20 July 2009

A short history of worker co-ops part 1

For those new to worker co-operatives interested in history, Roger Sawtell has kindly written a brief article. This first part looking at pre-1970's worker co-operatives. The second part will look at the rise in the 1970's of worker co-operatives.

Roger Sawtell is a co-operative entrepreneur, co-founded two ongoing worker co-operatives, Trylon Ltd.,Wollaston, in 1968, and Daily Bread Co-operative, Northampton, in 1980.

This potted history is deliberately peppered with the names of organisations and individuals so that those who want further information can access it on websites. [JA - added links, if you have interesting links please post as comments]

The Early Years, Rise and Decline 1850 -1970

The modern co-operative movement in UK dates from 1844 when the Rochdale Pioneers opened their co-operative store. In 1852 the first Industrial & Provident Societies Act (IPSA), under which co-operative societies were registered to distinguish them from conventional companies, was guided through parliament by the Christian Socialists, an influential group of academics and lawyers, including Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, F.D.Maurice who became professor of theology at King’s College, London, and J.M.Ludlow. They put their energy and their money into the formation of worker co-operatives of tailors, shoemakers and even ‘piano manufacturers’.

These dedicated reformers, determined to provide a ‘better way’ than rapacious Victorian capital ownership, were the founding fathers of the subsequent development of worker co-operatives, In 1882, E.V. Neale and Edward Greening initiated the Co-operative Productive Federation (CPF) to be the representative body for worker co-operatives but the number grew slowly and was overshadowed by the dominance of the consumer co-operatives. Beatrice Webb, a powerful voice in the co-operative movement, wrote against producer co-operatives and the trade unions showed little interest. In 1923 there were 44 societies in membership of the CPF but thereafter it gradually diminished in size and influence and by 1970 only a rump remained.

However, in the 1960’s, independent of the co-operative movement, there was a scattering of employee-owned businesses, mostly transferred to the workforce by reforming entrepreneur owners wanting to create a more democratic business structure. Prominent among these was Ernest Bader, a turbulent Quaker and gifted entrepreneur, who had founded and developed Scott Bader Ltd. into a substantial chemical manufacturing business. Bader had strong and unusual convictions which included not only employee ownership but also pacifism and vegetarianism – a heady mixture. By 1963 he had completed the transfer of the business to the 260 employees and formed The Society for the Democratic Integration of Industry (Demintry) with five employee-owned businesses as members. Scott Bader continued to grow and there was increasing interest in industrial democracy.

At a historic meeting in 1971 Demintry was transformed into Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) with ten founder members, five of which were located in the Northampton area. The ICOM businesses were in fact worker co-operatives but an early resolution to join up with the CPF was soundly defeated because these energetic businesses did not want to be dragged down by the seemingly moribund CPF.

The secong part will look at ICOM and the rise of the worker co-operatives in the 70's

For wider reading on co-operative history:

Co-operative College Archive
Society of Co-operative Studies
History of worker co-ops in the US


Anonymous said...

Website looking at radical london printers.


Nicolas Zap said...

Thank you. For someone like me who is very enthusiastic about co-operatives but only vaguely aware of their history that's a very interesting read. It's inspiring to know that there were influential Victorians with the same ideas we have today, but kind of depressing that their strenuous efforts did not have an impact on the scale they doubtless dreamed of.