05 October 2010

Event Report: Society for co-operative studies

Last weekend we had our quarterly worker co-operative council meeting which took place at the Society for Co-operatives Study Conference. This blog is a brief summary and my thoughts on the conference aswell.

Apart from welcoming our newest member to the council Alison Banton of Dulas (full list of members here) The main items on the agenda were:

Our involvement in a European wide campaign to promote worker co-operatives as a sustainable form of employment www.sustainableemployment.eu. On an EU level with the size and strength of the Spanish, French and Italian movements we actually have quite a strong voice to influence policy (which of course filters back down to the UK). We've sent some case studies, pictures and other media.  If you want to add your worker co-operative, do a testimonial or get involved please get in touch with me.

Nominations for the President of CECOP, we have not put forward a UK candidate (our multi-lingual skills frankly aren't good enough) and have therefore nominated/seconded a Swedish representative.

The two representatives to the main Board of Co-operatives UK; Bob Cannell and Sion Whellen's gave feedback on previous meetings.  Members of the Council discussed a variety of membership and strategic issues to help inform future decisions of the Board including: Co-operatives Fortnight, Congress, membership recruitment, member services and risks affecting the movement. For members interested in goings on at the main Board you can read their Board Updates here.

Our meeting lasted about 2 hours after which we took part in the Society for Co-operatives Studies conference.

Highlights from Society for Co-operatives Studies Conference
The event started with a 2 speakers discussing "Lessons from Mondragon" (will try and get a links to presentation). The main thought I took from this session was the sense of community/solidarity within Mondragon which keeps this network of worker co-operatives together and supporting each other. This is very geographical and culturally based.

For the UK worker co-operative sector to succeed I think we need to work on this sense of solidarity and mutual self-help, which is more difficult due to the diversity and geographical spread worker co-operatives in the UK. We too often re-invent the wheel, or don't think about working together to satisfy our shared needs (something we do with-in our co-operatives). Any ideas on a postcard (or leave a comment below).

Bob Cannell of Suma ran a session looking at different approaches to strategic management within worker co-operatives and how mainstream managements systems thinking just isn't appropriate. Read his blog for notes on the presentation.

Britta Werner of Unicorn and Tony Gudgeon of Chelmsford Start, spoke at a session about the relationship within co-operatives between consumers and workers, from the perspective of a worker co-operatives and a consumer co-operative.  From a worker co-operatives  point of view it was interesting that our approach to customers was very similar from a service point of view, but our approach to workers very different.

The conference finished with a session facilitated by Alan Wilkins of CLADA looking at the opportunities and threats from the big society. I'm sure we've all discussed these countless times now so won't bore you with the details.  The one thing I will say however is; everyone talks about how to get involved and take advantage of the big society (and any funding), but what it should do is remind us of what we stand for and should be doing anyway, irrespective of who's in Government and what their plugging.

The co-operative movement already funds capacity building to help people help themselves; both through being members of Co-operatives UK and individual co-operatives initiatives like the Enterprise Hub.  What we need to do as a movement is co-ordinate and rally members to put less money into charities and more into developing the co-operative sector, so we are in position to deal with the big society (or the aftermath if it goes badly wrong).

To end on a less serious note, I unfortunately forgot to take any photos of the weekend so here is a picture of George our Rabbit who when i got home, in the spirit of self-help was munching on our flowers.


Boffy said...

I'm still trying to work my way through your back posts, so please forgive me if the answers to these questions are obvious.

1. On your point about re-inventing the wheel, and the lessons of Mondragon. Isn't the key to this a drive to unite all Worker co-ops into a National Federation with a structure to centralise and co-ordinate activity.

2. Isn't one function of the Co-op Party to generalise lessons, and act as a means of propagating those lessons? What links involvement do you have in/with the Co-op Party?

3. You mention the Co-operative Movement, and refer to the role of the Co-op in promoting community action. It appears to me that much of this activity is not well thought out or planned strategically. In part I think that is due to the lack of real demcoracy within the Co-op itself. Given the link-up of the United Steel Workers in the US with Mondragon to develop new union structures for Co-ops, and to spread Co-ops across North America, would not a strtaegic approach to the Trades Unions to take a more activist role in the Co-op Movement be useful?

4. I was shocked by the recent Panorama programme showing that the Co-op Bank's personal pension scheme took two-thirds of the deposits paid into it by workers as commissions and charges. That is another conbsequence of the lack of real democracy within the Co-op. Yet, the £75 billion of assets of the Co-op Bank and Britannia, plus the skills of workers in the Co-op Financial Services should be a significant tool for the rest of the Co-operative Movement, and particularly Worker Co-ops to use. I would like to see a drive by every socialist, and trade unionist to become active individual members of the Co-op, and begin a drive to establish real democracy to facilitate that.

John Atherton said...

1. Co-operatives UK is the national federation for worker co-operatives. Unfortunately our resources are limited or (and this is a bit of self-criticism) we don’t use what resources we do have intelligently enough.

I think we could do a lot more if we could harness the good will, and skills of individuals within worker co-operatives better. But like I said, individual co-operatives focus more on their own businesses (or more probably have not been properly invited to take part outside of their co-operatives).

Any suggestions on getting
2. The Co-operative Party is a sister organisation to the Labour Party, and hence very political with a big “P”. Personally I think this limits its ability to be effective at propagating the co-operative message more broadly. Although slightly changing, they are less interested/connected with worker co-operatives (I’m sure you have to go back to the Fabians for the answer to this).

3. Completely agree regarding the need for strategy and more importantly a cohesive strategy between all the co-operatives not jus the largest. I understand the Canadian co-operatives get together once a year round a “common table” and decide as a movement what the priorities for the next year should be. I think this is a fantastic idea, and something I am hoping to push at future conferences.

Trade unions and co-operatives, hmm there is a whole blog post on this issue (and again I blame the Fabians). Co-operatives are more than happy to work with trade unions and we do talk. But not to speak on behalf of the whole trade union movement ….From my own observations, particularly in regards to public services, they see worker co-operatives as the very last option when fighting privatisation. Unfortunately by the time they show interest it’s too late and they’ve been sold off to private investors.

I think there’s more interest and earlier this time round because of the press coverage and Govt interest. Lets see how it pans out.

4. Didn’t see the Panorama programme, so can’t comment. But yes when you look at the success factors for vibrant co-operative economies around the world, access to the right types of finance is one of them. Caja laboral in Spain and the Marconi funds in Italy both come to mind as good examples. Sadly there isn’t that link in the UK; and yes at the end of the day the Co-operative Group focuses it community work on what its members/employee vote for, so influencing at the grass roots is probably the way to go.

Boffy said...


Thanks for your comments. Just to follow up.

On 1. where I'm coming from as you will see from my blog posts on Co-ops, is the position outlined by Marx and the First International, that in order to get round the problems individual Co-ops face of diseconomies of scale, competition (indeed hostility) from Capitalist enterprise and the tendency for individual Co-ops to oeprate as Capitalist enterprises just owned by workers (and a tendency to demutualise) a National Federation is needed not just as a passive body, but to act more like a Holding Company, taking in profits from each enterprise that could be mobilised for investment and expansion of the sector.

2.I'm just about to join the Co-op Party, but another comrade who has recently joined confirms your view. I had no illusions about that, but think that changes only happen if people get stuck in to bring them about. Although, I beleive that Socialism and Co-operation has to be built from the bottom up, its often necessary to have some top down organisation to facilitate it. I think that the ideology of Co-operation needs more publicity and the best way of doing that is through a Party like the Co-op Party. I agree it shouldn't control what Co-ops do, however.

3. I agree about Trades Unions taken as the attitude of their leaders. I've blogged about why they have a vested interested in not supporting Co-ops, and in Europe I've read reports of outright sabotage of Co-ops by union bureaucrats. But, like the Co-op party, my emphasis is on what can be done to build links with rank and file trades unionists. I think the link up between the USW and Mondragon facilitates that. I also understand that the Co-op is getting involved in Free Schools etc. Given that a number of teachers themselves it appears are getting involved, I wonder again what possibility there is in mobilising rank and file teachers. Anotehr socialist I am in contact with tells me he has been involved in the setting up of a free school, but parents did it in conjunction with the LEA, because they didn't feel confident about taking on the size of the financial commitment. But, the Co-op would have no problem in getting them over that obstacle.

Boffy said...

The link to the Panorama Programme on iPlayer is here.

Paul said...

In response to the part of your blog that says worker co-operatives 'don't think about working together to satisfy our shared needs', and the mention of the Co-op Bank, I wondered what your thoughts are on Rootstock http://www.rootstock.org.uk

I don't know much about Caja laboral or Marconi so I don't know how they compare, although I think Caja laboral and Marconi are much bigger.

I'm not personally involved in Rootstock, I've just seen the website, but it seems like a good example of co-ops cooperating with each other.