14 July 2010

American Study Visit:

On Tuesday 12th June members of the Co-operative Charitable Trust (founded by Bob Giel) visited Co-operatives UK.  John Butler did a fascinating presentation on consumer co-operatives and I was asked to talk about worker co-operatives.  So here are the highlights and some of the things I found out in return.

I started off with the headline figures for the Co-operative Economy and how worker co-operatives make up roughly 8% of the UK co-operative economy by number, but less than 0.5% when you look at their turnover.

The size of the UK worker co-operative sector is very small compared to our Spanish, Italian and French cousins (something I will go into in my next post or two). But we are comparable to the US in number, although they do have some worker co-operatives that are larger (one has 1500+ staff!).

Although the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives doesn't collect data to the same extent as Co-operatives UK they estimate there are over 300 democratic workplaces in the United States, employing over 3,500 people and generating over $400 million in annual revenues.

He is a break down of the worker co-operative economy for 2009 (please always send back your annual return to help us keep our data accurate).

Our US visitors were particularly interested in our Worker Co-operative Code of Governance and the flatter more collective management structure in the UK. I focused particularly on some of our larger worker co-operatives like Suma, Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative and Dulas. To show the different structures, governance models and industry sectors.

I could only find the 5 largest American Worker Co-operatives, but it is interesting to compare and contrast them.  There largest (in turnover) is comparable to Suma and mostly similar industry/size to our co-operatives, when you think how much larger the US is. The big surprise is Bronx based homcare provider with 1500+ workers, far larger than any of our worker co-operatives. I understand our own Sunderland Homecare a UK employee owned business were inspired by them (Sunderland are not usually categorised as a worker co-operative though).

Defiantly worth a deeper look into their governance mode and business; particularly in light of the Conservative Governments interest in public service delivery through Co-operatives.

2005 Revenues
$38 million (£25mm)
$24 million
$22 million
$20 million
$10 million

I finished off with a graph to give a flavour of the industries worker co-operatives operate in. I organised them under the below categories (my own creation). In the future our members will be able to tag and categorise themselves in our new directory hopefully improving the number and depth of our data.

Most of these should be self-explanatory apart from "Creative Arts" that brings together all the music, art, theatre and craft based worker co-operatives.

If you are an American reader I would love any links of info on your larger worker co-operatives, and what makes them successful.  Please leave comments.


Martin Meteyard said...

I am doing a short presentation on worker co-ops in Scotland for the same group tomorrow, and one of the most interesting (and disturbing) things is that almost all the economically significant worker co-ops were set up at least 20 years ago (three in 1989 alone: Equal Exchange, Highland Wholefoods,and The Graphics Company). From my knowledge of the co-ops in the stats above it looks as if the same is largely true of the UK overall. What happened?

John Atherton said...

Yes, Martin, I think they are all at least 20 years old. One of the things we discussed was the motivation within worker co-operatives.

An investor focused business is motivated by return and growth is a good way of maximising that.

Whereas I'd guess worker owners have more wider motivations like: quality of life/work, pay/benefits, work environment, local community. They mentioned some US worker co-operatives want to stay a certain size, and I think the same could be said in the UK.

adrian ashton said...

anyone else notice how 37% of worker co-ops are in the wholefood market (distribution and retail), yet they represent 60% of the 'top 10'?

Anonymous said...


One of the Canadians from the tour. If you are interested in learning more about the Canadian experience with worker co-ops, I suggest checking out www.canadianworker.coop - they are an excellent resource for members of worker co-ops and for developers.

Thanks again for being such a wonderful host, we were all delighted to learn from you.

Sion Whellens said...

Why so many UK worker co-ops date from 1975-1985? One reason is that people set up co-operatives from a position of strength and confidence. 1977, when for instance both Paperback and Calverts set up, was in the middle of a high point for workers in the UK, and a period when new and old social movements for equality and economic justice were demanding autonomous solutions. By contrast, the period 1985-2010 has seen an erosion of workers' strength and confidence in their ability to act autonomously.

Anonymous said...

I live in San Francisco and am doing some reseach into worker co-ops.

You should check out Arizmendi Bakery. They are growing fast and gaining much praise and popularity.

John Atherton said...

Yes I've heard of them, particularly like the name (named after the founder of Mondragon).

Martin Meteyard said...

I visited Arizmendi Bakery in 2007 with a social enterprise delegation from Scotland and met with Tim Huet - I was very impressed with their approach to co-op development.