More than a paycheque: How can co-ops offer a better future of work?

Worker-owned businesses in Cincinnati, the UK’s Bright Future programme for modern slavery survivors and SEWA in India show the co-op model at work

The notion of ‘valuable’, ‘decent’ or ‘meaningful’ work is often put forward as an outcome of co-operation across the movement. But what does this look like in practice, and how are co-ops around the world creating meaningful work opportunities for workers?  

For workers at Cincy Cleaning Co-op in Cincinnati, Ohio, a key consideration is the peace of mind that comes with a steady flow of work. Araceli Ortiz, a founding member of the co-op, explains that women who were previously working as individuals have been able to “find more stability by coming together as a collective”.

Cincy Cleaning Co-op was set up in 2018 by a group of women who wanted to create a business that would give them more stability, enable them to make a good living, provide a healthy life balance and give them a voice in decision-making. The co-op currently has three owner-members, with another three in the process of becoming worker-owners. 

Ortiz explains that Cincy Cleaning Co-op also acts as a support system, providing useful resources to workers based on their needs. Ortiz’s own background in social care has enabled her to support Cincy Cleaning Co-op’s workers on a range of issues, such as healthcare, immigration and dealing with their children’s schools. As well as helping workers navigate these systems, she has been able to offer support through interpreting, as some of Cincy Cleaning Co-op’s workers are not fluent in English. 

Related: Lessons in co-op organising from Cincinnati

One of the key priorities for the co-op is to help workers to develop their English, enabling them to self-advocate in the future. Beyond individual capacity building, the democratic nature of the co-op means workers get to steer the business as well.

“We have weekly meetings where we talk about how we’re doing and then we talk about any [issues with the business]. When we need to make decisions we go by majority vote. Everybody’s participation is very important.”

Cincy Cleaning Co-op was set up in 2018

The creation of Cincy Cleaning Co-op was supported by Co-op Cincy, a co-operative development organisation which aims to create an economy that works for all by broadening worker ownership in Cincinnati.  

Ellen Vera, co-director of Co-op Cincy, echoes the value of meaningful work and the importance of “a family-sustaining job, where you’re able to make a just wage and you’re able to make sure your needs are being met [so] you can really focus on your work and your personal life”. 

There’s also value, she adds, in “working with a team of folks where you’re respected, and you have enough ownership and control that you feel good about coming to work every day”.

Originally the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative, Co-op Cincy’s model has its roots in the US labour movement, and encourages co-operatives to operate on the union co-op model, which combines democratic worker ownership of individual co-ops with collective bargaining power of labour organising across businesses. 

“For me, [the co-op and labour movements] should be one and the same,” says Vera. “It’s about how to create the best possible conditions for working people. I think sometimes on both sides we don’t necessarily recognise one another. In terms of creating an economy that truly works for all, there’s so much power in having these movements intertwined.”

Since its inception in 2011, Co-op Cincy has supported the creation of 14 worker-owned businesses, employing over 100 people, of whom 75% are people of colour and 66% are women.

At the end of April, the organisation sent a delegation of around 40 people, including Ortiz and Vera, to visit the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque region of Spain. Mondragon is the world’s largest network of worker co-operatives, and served as inspiration for the creation of Co-op Cincy. 

“Mondragon has moved the dial on income inequality and poverty,” said Vera ahead of the visit. “Here in Cincinnati, we rank 4th among US cities that have cultivated thriving worker-owned sectors of the economy, with over 5,000 people in worker-owned businesses. We’re excited to have leaders from Greater Cincinnati learn first-hand from Mondragon’s success. We’ll return with tangible strategies to take worker-ownership and its benefits to a whole new level in our region.”

Brighter futures 

Outside of worker ownership, there are other ways the co-op movement is contributing to meaningful work.

Bright Future is a UK co-op set up to provide survivors of modern slavery with an accessible route to safe and meaningful employment and to reduce re-exploitation of survivors. It was originally established in 2017 as a partnership project between the Co-op Group and Causeway, a charity that supports survivors.

“We were noticing that although survivors were receiving huge amounts of support in accessing legal advice, education and counselling, they were struggling to secure the safe and permanent employment essential for sustainable independence and freedom,” says programme manager Mischa Macaskill. 

Related: Bright Future reappoints Causeway to run modern slavery programme

For survivors of modern slavery working with Bright Future, the real meaning in their work comes from having their own choice at the forefront of rebuilding their lives, she says.

“It means that, yes, survivors have financial freedom, can learn new skills and build on their existing skills. But really it’s giving them the choice that was taken away from them during their exploitation.”

Bright Future has supported almost 80 candidates into paid placements to date, with 72% going on to secure permanent contracts. 

“I felt my hope come back,” said one participant in the programme. “Working in a store brought back my ability to laugh and smile again,” said another.

As Bright Future’s model developed, the decision was made to become a co-operative to bring together shared values and principles among members and provide the programme with the financial stability it needed to continue. The co-operative now works with 30 businesses and charities across the UK, including Midcounties Co-op and the Co-op Group. 

“[Working with co-ops] is really positive,” says Macaskill, “​​because there’s already an understanding of believing in workers and looking after people in the community. It’s quite similar values to what we stand for. So we’d love to get more co-operatives on board.” 

Successful futures

Co-operative values and principles, such as concern for the community, places co-ops in a distinctive position to provide meaningful work in a range of contexts, such as within the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Campaigns and public affairs director at the Group, Paul Gerrard, says the UK’s retail co-ops have a “huge part to play” in increasing social mobility, but in a way that benefits communities as a whole, rather than simply encouraging individuals to leave their home towns.

“There are large parts of this country that have been left behind because they’ve been hollowed out,” he says. “I think co-operative retail societies have got an opportunity to rebuild those communities by giving people opportunities to get on without necessarily leaving the area.”

This opportunity requires us to rethink what success and social mobility look like, adds Gerrard. “Does success look like one person out of 100 becomes a CFO, or does success look like 20 people out of a 100 do better than their parents while staying in their community?”

There needs to be a shift from thinking that social mobility is “about a kid becoming the CFO of a FTSE 100 company” he says, adding that a kid “becoming a store manager or a funeral arranger at the Co-op” can still be a big jump.

“They might not have the educational support to get to university but they don’t need to go to university to get on and to do better and to give their own kids a better chance – and to keep all that within communities.”

One way the Group supports these work pathways is through apprenticeships.

“If co-operative retail wants to play a role, part of that is making sure we offer apprenticeship startup entry points so young people who don’t have a horizon that would include university or school beyond 18 have still got an opportunity to invest in their own skills and talents and capability to get a career.”

Gerrard also calls for a mindshift in how we see success when it comes to work. 

“​​I think there’s a certain snobbishness that says success means you’ve been to university,” he says. “And I think there’s a snobbishness about certain professions [and] people look down on retail a bit. Well, the retail and wholesale sector in this country employs 5 million people. We saw during Covid just how important retail and community retail is.”

Sustainable futures

These ideas around finding personal pride and confidence through work within a local community can also be found in an entirely different co-operative context. India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) runs a co-operative federation supporting women in the informal economy to create sustainable work for themselves through co operation.

SEWA’s social security coordinator, Mittalben Shah, shared the story of a woman she had worked with in the Vinchiya village of Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district named Chanchiben. 

Chanchiben was one of a number of women trained by SEWA as community health workers to provide vital care. In her village, people otherwise need to travel 10-20km for treatment.

India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) runs a co-operative federation supporting women in the informal economy (Image: SEWA)

Before becoming a health worker, Chanchiben had been ostracised by her community due to her caste and physical disabilities.

“People were not allowing her to enter their houses because she was from the low caste and had a hunchback,” says Shah.

Related: SEWA sets out priorities for women’s co-ops ahead of national policy

It took a number of years for the village to accept Chanchiben as its health worker, but over time and through her work, she has become a respected member of the community. “Few persons in my village knew me before I became a health worker, and I faced exclusion and untouchability,” she says. “Once I became a community health worker with SEWA, people from all over the village started coming to me for medications and other health advice. Earlier the doctors and nurses in the Primary Health Centre would dismiss me by saying I was illiterate and did not know anything. Today we are treated with respect.”

When asked if respect from the community was a key part of what makes work meaningful for SEWA members, Shah replies:

“Actually, it’s about the woman herself getting the confidence and starting to value herself. [When she comes and joins with others], she is learning and understanding from other experiences and starting to respect herself.”

Like Co-op Cincy, SEWA co-operative federation sits within a wider trade union context, with co-operation seen as a crucial supporter of the labour movement. And as with Cincy Cleaning Co-op, Shah emphasises the holistic approach taken by SEWA, whereby workers gain a livelihood through their co-ops, but gain much more beyond that, from skills to confidence to belonging.

The personal and collective power that comes with being part of a SEWA co-operative can be applied at every level, explains Shah. For example, learning how to bargain and negotiate as a worker can also be applied in the home to family politics. 

“After working with SEWA, the changes come individually at first, then at the family level, then at the community level.”