Why are co-ops relevant in a time of political and economic crisis?

‘Co-ops don’t exist in a vacuum, they work with other organisations, creating networks of solidarity’

On 24 March CoTech, a network of UK worker co-operatives providing technology, digital and creative services, hosted a webinar focused on co-operative resilience.

Participants heard from Rose Marley, chief executive of Co-operatives UK, who highlighted some of the features that make co-operatives more resilient than other enterprises. Statistics confirm this – after the first five years, 75% of co-ops still exist as opposed to 45% for non-co-ops.

As an example of the co-op response to the Covid-19 crisis, Ms Marley told how Edinburgh Bike Co-operative had shown solidarity during the first lockdown by offering free bike repairs to essential workers. For other worker co-ops, difficult decisions about furlough were taken by all worker owners rather than through a formal, top-down process, she added. Other co-ops in the retail sector improved wages for frontline workers.

 While responses varied, they demonstrated the movement’s resilience, she said – but despite this, co-ops need to improve how they communicate their impact. “Men and women in the street don’t know what a co-op is in the way they know what Fairtrade is,” she warned.

Daniel Cox, project development manager at Co-op College, said it is important to get more young people involved in co-operatives; to do this, co-ops need to come together, address issues around language and communication, and promote diversity.

He thinks initiatives could include co-operatives recruiting from co-op schools and academies. “Young people need to see what we are doing and want to be a part of that,” he said.

Siôn Whellens from Calverts Co-op in London thinks the Covid-19 crisis placed a stronger emphasis on essential products and services, something worker co-ops provide.

He believes worker co-ops are at an advantage during crises because they are good at analysing the management process. While in a lot of enterprises a vast amount of resources goes into maintaining discipline, worker co-ops remove that, which is part of their commercial advantage, he said.

Worker co-ops also consider human needs outside work, such as those of workers, their families and communities, which means that people can thrive while being able to work, he added. The sector is identifying the manifestations of inequality and working to tackle.

“We have to be as ambitious as the Rochdale Pioneers were,” said Mr Whellens, calling on co-ops to work with social movements to be able to reach people who are struggling over housing, food, or environment who do not have the tools worker co-ops have. “It’s not business as usual and we don’t use the same language,” he added.

John Evans from Code Operative, a network of freelance software developers based in the North East, said worker co-ops have other advantages during crises, such as being less likely to take on debt or downsize at the first sign of trouble. Worker co-ops are more likely to reorganise work than lay off members, all of whom are indispensable. They also offer more freedom to discuss options and retrain colleagues to remain sustainable.

Being part of a worker co-op is also brings the benefit of joining a movement, he added. “Co-ops don’t exist in a vacuum, they work with other organisations, creating networks of solidarity such as Cotech.”

Cotech was set up five years ago, he added – at a time when the tech sector was struggling to cope with the impact of the gig economy, with agencies taking commissions and contractors not being paid enough.

Code Operative coped well with the pandemic, he said, adapting by introducing remote working. Maintaining social relations was challenging but learning how to respond to increased stress levels and the lack of social activities will increase Code Operative’s resilience for the next crisis.