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

Dr Cilla Ross and Pat Conaty discussed new ways to empower workers in the age of precarious employment

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.