Looking back on the first year of the UK’s worker co-op body

‘We wanted to provide extra opportunities and have a much more decentralised network of individual workers,’ says John Atherton of workers.coop

It’s less than a year since the Worker Co-op Council at Co-operatives UK resolved to set up a completely new and independent organisation to support and be the voice of the worker co-op movement – and major progress has already been made.

The fledgling federation – workers.coop ltd – already has 48 members, including legendary wholefood co-op Suma, print co-op Calverts and the award-winning Unicorn grocery store in south Manchester which has been in business since 1995.

Over £120,000 in funding has been raised in the past few months to help kick-start a range of initiatives including seminars, customised learning and networking opportunities.

One of the key players in building the federation is John Atherton, who was previously head of membership at Co-operatives UK, with whom long-standing links are still being maintained. 

All members of the federation can access a 50% discount off Co-operatives UK membership ensuring they keep close links. Atherton is keen to stress it is very much a synergy not a schism. 

John Atherton

“We are doing something new alongside a synergy which goes right back to when Co-operatives UK was formed in 2000 as a merger between ICOM (the Industrial Common Ownership Movement, representing worker co-ops) and the Co-op Union (representing consumer co-ops),” he says. “Subsequently, Co-operatives UK became the apex body for all co-ops, representing a huge swathe of the co-op economy. But therein lay the challenge: as it is so big and broad, it struggled to be a specialist organisation for worker co-ops.”

The federation is itself a member of Co-operatives UK and with the dual membership it offers, the new organisation supplements it. 

“It’s not so different from bodies like housing co-ops and credit unions,” adds Atherton. “Most of these other sectors have their own federal structures – like the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) and the Association of British Credit Unions (Abcul). Worker co-ops felt they should have one too.

“We wanted to provide extra opportunities and have a much more decentralised network of individual workers in worker co-operatives. We wanted all these individual workers in worker co-ops to have a place where they can do what they do in a more grassroots way, as well as offer things such as peer learning and campaigning as well as specialist development advice, co-operative support and other shared services.”

These days worker co-ops come in all shapes and sizes with significant growth in co-ops for self-employed freelancers and the tech industry – but they are still a small part of the co-op equation. As Atherton points out, around 90% of the co-op movement in the UK is community and consumer-owned with the prime focus being on the customer.

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“In places like Spain, Italy and Argentina the worker co-op movement is a much bigger part of the economy and we are receiving support and guidance from other federations worldwide, including in the US,” he explains. “However, from a standing start in January, we already have 48 worker co-op members and have raised £120,000 in this start-up phase. 

“It’s already a lot more money than has been spent on the worker co-op movement in a long time. In the longer-term, the focus will be on reaching out beyond existing worker co-ops and getting as many on board as possible. What we are interested in is the people who own and control the business being the people who work in it.”

More access to direct funding has also enabled the recruitment of digital communications support and they are working with Stir to Action to organise their first large-scale members’ event later in the year.

It is over 50 years since ICOM – the Industrial Common Ownership Movement – was set up as an umbrella organisation for worker co-ops in the UK. The world has changed immeasurably since then but the basic principles of worker co-ops remain the same. All are 100% owned, controlled and run for the benefit of their workforce. But recent years have seen more diversity in operations. 

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“With worker co-ops, the primary focus is the workers, but they are as diverse as any other business,” says Atherton. “Some have two or three people, some have 300. Some have equal pay and the same wage for everyone, some have management hierarchy. It depends on who is in the co-op and what they think is fair
and equitable.”

Governance arrangements for worker co-ops are similarly diverse and worker co-ops can register with any legal form or structure recognised by the co-op movement. Smaller ones are often collectives where all the workers are directors of the business. Larger ones like Suma, 45 years in business and with 300 members, elect their board and share equal pay. At the moment, workers.coop has a board made up of ex Worker Co-op Council members, who will be standing down at the first AGM which will take place within the next year.

The Worker Co-op Council was a Co-operatives UK member group elected by and from worker co-op members; previously it nominated two representatives to the board of Co-operatives UK. Those two seats will now be directly elected from worker co-operatives. 

At the moment there are only around 400 worker co-ops in the UK so there is plenty of potential for growth, building networks and sharing expertise. But after so many years as an inspirational model, why isn’t the sector bigger?

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“For many years,” says Atherton, “there was more of a focus on social enterprise – businesses with a social purpose – and community ownership that took a lot of oxygen out of the worker co-op movement as well as funding.”

He adds that the principles of workers.coop are based around sociocracy: “It means we run the organisation in a decentralised grassroots way with currently seven self-organising working groups looking at everything from communications, events and digital infrastructure to people, policy and culture. Lots of individuals deciding what to do also means we have got around 30 volunteers committing to make decisions using methodology by consent. The whole process makes us different.

“We are still in the start-up phase as a federation, but we hope to gradually grow and develop as we learn what members want.

“Another essential thing now we are our own incorporated organisation is that we can raise our own funding – we couldn’t do that before. So we can now design services that our members need directly. It’s a very different way of operating.”