50 years,” said Amanda.

Since her arrival she has worked closely with senior management and Catherine Evans (training manager) to devise a framework to give a clear picture of the capabilities and potential of every member of staff in the business.

The framework measures capability against performance, identifying opportunities for every employee to continue progressing through the business with the right support, training and development opportunities. The ultimate aim is to enable every member of staff to reach their full potential.

Encouraging education

As of the past year, Food Division employees who sign up to the society’s own new internal trainee manager programme are also now encouraged to complete a Level 3 Team Leader Apprenticeship, delivered by North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College.

The trainee manager programme looks at six modules including health and safety, people management, store standards, stock management, cash and security, and commercial awareness, while the apprenticeship modules include team management principles, leadership techniques, performance management, relationship management, communications, human resources and operational and project management, and financial management.

“The trainee managers are already reaping the rewards of the apprenticeship,” says Amanda. “We are now looking at ways to add to the programme, ready for the next intake of trainee managers later this year.”

Similarly, in the Funeral Division, every member of the team is trained to the highest standard, learning their skills through the National Association of Funeral Directors’ Diploma in Funeral Arranging and Administration, and the Diploma in Funeral Directing.

“While we aim to provide training and development opportunities to our core employees in the first instance, we are aware that we may also have customer service assistants that are with us part time while studying at university,” says Amanda.

“If, at the end of their course, they are interested in a career in retail we can give them every opportunity to progress through our business through the trainee manager programme, supervisor programme, personal development and academic programmes.”

Apprenticeship opportunities

It is the first year the society has embarked upon apprenticeships for its staff but Amanda says the scheme has already proven to be a huge success and the retailer is already looking at ways to take the trainee manager programme to the next level in time for the next intake of apprentices.

“Succession planning is key for us,” she says. “We want to recruit individuals with behaviours and attitudes that are aligned to our own values, ensuring that we have the right people in place who are willing to take on new rewarding challenges and move with us in the same direction.”

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SEWA women
Women members of SEWA attending a meeting (c) SEWA Federation

7. SEWA’s role in a changing world of work

Around the world 61% of those employed are working in the informal economy – and a 2018 report by the International Labour Organization says a transition to the formal economy is a condition to realise decent work for all.

Efforts are being made in that direction: for instance, in India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has been helping women in the informal economy set up co-operatives since 1972. Around 81% of all those employed in India are in informal employment.

Founded by activist Elaben Bhatt, SEWA is a nationally registered trade union demanding rights for women workers in the informal economy. A lawyer by training, Ms Bhatt realised that while the union provided a vital service, it was also crucial to bring fair and decent employment to women workers, who needed a daily wage to survive. Co-operatives were seen as a sustainable model.

In 1974, under SEWa’s guidance, women headloaders set up a co-operative bank, after having been denied bank loans to develop their business. Three years later, the first trade-based co-operative of quilt-makers was formed.

In 1992 the Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Cooperative Federation was registered as a state-level apex body to provide services and strengthen its primary co-operatives members.

SEWA member
SEWA federation brings together co-ops from six sectors, including crafts

Nowadays the federation includes 106 co-ops across six sectors, with an annual turnover of INR 3bn (£35.75m), all run by women. It focuses on capacity building, training and marketing. Some of these enterprises are worker co-operatives; others are producer and service co-operatives. Many women members have limited formal education and skills, and come from poor communities. Co-ops are linked with the SEWA Cooperative Federation for purposes of incubation until they can become self-reliant.

Jaya Vaghela, who has been involved in SEWA for 26 years, is now deputy managing director of SEWA Federation. After graduating she started looking for jobs. Her father, who worked in a cotton mill, recommended she enquired at SEWA, whose head office was near the cotton workers’ union.

She went to SEWA to ask for a job and met an administrator who asked her to come for an interview the next day. After securing a job with them, she started working in the dairy co-operative sector. Around 30 co-operatives were members at the time, and she did the accounting for 10 of these. She thinks the federation continues to play an important role in the empowerment of self-employed women. It enables women to become decision-makers, owners and users of their own co-operatives, she says. The Federation also facilitates access to new markets and technology for its member co-ops.

SEWA Federation helps women organise themselves, register their co-ops, develop co-operative by-laws and business plans and become sustainable. With its network of co-ops across different sectors, it can refer co-ops to services offered by other member co-ops, according to their needs. An individual worker is often a member of various co-operatives that not only support her livelihood activities but also provide services like insurance, healthcare and financial services.

One of the biggest barriers is to accessing work via tender processes, which often requires having substantial capital. As a result, smaller co-ops cannot always participate.

Street cleaner India
Street cleaner using new technology adopted with SEWA Federation’s support

New technology brings challenges as well and while women are willing to try it, implementation can be an issue.

“We also find that technology itself is expensive and is optimised for men,” said Salonie Hiriyur, a senior associate with SEWA Federation.

Another hurdle is being at a competitive disadvantage. All SEWA co-ops pay fair wages unlike many of their competitors.

“We believe our sisters must earn at least a minimum wage,” added Ms Hiriyur.

What are their plans for the future? “In 10 years’ time we want to be a role model, locally, nationally and internationally. Our vision is full employment and self-reliance of women, we want women to take ownership,” said Ms Vaghela.

The co-op is exploring opportunities in organic agriculture, the caring economy as well as urban services such as domestic work and beauty services.

“We will continue to break the male dominated approach found in different sectors,” said Ms Vaghela, who has been to Tanzania and Ethiopia to give training to co-ops there.

SEWA’s model attracted international attention and praise from the International Labour Organization, which featured it as a case study in its reports.

Seeing women collectivise has also brought a shift in mindset. Ms Hiriyur met a worker who told her about a colleague waste picker who had faced initial opposition from her husband. He initially opposed her joining the co-op but changed his mind after seeing her work together with other women, supporting each other.

“Over the years he became very proud of her association. She now works as a leader in her community – helping other women open bank accounts, form their own collectives and access government schemes. She also runs a literacy class in her home, through SEWA Academy,” said Ms Hiriyur.

Ms Vaghela added: “Communities change becoming more acceptant. Perhaps we are not witnessing a complete break with the social norms but at least a tiny crack in them.

“Women were economically empowered. They became board members and earned respect in their communities because they were managing big co-ops. They also became decision makers in their households. It enabled them to educate their children and drive a shift in literacy. One of our sisters is a street cleaner; her son is now a computer engineer. There are many stories like this one,” she said. 

SEWA also works to connect its members to the wider co-operative movement. The federation includes 65 dairy co-ops, which are also part of dairy giant AMUL, also a co-operative federation. AMUL’s strategy enables all dairy co-ops to become members. Therefore, SEWA decided to link its dairy co-ops to AMUL’s network, and widen their market.

The federation is keen to work with other organisations to enable members to access new technology and provide an alternative to those working in the gig economy. It is planning to develop a platform co-op to provide beauty services, which will allow users to request a worker-owner to come to their home to provide a range of services, including makeup, threading, waxing, haircuts or massages. The project is a partnership with the Platform Co-op Development Kit.

As a social enterprise, the federation sometimes needs support and they are looking to partner up with other organisations.

“We are keen to bring in technological innovation to our co-ops, since these tools have often been denied to women in the informal economy, and are open to any kind of collaboration on this,” said Ms Hiriyur.

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Simel Esim heads the International Labour Organization’s Cooperatives Unit

8. Co-ops and the Global Commission on the Future of Work: Q&A with Simel Esim

Simel Esim heads the International Labour Organization’s Cooperatives Unit, which manages ILO activities on co-operatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises (SSEEs). She has been at the helm of the unit since 2012. In an interview with Co-op News, she looked at the findings of the Global Commission on the Future of Work’s report released earlier this year.

What is the ILO Global Commission on Future of Work about?

The world of work is undergoing major changes. The new forces that are transforming the world of work include technological, demographic and climate changes, as well as globalisation. To understand and to effectively respond to these new challenges, the ILO has launched a Future of Work initiative. As part of this initiative, the ILO established an independent Global Commission with 27-members that includes leading global figures from business, trade unions, think tanks, governments and non-governmental organisations. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, which has adopted a dual strategy of trade unionism and co-operativism for its 1.8 million women informal economy members, is also represented on the commission.

What does the report say about co-operatives?

The report of the Commission, launched in Geneva on 22 January, outlines the steps needed to achieve a future of work that provides decent and sustainable work opportunities, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 8 to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. It calls for a new, human-centred approach that allows everyone to thrive in a carbon neutral, digital age and affords them dignity, security, and equal opportunity. The report will be submitted to the centenary session of the International Labour Conference next month. The report mentions co-operatives on two issues. One in supporting women’s voice, representation and leadership. It also mentions the role of co-operatives in improving the situation of workers in the informal economy. It also notes the need to explore innovative measures that require enterprises to account for the impact of their activities on the environment and on the communities in which they operate.

How are co-operatives responding to the world of work challenges outlined in the report?

There is growing interest in economic models based on co-operation, mutualism and solidarity. The report of the Global Commission provides an opportunity to reflect on how co-operatives can contribute to creating a brighter future and deliver economic security, equal opportunity and social justice. Key issues highlighted in the report include lifelong learning, youth employment and gender equality, new forms of work, care economy, rural and informal economies, and social dialogue, and technological and environmental changes.

In terms of lifelong learning, co-operatives provide education and training for their members in order to contribute effectively to the development of their businesses. The fifth co-operative principle (Education, Training and Information) focuses on co-operatives engaging in education activities not only for their members, but also young people and the community at large towards mutualism, self-help and collaboration.

On youth employment, each year close to 40 million people enter the labour market. Co-operatives can help young people to find work and gain work experience. They can offer opportunities for professional and vocational training. The collaborative approach of working together, sharing risks and responsibilities in co-operatives and can also be appealing for young people.

Faced with the prospect of losing jobs due to enterprise failures during economic crises and subsequent transition, workers in firms with economic potential can buy out and transform the firms into worker-owned enterprises. A move towards a worker co-operative could also be attributable to the retirement of ageing owners, where there is no clear plan for the future of the enterprise.

With the rapidly ageing societies, co-operative ownership of services such as housing, leisure and care enables senior members to control decisions and lead more independent lives. Co-operatives play a complementary role to local and national governments in developing and providing improved care services in childcare, ageing, disability, reproductive and mental health, post-trauma care, and rehabilitation and prevention while meeting the needs and aspirations of their members and communities. Compared to other ownership models, they tend to provide better and fairer wages and benefits to workers.

Women’s unemployment rates remain high, and higher than men’s in many parts of the world with persisting gender wage gaps across the board. Fewer than one third of managers are women, although they are likely to be better educated than men. Women have opted to come together through co-operatives to improve their livelihoods, enhance their access to goods, markets and services and improve their collective voice and negotiation power. Co-operatives have a critical role to play in lifting constraints to women’s participation in the world of work by promoting equality of opportunity and treatment, including through pay equity and the provision of care, transport, and financial services.

The majority of co-operatives are found in rural areas where they are often a significant source of employment and are recognised as having a key role in the transition from the informal to the formal economy. Co-operatives have the potential to provide better working conditions, including adequate hours of work, social protection and safe and healthy workplaces for both their members and workers.

Co-operative insurance and mutual health insurance organisations are community and employment-based groupings that have been used for providing social protection to their members. When built up through secondary and tertiary institutions in favorable ecosystems of laws, financing and institutions they have been successful across the countries of the Global North and the South from workers’ health and childcare to old age income security.

Co-operative action to tackle discrimination ranges from the provision of services to marginalised groups of the population to making labour market access possible for discriminated groups such as women, young people, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees.

Co-operatives have historically represented an alternative organisational form used by workers’ and employers’ organisations to advance social dialogue. Co-operatives have contributed to the representativeness of workers, especially those working in the informal economy and in areas where other organisational forms are limited.

New technologies are changing the way work is organised and governed, especially in emerging sectors like the platform economy. There will be significant job losses, some jobs will be transformed, and new jobs will be created that will require new sets of skills. Some see the platform economy as an economic opportunity. However, there is growing evidence that it creates unregulated spaces resulting in worker insecurity and deteriorating working conditions. Policy and legal frameworks typically lag behind these changes.

For the positive potential of technology to be realised, and its threats of increased unemployment and domination of capital over labour to be countered, new models of collective ownership and democratic governance could be used. Co-operatives can help strengthen voice and representation of workers in the platform economy. Platform co-operatives are being formed by freelancers as worker and user co-operatives in providing much needed services.

Climate change concerns are affecting the world of work in various ways. Green jobs and green enterprises are on the rise. Co-operatives can be instrumental in ensuring a just transition while working on climate change adaptation and mitigation. Mutual insurance for crops, diversification of crops, energy saving irrigation and construction techniques are a few adaptation strategies co-operatives can use. Prominent examples in mitigation include forestry and renewable energy co-operatives.

The report of the Global Commission highlights that promoting social justice through decent and sustainable work for all requires ongoing commitment and action. Some of the key trends in the changing world of work suggest that areas of the economy could benefit from community-based action, self-help and mutuality to address unmet needs. Co-operatives are engaged in collective satisfaction of insufficiently-met human needs, working toward building more cohesive social relations and more democratic communities. They can be viable means to promoting decent and sustainable work especially along with an enabling environment with appropriate policy frameworks and financial and institutional support mechanisms.

How is the ILO working with co-operative organisations such as the ICA bilaterally and multilaterally?

The ILO recognises the relevance of co-operatives to its mandate toward achieving social justice since its foundation in 1919. It is the only specialised agency of the UN with an explicit mandate on co-operatives. This is reflected in its constitution. Since 1920 the ILO has had a specialised unit on co-operatives. The ICA has a general consultative status with the ILO. It was also involved in the process leading to the adoption of the Recommendation on the Promotion of Cooperatives, 2002 (No. 193).

The ILO and the ICA are members of the Committee on the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC). Most recently, the Committee contributed to the process that culminated in the adoption of the guidelines concerning statistics on co-operatives at the 20th International Conference of Labour Statisticians in 2018.

On 24 June this year the ILO and the ICA are organising an event on co-operatives and the future of work in Geneva. The two organisations’ leaders will sign a new memorandum of understanding. A jointly produced book on co-operatives and the world of work will be launched around the International Day of Co-operatives. Co-operatives for decent work is also the slogan of this year’s International Say on Co-operatives.

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Dr Hagen Henrÿ

. Q&A: Hagen Henrÿ on changes to co-op law around the world

Dr Hagen Henrÿ is an adjunct professor of comparative law at the University of Helsinki and chair of the International Cooperative Alliance
Co-operative Law Committee. He was previously chief of the ILO’s Co-operative Programme and edited the third edition of the organisation’s Guidelines for Cooperative Legislation (2012).

How did the ILO come to publish its first guidelines on co-operative law?

The idea dates back to the mid-1990s, with the Coopreform program of the ILO under which the International Labor Office supported ILO member states in revising their co-operative policies and legislation.  By the time the first edition, the Framework for Cooperative Legislation, was published in 1998 the original working paper had undergone multiple changes which took into consideration the consultation process of stakeholders in many countries.

The second edition (2005) reflected the newly adopted ICA statement of co-operative identity, and also the material for the UN guidelines for the development of co-operatives (2001), and for the ILO Recommendation No. 193 concerning the promotion of co-operatives (2002).

The reference in UN and ILO documents to the co-operative values and principles demonstrates how important those values and principles had become. More and more co-op laws refer to them.

What has happened since then?

Circumstances have changed again considerably. This might prompt yet another revision of the Guidelines, which would have to deal with
the increasing difficulty in setting co-ops apart from other types of enterprises through law.

While the pressure to approximate the legal features of co-ops with those of capitalistic enterprises (companisation) is diminishing, the pressure to harmonise the governance structures of all types of enterprises (convergence) increases.

This is due to the changing role enterprises are required to play in society. It reflects the debate on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the context of a shift towards sustainability. While the task of co-operative law over the past 50 years has been to distinguish co-ops from capitalistic enterprises, it must now also distinguish them from other actors of the social and solidarity economy while ensuring their position within it. 

How important is for co-ops to have their identity protected by law? What happens where this is not the case?

Unlike other types of enterprises, co-operatives have developed, as of the mid-19th century, a set of values and principles which constitute their identity.

The importance for co-operatives to have this identity protected by law depends on the importance they attach to the various functions or roles
of the law.

Given a “school” among lawyers who defend the idea that the identity of co-ops may be protected through their byelaws and that a specific law is not needed, it might be worthwhile considering what the main functions of “law”, as understood here, are – namely: a pedagogical one, the function
of protecting third parties, the function of recognition, and as a policy instrument.

The pedagogical function responds to the needs of those who do not have the means or knowledge to protect themselves and others if they had no guidance through law. The interest of third parties to be protected through a law, which prescribes the lines of responsibility and the capital structure of co-operatives in congruence with their specific objective/purpose, is a consequence of the recognition of co-operatives as legal entities with the shift of liability from individual persons to an abstract entity.

The recognition of co-ops as legal entities, as that of any other type of enterprise for that matter, is a largely underestimated and often even unknown development factor. As the identity of co-operatives can only be established against the identity of other types of enterprises, a diversity of enterprise types is not only in the interest of co-operatives, but is also a condition of sustainable development, the source of which is diversity.

Is co-op law ranked higher on education and research agendas than in the past?

Yes – but still not where it should be. However, there are now more courses being taught; more articles and even books are being published. Iuscooperativum, a network of co-operative lawyers established in 2015, has published the first issue of its International Journal of Cooperative Law and has (co)organised two international conferences on co-op law, one in 2016 in Montevideo and one last year in Athens which attracted a relatively large number of participants. The third will take place next year.

How can national co-operative bodies help campaign for improved co-op legislation?

They can only play the role their members, and the members of those co-ops, empower them to. The action has to start from the bottom. 

Most countries allow co-operative members to elaborate byelaws/statutes that comply with the co-operative values and principles. They should make use of this autonomy and – most importantly – ensure through internal control mechanisms that they practice these values and principles.

Where necessary, they should empower their co-ops to unionise and federate at national and international levels and see to it that their representative bodies use their power to ask that legislators respect the obligations governments accepted by adopting for example the UN Guidelines and the ILO R. 193.

Equally important is that these representative bodies build up own expertise concerning co-op law in order to be an adequate interlocutor for the government. The ICA has had since 2013 a Cooperative Law Committee; its four regional organisations have similar entities. As of the end of 2018 the ICA has also had an Identity Committee. The conferences organised by the ICA research committees have had since 2011 an increasing number of participants presenting their findings on co-op law. This demonstrates the place co-operative law has acquired over the past few years.   

As it reaches its centenary, where does the future lie for the ILO?

I attach a high value to this unique organisation, the ILO. Its unique tripartite has reflected the antagonism between capital and labour, the two structuring elements of the economic, social and political order of industrialised and industrialising countries over the past 100 years.

This structure gave the acts of the ILO greater democratic legitimacy than other international organisations. This must not, however, cover the fact that this structure excluded all those who were not represented by employers’ and workers’ organisations – and co-operatives are foremost in this. Attempts in the 1920s to turn the ILO into a quadripartite organisation, including co-ops, failed.

Despite the considerable work of the ILO on co-operative development, this activity has never matched the work on labour standards in the sense of labour law in its broadest sense.

With the decrease of formal employment the focus has shifted to home-workers, freelance workers, the self-employed, and so on. As social protection schemes are in many countries linked to formal employment relationships, this signifies unknown challenges. Over the past years, the factors of globalisation have diminished the aggregate weights of labour and capital in the economy, relative to the new means of production and product, namely knowledge.

Digitalisation allows for production processes free of time and space constraints. This makes it impossible to maintain the links of solidarity that have fuelled interest groups that defend workers’ rights. In addition, the person moves back into the centre of the economic processes – and enterprises which succeed in making democratic participation a principle of all aspects of their organisation and operations will have a competitive advantage.

If the ILO, in collaboration with other actors, succeeds in sharpening the concept of the social and solidarity economy, of which co-operative enterprises remain the main actors, it will contribute to the creation of a balanced society.

A balanced society is a peace-maker. This is not fantasy, but a paraphrase of the opening sentence of the constitution of the ILO. The challenge consists in integrating these new elements into the structure of the ILO or into a new structure of the ILO.

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The ILO is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019

10. The ILO: from 1919 to current day

By Stirling Smith

Over the last four years many centenaries of events associated with the Great War have been marked; most recently, the anniversary of the Armistice in November last year.

There is one more to go: in June, attention will turn to the peace making process and the Treaty of Versailles, which is generally regarded as a failure, laying the foundations for war again two decades later.

But a substantial part of the Treaty of Versailles still operates today. Part XIII, articles 387-427 dealt with “labour”. And I can’t do better than quote from the Treaty itself:

Whereas the League of Nations has for its object the establishment of universal peace, and such a peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice; 

And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship, and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required: as, for example, by the regulation of the hours of work, including the establishment of a maximum working day and week, the regulation of the labour supply, the prevention of unemployment, the provision of an adequate living wage, the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment, the protection of children, young persons and women, provision for old age and injury, protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own recognition of the principle of freedom of association, the organisation of vocational and technical education and other measures

Back in 1919, action on these issues was regarded as essential for preventing war. And to apply these principles in practice, the Treaty went on to set up an organisation: the International Labour Office. It was set up as part of the League of Nations.

When the League of Nations was dissolved, the ILO carried on, and became the first specialised agency of the United Nations.

International law

Every year, the International Labour Conference meets in June, in Geneva. Most years, it will adopt a Convention, which members states can ratify, and incorporate into national labour law, or a Recommendation which is best seen as “soft law” like the one on Promoting Co-operatives.

The bottom line here is that there is an international law on co-operatives; and it explicitly references the statement of co-operative identity adopted by the global movement in 1995.

The first ILO Director-General, Albert Thomas, was from the cooperative movement himself. A former Socialist minister in the French government, his view was that the ILO should be concerned not solely with the conditions of work, but the conditions of workers.

It is a distinction that can take a while to grasp.

The earliest activities of the ILO revolved around standard-setting, through Conventions; for example, setting maximum hours of work (48 in the very first ILO Convention) or health and safety standards – conditions at the workplace – the conditions of work.

Albert Thomas also believed that cooperatives could help workers outside their work through the provision of say, housing or consumer stores, which would improve their lives – the conditions of workers.

Thus, a co-operatives bureau was set up within the ILO in Geneva in the first few years. It still exists, and does important work in directly promoting co-operatives through projects all over the world. It has also worked hard to get co-operative membership properly counted; this does not sound very exciting, but when a global statistical body agrees how to count co-operatives, that is an important step in showing the size of our movement.

The origins of the ILO

The ILO owes a lot to Robert Owen. In 1817 he travelled to France, Switzerland and Germany. At that time, the “powers” – the leading countries of Europe – were meeting at a congress in Aix-la-Chapelle. Owen presented Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working Classes. In these he advocated international action to fix wages and improve workers conditions.

This was the first time that anybody called for international action to set workers conditions and therefore Owen is regarded as an inspiration of the ILO.

Father of the co-operative movement, the trade union movement, nursery education, the Factories Acts – and inspiration of a United Nations agency.

There really is no end to the achievements of Robert Owen.

  • Stirling Smith was previously International Programmes manager at the Co-operative College and before that, an ILO official. He wrote the definitive guide to the ILO’s recommendation on co-operatives, which can be found here.

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III Congrés Nacional de Cooperatives in 1929 (Photo: Museu d’Història
de Catalunya)

11. Catalonia celebrates: Exploring the region’s co-op heritage

By Andrew Bibby

Recent visitors to Barcelona’s Museu d’Història de Catalunya have been reminded of the significant role of co-ops in Catalonia’s social history.

The museum staged an extensive exhibition of the region’s co-op past, going back to the mid-19th century, with rare photographs of early consumer, productive, agricultural and fishermen’s co-ops. The display highlighted the lead the co-op movement took in providing working-class schools, at a time when education was privately run or in the hands of the church. A photograph from the early 20th century, for example, shows children and their parents from La Flor de Maig (the May Flower), a Barcelona-based consumer co-op, on a mass excursion to the countryside. As well as operating seven branches, La Flor de Maig ran its own school and owned a farm.

The early Catalan co-op movement was influenced by developments in other countries including France and Britain – two advocates of co-operation, Fernando Garrido Tortosa and Joan Tutau i Vergés, travelled to Rochdale in 1861-62 to see what was happening there. But Catalonia rapidly proved it was fertile ground for its own co-op movement: the exhibition carried the appropriate name Catalunya: terra cooperativa (Catalonia, a co-operative land).

Early Catalan co-operation was informal but movement became more consolidated later in the 19th century, with the passing of the Law of Associations in 1887, and the Catalan movement really came into its own between 1931 to 1936, following the end of the de Rivera dictatorship and the creation of the democratic Second Republic.

But following the victory of fascism in 1939, the co-op movement went into decline, and surviving co-ops found themselves effectively controlled by the state. The Franco years still cast a long shadow, and arguably much of the strength of today’s independence movement in Catalonia comes from the less than fully effective transition to democracy after Franco’s death.

The exhibition, which closed last month, was jointly organised by the museum and the Catalan co-op research organisation La Fundació Roca Galès, which takes its name from another Catalan co-op pioneer. Josep Roca i Galès (1828-1891) was a working-class activist, co-operator and republican who founded one of the first co-operative newspapers in Catalonia, La Asociación, in 1866. Today La Fondació Roca Galèscarries on his legacy by publishing its own magazine Cooperació Catalana, bringing together the different arms of the contemporary movement.

One of those most actively involved in the exhibition is Marc Dalmau i Torvà, a founder member of the worker co-op La Ciutat Invisible (the Invisible City) which runs a community bookshop and resource centre in the Sants area of Barcelona. He stresses that the exhibition benefited from being a genuinely co-operative endeavour.

The exhibition shows Catalonia’s links to the global co-op movement

“The work of producing the exhibition was the fruit of the co-operative efforts of many people,” he says. “Twenty or so people collaborated in the research, writing, editing and design of the display boards.”

Others helped to find the necessary funding and with administrative tasks. “Working collectively is perhaps more difficult to coordinate in practical terms and can be slower,” says Mr Dalmau, “but the end result is always a richer one.”

One of the main reasons to remember the country’s co-operative past is to gain insights for the present and future of co-operation in Catalonia, he adds. “Recovering the memory of the past goes far beyond nostalgia. It’s a way of generating reference points relevant for the present, feeding the imagination and providing us with roots which can enable us to build to a future based on greater social justice.”

Certainly, the emphasis on popular self-organisation and autonomy which has been a feature of Catalan co-operation resonates strongly today, when a significant percentage of the population is engaged in a lively struggle for new political and social structures – notably in the movement to return Catalonia to the independence from Spain which it had early in its history and which it also enjoyed again briefly in the 1930s.

Appropriately, after an extensive review of Catalan co-operation from the early 19th century to the dark days of Franco, the exhibition in the ended with a comprehensive display of the region’s present-day co-operatives.

A group of women of the La Flor de Maig co-operative in the Sant Mateu municipality. (Photo: Museu d’Història de Catalunya)

And the movement is in good heart. Over 200 new co-ops were established last year (continuing an upward trend in recent years) – bringing the total number of registered co-ops in Catalonia to 4,215. Of these, 3,000 are worker co-ops. The growth in this model has been driven partly by worker-run take-overs of failing traditional companies, partly by activists engaged in social change but also as a response to unemployment which was particularly high among young people following the 2008 financial crash.

A change in the law in 2015, enabling worker co-ops to be established with just two worker-members, has also helped this growth. Worker co-ops are federated in the Federació de Cooperatives de Treball de Catalunya.

There is also an active consumer co-op sector, several with many years’ trading experience. Abacus, for example, has just celebrated its 50th birthday, having been founded in 1968 in the dying years of the Franco regime. A multi-stakeholder co-op with over 1 million members, it operates a chain of almost 50 shops, selling books, stationery and toys. Cooperative 70, a consumer co-op in Caldes de Montbui, also has deep roots having been formed two years after Abacus.

Catalonia also has some powerful agricultural co-ops, taking about 40% of total farming output. Three-quarters of olive oil production is in the hands of co-ops, and co-ops are very important in dried fruit and rice production and distribution. The challenge now, says Mr Dalmau, is to bring together this established co-op sector with new agro-environmental co-ops, including recently established smaller-scale ventures exploring organic and ecological farming.

Co-operative interest in education also continues, with around 40 co-op schools coming together in their own Federació de Cooperatives d’Ensenyament de Catalunya. And with housing, Catalonia has been moving in recent years towards more collective, bottom-up, forms of tenure.

The six independent federations – for worker co-ops, consumer co-ops, housing co-ops, schools, farming and for service-based co-ops, come together in the main Catalan co-operative organisation Coopcat (la Confederació de Cooperatives de Catalunya).

What of the future? Mr Dalmau suggests that the way forward is to engage with key social and environmental issues. He mentions issues such as ethical investment and microfinance, socially useful production, responsible consumption, renewable energy, recycling and waste management and the co-operative delivery of key public services such as education and housing.

Or – as the last display board in the exhibition, predicting the state of Catalan co-ops in the year  2030 – puts it: “We can put into practice a transformative social and economic model which is at the service of people, the environment and the territory of Catalonia”.

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Crumpsall Tennis Courts, provided for workers by CWS

12. Co-op College centenary: Working conditions and employee rights

By Sophie McCulloch

Archivist Sophie McCulloch explores how co-operatives have always championed workers’ rights, equipping their employees with the skills and knowledge to make a difference in both their personal and professional lives..

The co-operative movement has always prided itself in taking care of its employees. In particular, many innovations taken by co-op societies at the start
of the 20th century pre-dated government legislation on working conditions and employee rights. 

In 1901, for example, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) factory at Crumpsall, Manchester, became the first biscuit factory in the UK to introduce the eight-hour working day for its employees. In common with many other CWS factories, the Crumpsall factory had sports grounds and organised social activities for its workers. These were often points that were used in the CWS’s advertising, attracting prospective employees by making it stand out as a business that cared about its staff.

In 1907, following a recommendation from the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees (AUCE), the CWS adopted a minimum wage of 24s per week for all adult males working in their offices, factories and warehouses. Campaigns from the Co-operative Women’s Guild, among others, facilitated the introduction of the minimum wage for women employees of co-op societies six years later.     

Co-op News, from January 1916

Some societies also ran convalescent homes where their staff could recuperate from illness in comfortable surroundings, and colleagues also often had the opportunity to go on short holidays and excursions organised by their societies.

Such trips also had an educational purpose; for the CWS and other societies, the education of employees was key to them not only understanding what they were selling but also having an awareness about what made working for a co-op society different. Potential co-op managers were encouraged to learn about the history of the movement to be able to place it in context.

Some societies offered staff scholarships to the Co-operative College, where practical courses included salesmanship, bookkeeping and even window dressing; this ‘on the job’ training would then give staff the potential to progress their careers and equip them with the skills to train others. Today the College continues this legacy by running regular workshops for co-operative organisations and their staff, as well as offering eLearning packages and qualifications accredited by the chartered management institute.

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Ways Forward 7 was held at Central Hall in Manchester

13. Unions and co-ops – a new way forward for workers?

Unions and co-ops should find new ways of working together to support freelance workers in the gig economy, delegates at the recent Ways Forward were told.

Co-operatives UK researcher Pat Conaty said there were already fruitful examples of collaboration: Equity and the Musicians’ Union are both working with performers’ co-ops, and taxi drivers in Edinburgh are working with Unite.

“The model is spreading,” he said, pointing the USA, where Denver’s Green Taxi and Union Taxi co-ops were supported by unions.

Dr Cilla Ross, vice principal of the Co-operative College, highlighted the example of the union/co-op hybrids formed in Cincinnati, run by workers with a collective bargaining approach.

Started by United Steelworkers union with the help of Spanish worker co-op federation Mondragon,  it has inspired moves to build a national network of unionised worker-owned co-ops.

Although the model can be challenging, with leaders having to “wear a boss’s hat and a union hat”, she said she was “blown away” on a visit to Cincinnati, to see union organisers “working with the most marginalised people in our society”.

She said the project started when migrant workers on hourly contracts turned up for work and found the site closed down. One worker was related to a union organiser and persuaded his colleagues to join.

“The union in turn invested locally to support those workers,” said Dr Ross. “The model has now spread across whole city – in food and manufacturing … it has transformed workers’ lives.

She said unions and co-ops in the UK have not worked closely together, adding that “we need to think about our tradition, the shared values that we have” to overcome barriers to collaboration.

She gave the example of worker co-op Suma, where people joined the union in solidarity with other food industry workers, to access health and safety training; and so workers could find  help if their relationship with Suma broke down, “which will always happen even in the best system”.

Mr Conaty added: “In a union co-op you create democracy on two fronts”, forming an “important new strategy against a neoliberal bid to reduce worker control”. He said there was the potential to develop union co-ops under the Preston model, where councils build local democratic economies, “but we have to build those sort of partnerships”.

And Dr Ross said there was a “lack of infrastructure that co-ops and unions control”, pointing to the use of Gmail by co-ops for their internal communications. “It’s not a great idea to have your infrastructure owned by one of the richest capitalist organisations on the planet,” she added

Asked about the issue of pay – often low in worker co-ops if they are working in sectors where there is a race to the bottom – Mr Conaty said: “The opportunity to grow bigger co-ops which can offer better pay and conditions is related to where contracts are coming from”, adding that these contracts could come from municipalism and the solidarity economy.

He said there were eight trade unions involved in a steering group with Co-operatives UK, and he wanted to see more on on board.

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Les Huckfield at Ways Forward

14. Co-ops unleashed? A movement critiqued

Moves to double the size of the UK sector came under the microscope at Ways Forward 7, with trade unionists and labour activists warning against co-ops being used as a tool for back-door privatisation.

Delegates and speakers were concerned that if public services run in-house by local authorities were converted to co-ops or mutuals, they would then be subjected to market forces.

Paul Bell from public sector union Unison told a lunchtime session that he was opposed to any move to grow the co-op movement by spinning off services from the public sector.

However, he said the union supported moves to mutualise services which have already been outsourced to the private sector.

“We support co-ops but we have some clear red lines,” he said. “We support the state.”

He warned that a public sector mutual, competing in the market place, could see pay and conditions suffer, adding: “Pay is not the be all and end all but it is absolutely of value if you are a poor person, a working class person, a carer – if you are not from a background where you have independent means.

“Privatisation wants division because it can exploit and profit from division … co-operation is not competition.”

John Goodman, a director at Phone Co-op and former head of policy and regions at Co-operatives UK, agreed there was a danger of using co-ops as “a staging post to privatisation” of public services. If a council spins out a service to a co-op, three years later that service is opened up to competition, he said.

Les Huckfield, a former Labour MP and MEP, now a co-op researcher, was also critical, and said the Co-operatives Unleashed report, produced by the New Economics Foundation last year for the Co-op Party as a blueprint for growing the movement, “is about driving co-ops into the market … I don’t want co-ops in the market – I want them to form something separate from the market”.

He said there was too much talk in the report of co-ops as “enterprises” and putting them into the market. Echoing Mr Bell’s concerns, he added: “I tell you how co-ops get contracts when bidding against the public sector – it’s by cutting pay and conditions.”

Mr Huckfield was also concerned by the lack of action. “I’ve been coming to Ways Forward for six years,” he said. “We’ve been talking about same things and I don’t think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

He said the co-op movement had been grown before, in line with its values and principles, and said measures outlined in Labour’s manifesto had more merit than the NEF report. He wants to see a revival of the local development agencies dismantled by the Thatcher government, which “created alternative local social economies”.

Like Mr Huckfield. Cheryl Barrott, from Change AGEnts, sits as an individual on John McDonnell’s policy implementation group. “We need to put something in front of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell that doesn’t come back on us,” she said. “What do we need in the legislation, and what is already in the legislation where we could do with good policy and practice?”

In an other session, co-op consultant Alex Bird also looked at the on Co-operatives Unleashed report, and said there were other reports – such as Robin Murray’s Co-operation in the Age of Google.

“The NEF report comes from outside the co-op movement,” he said. “There’s some strengths in that but also some weaknesses.”

And he criticised the drive to worker ownership, saying it “will produce co-ops, true 100% worker coops, about 300 years after I’ve been buried.”

With the retail movement working in a competitive market and only so many pubs and village shops to turn into community businesses, worker co-ops are the key to doubling the movement, he added.

“We’re a long way behind other countries on worker co-ops. We can grow the co-op sector very fast with right infrastructure.”

This infrastructure meant investment, a supportive legal and fiscal environment, and co-op experts in the civil service at national level, he said.

From the floor, delegates expressed concern about workers having the confidence and expertise to become co-owners – when they might prefer to remain employees without responsibility

David Alcock, of Anthony Collins Solicitors, replied: “Alongside expanding the co-op economy we need new model of citizenship … and to educate people in what it means to be an active citizen.”

Mr Bird agreed. “The NEF report doesn’t mention education,” he said. “It’s a useful addition but it’s not the bees knees, it’s not the Bible.”

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Rojava women celebrate International Women’s Day

15. Solidarity economy: Case studies from Rojava and Jackson, Mississippi

Co-ops can be a tool of liberation,  co-operators in Rojava, Syria, and Jackson, Mississippi, told delegates at a UK event.

Sacajawea Hall from Cooperation Jackson and Huriye Semdin from Rojava shared their experience during a workshop at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester.

Joining in via Skype, they explained how co-ops had been at the heart of the two revolutionary movements.

In Northern Syria the co-operative economy started growing after the imposition of a blockade on the region. In 2012, following the Rojava Revolution, the Union of Cooperative Societies was established, with co-operative committees being set up in every region of Northern Syria.

Huriye Semdin told the conference that 5,000 women were working in the co-op economy in Northern Syria. She talked about the challenges brought by the embargo, which made it impossible to import heavy machinery. Without being able to access the outside world, co-ops in Rojava have to use their members’ skills and resources and rely primarily on manual labour.

“The economy survived because we depended on ourselves on the basis of a communal economy,” said Ms Semdin.

The movement is also focusing on empowering women, who make up 40% of any committee or council. Every co-operative structure of government also needs to be led by two co-chairs, one male and one female. The movement is based on the idea that the revolution must include women’s liberation.

“We aim to change the mentality of women here and make them believe they can make the changes necessary,” added Ms Semdin.

Similarly, co-ops are empowering groups of the African American community in Jackson, Mississippi, the poorest state in the USA. The Cooperation Jackson project started in 2014 with the aim of creating a co-operative supply chain.

“Cooperation Jackson comes out of black radical tradition,” said Ms Hall.

As part of the initiative, the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Development was set up to help establish worker owned co-operatives.

So far, three co-ops have been created – Freedom Farms, an urban agri co-op, the Green Team, a compost co-op, and multi-stakeholder co-op – the Center for Community Production. The centre will be anchored by a Fabrication Laboratory and will focus on new technologies like 3D printing. 

Cooperation Jackson
Members of Cooperation Jackson take a stand

Through its Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust, Cooperation Jackson has purchased vacant lots, abandoned homes and commercial facilities in the West Jackson neighbourhood, which it plans to use to create housing co-ops and address the need for affordable housing.

The movement has ambitious plans – it aims to use a 3D fabrication lab to create buildings that will be used by housing co-ops. The work of Cooperation Jackson is partially funded by donations.

“Affordable housing is one of the biggest topics now particularly in Jackson,” said Ms Hall.

With both movements are working to build a solidarity economy, such initiatives can serve as an example to other groups around the world, conference delegates agreed.

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A worker owned co-operative, Unicorn Grocery was set up in 1995

16. Why is Unicorn Grocery using sociocracy principles in governance?

Unicorn Grocery is in the process of adopting a new governance structure using elements of sociocracy – and presented the model during a workshop at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester last weekend.

Debbie Clarke and Abbie Kempson from the Manchester wholefood store told delegates at the conference – organised by Co-operative Business Consultants  – that the growth of Unicorn over the last couple of years have made it impossible to do things the same way.

Unicorn started exploring sociocracy in 2017

A collaborative governance method, sociocracy was devised in 1851 by French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte. Unlike the one member, one vote rule used by co-ops, it sees a group of individuals reasoning together until a decision is reached that is satisfactory to all.

While members have preferences, they also have a range of tolerance. The model aims to map everybody’s range of tolerance to make it easier for them to agree. It does not aim to produce a consensus, but rather to have people give their consent and have no objections to an option.

“Consent is not about everybody getting their favourite option, but getting an option everyone can agree on,” said Ms Clarke.

Another principle of sociocratic organisation is a hierarchy of semi-autonomous circles. The structure enables all members to raise issues and be listened to – without feeling they have to wait for their message to get across, said Ms Clarke. Everybody in the circle can participate actively.

Equally important is the principle of circular steering, with individuals acting as links between the different circles; they function as full members in the decision-making process, within their own circle and also within the next, higher one.

Sociocracy also encourages participants to try something new, said Ms Kempson, and allows them to record concerns, measure impact and set review dates.

Using this model, Unicorn says it can experiment for short period of times, as collectively agreed by members, and search for the right solutions.

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Pat Conaty speaks at Ways Forward in Manchester

17. Co-ops and the fourth industrial revolution: Ways Forward looks at digital

The huge shifts in economic power and working patterns ushered in by the internet age present major challenges to 21st century workers – but could also empower them, say co-operators.

Speaking at the recent Ways Forward 7 conference in Manchester, Shaun Fensom – whose involvement in the co-op movement includes a role at Tameside Digital Infrastructure Co-operative (TDIC) – said the tech revolution offers “opportunities for participation and engagement … and for innovation. It might be true that sociocracy is more feasible in the digital world”.

In turn, co-operation can bring “order and equity” to the counter the upheaval of the digital transformation, which has allowed platforms like Uber and Airbnb to “exploit and extract value in the way capitalism has never done before”.

But Mr Fensom said the movement needed to go further than just developing platform and freelancer coops, but developing “the notion of resource sharing”.

He said the London Internet Exchange could be “the most important co-op in the world – it’s a crucial part of the global internet structure. It’s structured as a mutual but who knows that? How much engagement does it have with the movement?”

Shaun Fensom

Other examples are the Brighton Digital Exchange – a co-op made up of conventional businesses which share resources. “Forming a co-op together has subverted them and got them thinking about new ways of doing business,” said Mr Fensom.

Meanwhile the Tameside Digital Infrastructure Co-op showed how the movement could “own more of the value chain”.

“We have to be flexible about who the stakeholders are,” he said, with a nod to Virgin Media, the latest member of TDIC. “We need massive infrastructure development as 5G and electric vehicle charging come online. There’s opportunity for shared infrastructure: private companies can use it but it is co-operatively owned.”

Pat Conaty, a research associate at Co-operatives UK, said the digital revolution had broken the economic system, creating the need for alternative economic strategies.

“Other periods of crisis saw people talk about worker ownership and control,” he said. “We have a broken system of housing, a broken system of work.”

The “feudalistic late capitalism” of the 21st century had forced workers into self-employment, living in poverty, with no rights, and forced to carry all the risks and none of the benefits of digital enterprise.

To counter this “predatory” market, he said, the co-op movement needs money – which could come from community banks and community finance, by allowing credit unions to leverage pension finance, or by setting up people’s banks.

“If we’re going to expand industrial democracy we have to have the tools,” he added, giving the example of Italy whose financing mechanisms mean it has 2,500 worker co-ops – compared to just 500 in the UK.

The rise of data – “the new oil” – has made this need to democratise the economy more vital, he warned, and data co-ops and open data development could offer an alternative to the “outrageous” exploitation by tech giants.

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Ian Hewitt discusses the socially useful production

18. Co-operators look to a radical past to shape the future

The Luddites, a team of sacked aerospace workers who turned their skills to socially useful production and a Victorian reformer who criticised Robert Owen for a lack of radicalism were among the sources of inspiration for co-operators looking for ways to grow the movement.

Panellists at the Ways Forward 7 conference in Manchester, organised by Co-operative Business Consultants, were looking at ways for the UK co-op movement to acheive its goal of doubling itself in size.

One speaker was Ian Hewitt, from Co-operatives East Midlands. A robot engineer by profession, he worked at the Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technological Systems in the 1990s. This was set up in 1978 at North London Polytechnic, based on the work of shop stewards at defence company Lucas Aerospace.

After Lucas Aerospace announced job cuts, the union bosses proposed moving workers from defence projects to socially useful production. The team proposed 150 ideas for medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanics, and telechiric machines. Innovations included electric cars, heat pumps, TV remotes and increased domestic production of dialysis machines.

Mr Hewitt looked back at his work with the Lucas Plan in his presentation to the conference session, and said it showed it was possible for technology to foster co-operation instead of industrial capitalism.

His experience gave him a perspective on co-op history, he added, leading him to question the virtues of Robert Owen’s New Lanark project – a workers’ community viewed as an important forebear of the modern co-op movement.

“New Lanark was the high tech of its day,” he said, “but was that tech co-operative or capitalist?”

Other reformers of the era offered a more radical spirit, he said, with the Luddites making “an appeal to commonality” against a system which failed to distribute the economic benefits of new technology across society.

“We should celebrate the Luddites,” said Mr Hewitt, drawing parallels between their campaign and today’s tech revolution, where the internet means “some people do very well and a lot do very badly”.

Another inspiration was William Thompson (1775-1833), a “socialist, feminist and co-operator” who fell out with philosopher Jeremy Bentham – an investor in New Lanark – accusing his enterprises of not distributing their profits fairly.

Co-op growth should also mean more radical thinking, he said, providing antidotes to the surveillance and automation brought about by new tech, and offering green industries to aid the carbon transition.

In places like Derby, skilled people who work for defence industries which are winding down need new opportunities, he added. So a challenge for the movement is: “How do we create techs that prompt co-operation in socially useful production?”

Democratic ideas like open source software are important, he said, and social utility is as important as being a co-op.

“London Stock Exchange used to be a co-op,” he said, “but was it socially useful? And William Thompson was too radical for Owen – so why has he been written out of co-op history?”

Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for South West England, said environmental ideas were also important to take co-operation forward.

Molly Scott Cato

Calling for a “co-operative angle in the Green New Deal bill”, she said: “We need to have blueprint there so it can be put into action as soon as Labour is in government.”

This means a wholesale rethink of modern lifestyle and attitudes, she added – but said this doesn’t mean a future of scarcity.

“We need a biogreen economy. Capitalism is selling us stuff we don’t need  – it makes us unhappy and it’s trashing the planet.”

Later, in her keynote speech, Ms Scott Cato said it was up for the co-operative movement to join efforts to solve the political crisis engulfing the UK.

She said Brexit would be “a disaster” but although it was aimed at the wrong target, it contained the right message – that “we’re living in a country that has ignored people and left them behind”, while nations created “bespoke tax regimes for the rich”.

In another pointer to the lessons of history, she added: “Co-ops were created in response to a political crisis and a broken social contract.”

The same situation applied today, bringing huge opportunities – but she warned there are also risks, with “fascism on the rise”.

She added: “Co-operativism is about practical approaches and the sharing of power – there’s an important role for co-ops now”.

Echoing Mr Hewitt’s concerns on the tech revolution, she said the undermining of democracy by Facebook, and the inevitable job losses from automation, mean “we need to ensure the value those technologies bring is shared fairly … Co-ops have a role in that”.

And she told delegates: “Co-ops are good at empowerment, education and inducting working people into politics. It offers a way to bring working people into constructive political activity.”

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