This article was first published in the July 2022 edition of Stir to Action magazine
A new and independent organisation of worker co-operatives, cooperators, and supporters of industrial democracy will be launched in 2023.
Based in the UK but not confined to this
country, it will take on the role of a sectoral federation to unite, defend and
advance the shared interest of worker-controlled and worker-owned enterprises.
Beyond this, the aim is to strengthen worker cooperative culture by mobilising
cooperators and allies through industrial networks, knowledge sharing, social
movement alliances, and active internationalism. Most importantly, we want to
make the system of worker control and collective ownership accessible and relevant
for new groups and generations of workers, refining our propositions and
organising models in the process.
Why now? The reasons are partly internal to the
movement, which has been in a long drift since the 1990s, especially since the
demise of our last independent national federation, the Industrial Common
Ownership Movement (ICOM) in 2001. Without our own specialist federation, we
have not been able to project clear and authentic messages about worker
cooperation, adequately respond to twists and turns in the broader political
and policy space, or participate strategically in the wider autonomous workers’
and social justice movements. Let alone build on earlier hard-won gains. The
fortunes of organised worker cooperatives have always more or less risen and
fallen with those of the wider workers’ movement, so some historical and
political perspective is useful to understand the present sense of
Worker cooperation goes back 250 years in
Europe, manifesting in two main forms: workers’ unions and worker cooperatives.
The earliest worker co-ops, in the eighteenth century, were a critical reaction
to capitalism and the industrial revolution, in the violent transition from
agricultural and artisanal production to the factory system.
The first self-documented worker co-ops appeared
in the weaving industry, more or less at the same time in northern France and
lowland Scotland. The Fenwick Weavers’ Society in Ayrshire started in 1761 as a
semi-secret association to defend wage levels and product quality. Later they
spun out what today would be called a consumer co-op and a credit union. Their
model was copied elsewhere in Scotland, and the Fenwick Society itself traded
for more than 100 years.
Fear of reprisals
made the earliest worker cooperative initiatives extremely risky. From 1799,
all forms of worker self-organisation were illegal in Britain. Even after the
repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825, workers were subject to financial
penalty, imprisonment, or even deportation if they were found to be organising
In 1844, The
Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers included among its objects, “To commence
the manufacture of such articles as the Society may determine upon, for the
employment of such members as may be without employment or who may be suffering
in consequence of repeated reductions in their wages”; and furthermore, “as
soon as practicable…to arrange the powers of production, distribution,
education and government”.
Over the next 80 years, many small- and medium-scale producer co-ops were created, often in partnership with unions. Some were short lived, while others – particularly in the shoemaking, garment, building, and printing industries – continued well into the second half of the twentieth century. Between 1882 and 1958 they were independently organised in the Co-operative Productive Federation (CPF), whose remit was to promote unity of action among the members, find markets for their products, and secure capital for growth and development.
The next wave
of worker co-op formations in the US, the UK, and elsewhere began in the 1960s
and 1970s. This rediscovery of the cooperative system was associated with a
rise in working class political confidence; it was a period of social
contestation, and change was in the air. Many of the new co-ops were driven by
the goals and demands of rising social movements and political currents such as
ecology, libertarian socialism, second wave feminism, anti-racism, and
community organising – but the model also became attractive to parts of the union
movement and social democratic Left. ICOM was founded in 1971 to consolidate
these developments and push the movement forward; followed in 1973 by
Industrial Common Ownership Finance (ICOF), which established a revolving
worker co-op loan fund to mitigate the most common problem for new and
established worker co-ops – their lack of access to money.
administration of 1976 enacted a new law, defining worker common ownership
enterprise and empowering the government to fund cooperative development. The
national Co-operative Development Agency (CDA) was formed, and local
authorities across the country funded their own agencies. An authoritative
account of this important period is Jenny Thornley’s book Worker
Co-operatives: Jobs and Dreams, published in 1981. The short story is that
more than 3,000 new worker co-ops were registered through ICOM between 1975 and
climate had changed decisively by 1985, and in the 1990s there was a wholesale
reversal of co-op friendly policy, along with sharp attacks on working class
organisations more generally. At the social policy level, the New Labour
administration espoused technocratic approaches to development, according to
which the ownership and control of social resources would no longer signify.
From now on, only outputs and outcomes mattered. American and European ideas of
social enterprise were repurposed in the Blairite think tank space. Following
the money, most of the CDAs had to choose between reinventing themselves as
community business consultancies, or closing.
The numbers of
worker co-ops duly declined. In 2001, the most resilient formed a cohort that
joined a new national apex organisation, Co-operatives UK, formed from the
merger of ICOM with the Co-operative Union, the old consumer co-op federation.
The headline population of worker co-ops has changed little since then, with
new ones forming to replace those that fell by the wayside. Many of the most
recent formations have been in the tech, creative, or wellness industries. These
are, typically, labour intensive enterprises not requiring significant capital
to buy or rent productive resources like equipment, land, and industrial
So is this
really a good time to be trying again, with a renewed orientation to worker issues,
worker-led organising, social solidarity, and economic justice? We can say
there are straws in the wind. Some groups of workers are restless; some local
councillors are tired of paternalistic initiatives accompanied by endless cuts
and outsourcing. Even in the voluntary sector, some are realising that the rush
to top-down social enterprise might have been a bit of a duff sell, and that
maybe collective ownership and democratic control of economic activity matters
after all. This wouldn’t be a convincing basis for a pitch to a panel of
sceptical social investors, but our feeling is: it’s now or never.
On the social
front, we are seeing more instances of workers organising against attacks on
their conditions and living standards, through new and revived forms of union
cooperation. We have seen organised resistance to the deportations and super
exploitation of migrant workers. Rent and workplace rebellions are ticking up.
There is a wider questioning of capital’s right to dispose of our labour power,
living spaces, and planetary resources.
The machinations of states and international
finance capital are also making it obvious there will be no green transition
without a large-scale reorganisation of production, which can only be with the
active direction of workers and their communities. We will have to collectively
determine what constitutes useful, and what constitutes wasteful or
destructive, production. Following from that, we need to ask questions about
the quantity and allocation of labour, and the meaning of waged and unwaged
work more generally. People haven’t forgotten the early months of the pandemic
crisis, when all of society's material needs were met on the back of, at
most, 40% of normal waged and salaried hours, put in by, at most, 40% of the labour
force. Most of the workers who kept us going were and still are in low paid,
low status jobs in food production, health services, care, transport,
education, and essential manufacturing.
Our new organisation will start out small and
lean. There are around 400 worker co-ops in this country, of which about 160
are in current membership of Co-operatives UK. With its support, we aim
to work closely in the future, and have agreed – in principle – a dual
membership option for worker co-ops. The formal process of asking them to join
is only just starting, but informal engagement over the last six months has
been positive. We know there is room to grow, and believe there is an untapped
reservoir of goodwill and potential member input in the shape of our friends
and allies in the wider social solidarity and radical co-op movements.
We’ll seek organisational mentoring from other
federations, including the US Federation of Worker Co-op, itself a relatively
new organisation, which has managed to pull together something that works with
relatively low levels of member-driven income. The key will be creating a
genuinely distributive and participative culture, with much of the work being
done among members themselves, and adopting a creative and critical approach to
communication and infrastructure.
We aim to be a federation, a campaigning body,
and a development organisation all at once, and there’s no limit to how far we
want to reach. Can we keep focus and be effective, while being super democratic
and distributed? How can we resource the work, and what are the priorities in
the first couple of years? How best to connect with workers trying to take
control of their work and liberate their workplaces? How do we meet and
reconcile the needs and aspirations of poor start ups on the one hand and
confident, established worker co-ops and democratic employee-owned firms on the
other? These are some of the questions we need to answer. One piece of received
wisdom seems to be: if you’re launching a new workers’ organisation, start with
no money. Was there ever another way?
Our fledgling organisation is keen to receive
ideas, support and membership enquiries. You can contact us via https://www.workers.coop/