Sunday, 29 December 2013

Common ownership

I am amazed by the cooperative principles. They are a practical guide to 'what works now', based on the learning of cooperative activists. Yet they sometimes appear as commandments written in stone. Each principle has a lowest common denominator - democracy, education, sustainability. At another level, understood as a matrix of cooperative theory and practice, they are profound and revolutionary. They throw light on every aspect of the struggle to create a fully human social, economic and cultural life.

The International Co-operative Alliance is calling for responses to guidance papers on the principles. One of these is Jean-Louis Bancel's erudite commentary on the third principle, member economic participation. Like any set of texts with a quasi-talmudic character, the principles are the subject of deep and wide interpretation. Unlike them, the cooperative principles are revised from time to time, to reflect current conditions.

Over the years, I've persuaded myself that particular principles are a magic key to the others. I was mesmerised by principle six between 2004 and 2009 (cooperation between cooperatives) and principle four between 2009 and 2012 (autonomy). The third principle is often seen as the most knotty of the seven. Right now, I'm focusing on principle three, because it talks about common ownership as a characteristic of cooperatives.

Jean-Louis Bancel's paper refers to the particular importance of common ownership for worker cooperatives. Collective stewardship and control of the means of production are fundamental to worker coops' mission to provide 'decent' jobs, maintain the culture of equality and solidarity at work, provide a basis for members to develop their capacities, and underpin workers' autonomy and self-management.

Common ownership is the antithesis of private or state ownership. Creating commons is the opposite of creating enclosures or commoditising everyday life. It's a long time since most of the land and most of the means of production was taken out of common ownership. In the present, we're seeing intensive efforts to enclose, privatise and securitise such common goods as water, clean air, free time, open source technology and personal communication.

Meaningful cooperative action increases the confidence, autonomy, initiative, participation, solidarity, egalitarianism and self-activity of workers, and helps them collectively define their own interests. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of workers, their apathy, cynicism, differentiation through hierarchy, alienation, reliance on others to do things for them, and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others, including those claiming to act on their behalf.

Cooperatives are meaningful when they align with the global movement to defend and extend the commons.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Stir to Action

The first number of the new print-only Stir magazine arrived today, and it's an inspiring read. Marina Sitrin's article on worker takeovers of factories and workshops in Argentina and Greece strikes a particular chord, because the UK's common ownership co-operatives - firms like Calverts and Suma - share so much with them in terms of politics and attitude, even though our co-ops were founded in a different context.

It affirms for me that we have at least as much in common with - and to learn from - autonomous workers outside the UK as we do with our domestic co-operative movement.

The article isn't, as far as I can tell, reproduced online. Luckily, Sitrin's writing on Argentina is freely available on her website. Or, if you'd like to take a £16 4-issue subscription, you can get Stir delivered, and read the other excellent articles, including good analysis of tax havens and the global cotton industry.

Alongside New Internationalist, Stir is turning into the closest thing we have to a radical co-operativist magazine in the UK.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Co-operatives and strikers in Italy

In a forthcoming article for a new workers' paper, migrant logistics workers in Italy describe their fight against attacks on wages and conditions at IKEA and TNT:

"During recent months migrant transport workers in the north of Italy have enforced significant improvements of their working and living conditions through hard strikes. Usually they are not directly employed, but through subcontractors, which are registered as so-called 'cooperatives'. If there are any problems or workers try to struggle against precarious conditions, these 'subcontractors' just change their official company name and status - and workers are left alone with their demands ...

"After a few months the Cooperative tried to go back to the conditions before the strike. It wanted to almost triple the average number of palettes; they cut most of the employees’ hours to 4 hours so that they compulsorily had to stay at home two days a week and only earned 400 euros a month. When productivity fell, everyone had to work overtime. In October they locked out about 90 workers, fired 12, through a struggle we were able to get 3 of these workers reinstated, so that 9 remained fired. So we blockaded the gates every day. On November 2nd there was an extremely brutal police attack at gate 9, there were 20 people injured and 30 workers got charged, I got 6 charges. I don’t know whether I’ll get problems with my residents permit in the future but no struggle is without risk ..."

This is going on in the Piacenza region of Emiglia Romagna, a supposed stronghold of worker co-operation.

I was of course interested to read that 'co-operative consortia' are controlling the supply of labour to TNT/IKEA in Italy, and I'm going to find out more. CICOPA (the world worker co-op federation) explicity rejects co-ops purely for the supply of labour, unless they're owned and controlled by workers for the defence of conditions and wages (e.g. freelancers, actors, sex workers) - at least partly in reaction to the experience of state-sponsored co-ops in the Soviet Union and China.

There's growing interest in the UK in co-op consortia as an organisation method for self-employed or atomised workers. I'm working with a couple of such groups  - IT, design, modelmakers. God help me.

Looking for more information, I used the internet search term 'IKEA + co-operatives' and out popped this, from IKEA's Privacy Policy page:

"Just as shopping at IKEA is a co-operative experience, IKEA makes a point of working with our customers when it comes to their privacy."

All of this just shows us why words are so important, and co-operative identity worth trying to be clear about.


Friday, 8 February 2013

Party games

Dave Boyle questioned the link between The Co-operative Party and Labour in a recent Guardian article. Yesterday, Gareth Thomas MP replied in robust but predictable fashion.

Boyle's main point is that:

"the real issue isn't whether the link with Labour is effective for the movement, or even for the Co-operative Group, but whether it's the only way in which the co-operative movement can be politically active and effective."


Thomas's response, and the comments on Boyle's piece, conflate political effectiveness with the Co-operative Party Labour Party bond in a way that condescends to, and tries to marginalise, some of our most radical and effective grass roots co-operative activists - many of whom come from autonomous (4th co-operative principle) political traditions like commonwealth socialism and community activism, environmentalism and feminism, that are critical of party politics, and sometimes hostile to it.

The arguments seem to amount to 'if you're not in the party game, you're not serious (or even grown up)' or 'better inside the tent pissing out'. For example, Thomas says 'Boyle is welcome to watch from the sidelines' - so much for 11 years' highly effective activism and lobbying, then. David Griffiths comments 'There are only two independent societies that I can think of that do not support the Political side of the movement.' By 'societies', he's referring only to the Rochdale-type consumer retail societies, and ignoring the thousands of independent societies and co-operatives that make up the wider movement. By 'Political side', he means the Party. In other words, 'please pipe down, you're not relevant, there's no choice about this, and anyway we debated it last year in the movement press'.

At least Thomas and Griffiths have engaged. More often, the reaction to anyone wanting to seriously debate the Group's indirect bankrolling of Labour is thunderous silence.

Thomas says 'The Co-operative party has prioritised its relationship with the Labour party', but in reality the 'relationship' looks like an eternal and unchanging feature of the UK landscape, indifferent to logic, immune to criticism, ignorant of our rapidly warming political climate. But even immovable fixtures like Stonehenge or the protestant supremacy in Northern Ireland are subject to the weather, and one day fade away, or suddenly collapse - even as we wonder what they were for in the first place.

I'm one of the growing minority of Co-operative Party members who isn't also a supporter of Labour (although I was a member in my teens).  My experience of the Party, so far, is that it has a lot to learn about co-operation and co-operators, and many people in the party want to reconnect with the wider movement.  I'm hanging in there and learning a few things myself.

Two of the secret weapons of the co-op as a social movement for working class economic and political emancipation are, I think, its autonomy and impatience with sectarian bullshit. So maybe I'd restate Boyle's question this way:

Can the Co-operative movement afford to alienate its youngest, best and most radical activists and potential recruits by allying itself so firmly with a sectarian organisation steeped in a cretinous political culture? We do have a choice.