Article originally published in Stir to Action Magazine, January 2022
The Worker Co-op Solidarity Fund (Solidfund, for short) was set up in the summer of 2014, with the minimum goal of being able to underwrite the costs of a worker co-op conference the following spring.
Since then, it has collected more than £230,000 in micro-contributions from 730 members. That’s on the scale of a share offer for a modest pub buyout or care co-operative. But Solidfund has bigger ambitions and is still growing.
Unincorporated, autonomous, member-run, neither charity, business nor grant-giver, Solidfund doesn’t even have its own bank account. How does it work? What’s the secret sauce? And could it be an inspiration for other solidarity finance initiatives?
Back from the dead
To see why the first members thought an independent resource like Solidfund was needed, history gives a few pointers. The UK’s worker co-ops have had a roller coaster few decades. In the 1970s and early 1980s, they were significant in local economic development. At this point, there were roughly 100 government-funded Co-operative Development Agencies (CDAs) at both the national and local authority level, and an independent federation of worker co-ops, known as the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM). ICOM itself registered 4,800 worker co-ops, mostly in a 15-year flurry between 1975 and 1990.
Neoliberal and anti-worker politics took their toll on the co-ops, as they did on working class fighting spirit generally. By 2000, when ICOM threw in the towel, there were around 400 active worker co-ops, with less than half that number in membership in Co-operatives UK, the new umbrella organisation.
In May 2014, after a 15-year organising hiatus, the Worker Co-op Weekend brought together members of established worker co-ops and a new cohort of young co-operators. It felt like the beginning of the end of a long winter. On the final morning of the event, an open space on ‘next steps’ created the idea of a simple £1 per week, per member, subscription fund, with a wide remit to support worker co-op education, culture, and organising. It would be based on individual rather than institutional membership, and be governed collectively.
It was important for Solidfund to be a lean, low-friction project, and its current operation reflects this decision. Firstly, it works on the principle of mutual aid. Anyone who supports the aims and pays in is a member, and any member can propose to distribute money in line with the purposes. Secondly, it has so far avoided the complication of being an incorporated body, such as a charity, company, or society. Thirdly, there are no committees, panels, experts, directors or salaried staff between the members and the operation of the Fund. Finally, we used the best available free or low cost technology to collect regular contributions (direct debit) and for discussion and decision making, including policy development and monetary distributions. The Industrial Common Ownership Fund (ICOF) holds our money in a co-mingled account, under a partnership agreement.
Following the money
When a person subscribes to Solidfund via a form on our website, they automatically become a member, and are invited to join the discuss-and-decide group on Loomio. In practice, many worker co-ops decided to join en masse. Most of their workers didn’t accept the invitation to join the platform, so in effect they are passive financial contributors. However, the rate of active participation has increased over the years, partly because newer members are often individual supporters and activists. Out of the 660 current members, 205 are registered in the Loomio group. About half of those registered will pitch into a proposal ‘thread’ during any one year, and between 30 and 40 will express a view or vote on a particular proposal.
To some, this might look like a low level of participation. On the other hand, it’s a much higher level of engagement than most larger democratic enterprises. For example, only 2% of Midcounties Co-op’s members turned out to vote on the Phone Co-op’s transfer of ownership in 2018. In effect, because there is no management committee, we have a self-selecting, revolving ‘board’ of between 40 and 100 people, engaging in asynchronous discussion and careful evaluation of funding proposals, governance changes, and operational issues. Member inputs come from people with widely different backgrounds and priorities, from those instinctively minded to back every new grassroots project, to experienced organisers asking challenging questions.
On average, a proposal thread will be left open for two weeks to enable the ‘proposer’ to respond to clarifying questions, modify or improve the proposal, or take it away for a rethink. There will then be a further two weeks or so for voting, with further inputs around implementation. Fund design or governance discussions take longer, while requests for emergency money can be turned around in a few days, as happened when Valley Organics was flooded, or when Stir to Action’s office was destroyed in a fire.
As the purposes of the Fund are broad, people often use specific funding discussions to air their views about what our strategic priorities should be, or ‘what they thought the Fund was all about’. This can be a bit awkward, but at least it’s out in the open. There are also workshops to consider future visions and plans. During initial planning, an open space proposed a goal of £5M for worker co-ops in five years; the last Worker Co-op Weekend debated setting up a sister fund to receive one-off contributions and legacies. Some members wanted to redistribute all the income pretty much straight away; others have argued for patiently building a substantial resource, capable of underwriting a more ambitious programme. The sweet spot is that Solidfund uses 40% of subscriptions to build the reserve, while at the same time increasing the amount of distributions year on year. What’s noticeable is that ‘demand’ has never really outstripped ‘supply’. Maybe this is because its members come from the actually existing worker co-op movement, so they are realists as well as utopians – understanding ‘the art of the possible’ from their day to day experience as co-operators. It’s also because funding proposals have to come from members, and it’s usual for non-member beneficiaries to then become members themselves. So unlike a bank, charity, government agency or CSR department, we can point to an intuitive and self-regulating culture of checks and balances, based on principles inherent to the co-operative system: namely, that the constituency of people who collectively own and control the resource is also the constituency that benefits from it.
All this makes Solidfund’s governance and decision making democratic, as well as flexible, proportionate, scalable, and non-bureaucratic. Above all, it’s intelligent.
Everybody hates us, we don’t care
Solidfund’s progress has caught the eye of other Social and Solidarity Economy groups, but as yet there aren’t any real imitations. Why not? I suggest four factors.
Firstly, you probably need a strong existing community of people, with shared attitudes and purpose - and a bit of ‘outsider’ feeling also helps. Secondly, Solidfund’s beginnings were extremely modest, so although it has big ambitions, it might not look like an obvious funding method for achieving quick impact. Thirdly, Solidfund resonates with cultural traditions of working class mutual self help, like the small, regular mass subscriptions underpinning workers’ unions, solidarity-based assurance schemes, and the street whip-round - rather than charity or doing good things for an external community. Finally, independent worker control really doesn’t tick any boxes for corporate, government, and charitable schemes, making worker co-ops largely unfundable by them; so crowdsourcing is one of the few practical routes.
From time to time policymakers do rediscover worker co-ops, and launch initiatives to create more of them – notably central and local government in the mid-1970s, and more recently Preston and Islington councils. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party from 2005 to 2016, even expressed a desire to turn the NHS into a worker co-operative during his 2010 election campaign. Such meanders happen when politicians are attracted by what appear to be low-cost policies for mitigating the symptoms of inequality or dampening class conflict. This is why social enterprise and non-democratic employee ownership have found cross-party favour in the UK. In as much as worker co-ops are believed to be more peaceful, more inclusive, more productive, more durable enterprises, and sometimes a panacea for wider injustice, they might also seem to fit the bill.
This framing of the benefits may also appeal to the kind of well-wishing business owner who wants an exit route lubricated by a capital gains tax break, and a reputational legacy. Actual worker co-operators are usually more motivated by the possibility of working fewer hours under better conditions; organising the work itself better; doing work that’s useful and meaningful; and economic levelling.
On scale and impact, Solidfund is a very small financial motor compared with, say, the budget of Power to Change or even the average philanthropic investor. On the other hand, if we had set up Solidfund 60,000 years ago – around the time the Neanderthals became extinct – and collected £10,000 every day since then, without redistributing any of it, we’d still have a long way to go before matching the personal financial firepower of Elon Musk. Our ultimate goal of worker and community design and control of productive enterprise is obviously linked to the end of the money system. Meanwhile, we keep saving and organising.