Historic worker co-op celebration moves online for lockdown

The 150th anniversary of the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative

Celebrations are still going ahead for a milestone anniversary of the UK worker co-op movement, with a series of online events.

Next month sees the 150th anniversary of the foundation of one of Britain’s most successful early worker-led co-operatives, the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative.

Lockdown measures mean the original plans for events and exhibitions in the West Yorkshire town have been cancelled but the organising committee is moving key activities online.

Arrangements were well advanced for a national conference in Hebden Bridge on Saturday 4 July 4th with the theme All Our Own Work: building worker democracy when the lock-down started. This has been postponed but the break-out sessions and main plenary session will go ahead online via Zoom.

Participants will be invited to discuss how, as we seek to rebuild our economy and our society after the pandemic, we can restructure our businesses in ways which offer genuine worker engagement and democracy.

The video conference will take place from 10am until noon. The keynote speakers are:

Diana Dovgan

Diana Dovgan, secretary General of CECOP, the European confederation of industrial and service co-operatives, who will be join the event from Brussels. She will share the work CECOP has recently undertaken in several European countries, looking at possible co-operative answer to non-standard employment, freelance and precarious working.

Alice Martin is an author whose latest book, on trade union renewal and worker democracy, is due out this autumn. She undertakes research for PIRC, the corporate governance advisory agency for pension funds, and is an associate fellow of the New Economics Foundation.

Molly Scott Cato

Molly Scott Cato is an academic specialising in green economics, who is also an environmental and community activist. Previously professor of strategy and sustainability at the University of Roehampton, she is well known for her co-operative studies. From 2014 until 2020 she was a Green Party MEP.

Co-organiser Mark Simmonds said: “It’s important to ensure that the country doesn’t just revert to ‘business as usual’ after coronavirus. July 4, this year’s United Nationals Day of Co-operatives, is an ideal time to discuss ways that we can promote worker co-operation, worker democracy and worker rights, and ways in which the economy can be run to the benefit of all.”

This event is being organised by Calderdale Co-operative Association, a federation of co-operatives trading in the borough of Calderdale.

The previous evening’s talk by Andrew Bibby is also moving online. He will discuss the 19th century antecedents of today’s workers’ co-operatives.  His talk, Reassessing the early productive cooperatives: worker democracy then and now, is being organised under the auspices of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies and will run from 7.30-9pm on Friday, 3 July.

Britain’s early co-operative movement didn’t just intend to run grocery stores, says Mr Bibby. Even before the Rochdale Pioneers launched their society in 1844 there had been several attempts to develop co-operatively run mills and factories. What was called productive co-operation was to be a significant, if often controversial, idea for the whole of the rest of the 19th century even if the story of these co-operatives has been forgotten. In fact there was an acrimonious debate as to whether co-operatively run factories should offer employees a share in the fruits of their labour through ‘bonus to labour’.

“I will also look at the associated debate in the labour movement as the 19th century ended as to whether the practical experiences of those working in productive co-ops had lessons for the future – or whether the way forward was to be through top-down state ownership of key industries,” he says.

Mr Bibby has previously researched the history of Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative, which produced ready-to-wear clothing, and was seen as an exemplar of co-operatively run business.

Both events are free but prior registration is essential. More details at www.calderdale.coop/