New federation planned for worker co-ops in the UK

The Worker Co-op Council resolved to form a completely new and independent ‘federation of worker co-operatives, individual co-operators and supporters of industrial democracy’

In 1971, the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) was set up as a national umbrella and lobbying organisation for workers’ co-operatives in the UK. It merged with the Co-operative Union in 2001 to form Co-operatives UK, with a Worker Co-op Council elected to ”shape strategic priorities” for worker co-ops and employee-owned business members.

But all this is about to change, with a new organisation being planned to support the UK worker co-op movement. Early this year, the Worker Co-op Council resolved to form a completely new and independent “federation of worker co-operatives, individual co-operators and supporters of industrial democracy”.

The initial plan has been endorsed by the board and senior management of Co-operatives UK. Plans were further developed by worker co-operators who gathered for the Worker Co-op Weekend, which took place at Selgars Mill, Devon, over International Workers’ Day on 1 May.

“There was a presentation and discussion about how we got to where we are now; a session on naming, vision and mission; and a look at the next practical next steps,” says Siôn Whellens, who is a member of worker co-operative Calverts and sits on the Worker Co-op Council.

“We started to form working groups to think about how to get to the point where we’re ready to launch. There are a lot of known unknowns – but it’s taking shape.”

The Worker Co-op Council has been in conversation with Co-operatives UK staff and board a lot over the last year, adds Mr Whellens. “It’s got to the point where we have an agreement, and hence terms for the relationship between the new organisation and Co-ops UK.

There will need to be more detail, but the broad principles are there. Two important elements are that worker co-op and employee-owned (EO) members of the organisation will be offered dual membership with Co-ops UK at a symbolic extra cost, and that Co-ops UK will materially support it during the formative first two years”.  

A vision for worker co-operation

The vision of the organisation (the name is still under discussion) is to bring together an alliance of people and organisations “with an explicit focus on worker issues, worker-led organising, social solidarity, and economic justice”. 

Mr Whellens stresses that it’s a very different context and process to the one that formed ICOM 50 years ago. “In the 1970s there was a resurgence of worker and what we now call community co-ops, which led to a rediscovery of the co-operative system as something that could benefit workers. The social-democratic government of the time supported policy around common ownership, and there was funding from local and central government for co-ops. ICOM was founded to support that.”

The UK Worker Co-op Weekend was hosted at Selgars Mill, Devon

This changed in the 1990s, with a shift away from supportive policy. “It became all about outputs and outcomes,” says Mr Whellens. “Ownership and control didn’t matter; and American and European ideas of social enterprise were imported and picked up by people in the space of New Labour. Co-ops – and worker co-ops in particular – were off the agenda.”

But he thinks the pendulum is swinging back again. “I think the UK is seeing another ideological turn, where people working in the social enterprise, charity, and the foundation sectors are starting to think that actually, maybe ownership and control do matter. Worker co-ops are a proven antidote to poverty and social exclusion. Conversations around the meaning of work are back on the agenda in a way they haven’t been for a long time. 

“There’s an opportunity to start pursuing some of those conversations with a much wider group of people, and to make the worker co-op system available to people.” 

The new federation is starting out small – there are around 400 worker co-ops in the UK – but is receiving support and guidance from other federations worldwide, including the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. “USFWC is a relatively new organisation that has managed to pull together something that works really effectively with little core resource in terms of membership subscriptions. They don’t have a vast amount of rich work co-ops to fund it, so they have to pull resources together in different ways. We can learn from that,” says Mr Whellens.

Why the move?

Co-operatives UK has been a home for worker co-ops for 20 years, but Mr Whellens believes that over the last decade, there has been “a growing realisation that it can’t really speak about worker co-operation authentically, or develop the worker co-op-specific resources we really need”.

He adds: “It’s a general membership organisation, covering an enormous range of different types of members. It talks to policymakers and professional co-ops, but not to workers. At one point we did have our own membership officer within Co-ops UK who looked after the worker co-op constituency but that’s gradually gone over the years, so we don’t have anyone doing that on a full-time basis. 

“In our view, it’s also got pulled towards seeing employee ownership as the solution in a business conversion or transfer or situation, and worker co-ops as the solution for startups. That’s been really difficult for us because we don’t agree with it. 

“There has been a progressive loss of a distinctive voice and service for worker co-ops and we reached a point where we realised we need an independent voice and an independent network that can be more agile, less bureaucratic, more focused on the primary audience for worker co-operation – which is workers.”

The new federation will still work very closely with Co-operatives UK, and the UK apex is broadly supportive. “Rose [Marley, Co-operatives UK CEO] is enthusiastic, there are some board members who are clearly on board, with others perhaps consenting to it. But we believe that if this works, it could be a whole new way for Co-ops UK to model its membership offer with federal members and their members in turn.”

A federation for the future 

The federation is working with CoTech, the network of worker technology co-ops, to look at how to use tech in its start-up and implementation: “In the 1970s, you had to write letters and books and pamphlets. Now we’ve got new channels, new ways of communicating, new ways of working together, that are based on new technologies. Part of our strategic thinking is around tech. How do we use tech critically, both for process and for communication?”

The plan is to launch the new federation in early 2023, with the first step being to appoint a project manager. “We’re looking for someone to fundraise and manage the project, manage the different working groups, put all the infrastructure in place that will need to make it work, develop membership policy and begin the detailed business planning,” says Mr Whellens. 

The 2022 Worker Co-op Weekend was the first step on a very exciting journey for the UK’s worker co-op movement, with the working groups already exploring issues around culture, policy, communication and membership. They are using a sociocratic approach, with member involvement being at the heart of everything.  

“There are worker co-ops out there that we don’t know about,” says Mr Whellens. “And there are certainly employee-owned (EO) businesses out there that might be interested in turbo-charging their ownership model with democratic control. But we’re going to have to think carefully about how we present the question of ownership. Because ownership is a really complex subject, and ‘being an owner’ has different meanings depending on who you talk to. It’s an incredibly exciting journey.”