Monday, 19 January 2015

Is worker cooperation 'flatlining' in the UK?

Co-operatives UK says it has about 170 workers' cooperatives in membership, out of about 400 that it knows of in the country, mainly small enterprises.These figures have been consistent for a few years.

Here are a few Saturday morning thoughts on the subject.

By default, Co-operatives UK defines worker coops as being those where the members are employees of the business, rather than co-ops whose primary goals are around decent jobs, or where workers of one kind or another have a governance majority. 

Direct employment is less of a self-evident option for workers than it used to be - certainly at startup stage. Varieties of self-employment and crypto-employment are more prevalent than in the past.

The rate of worker co-op formations and their strength is linked to general levels of workers' self-organisation, autonomy, ability to articulate and advance their interests. These have been at a low ebb in the UK, although that may be changing. We'd better hope it is. Our interventions are important - workers need to know about the worker cooperative toolkit.

The wider co-op movement in the UK tends to avoid addressing workers directly as workers, and so doesn't treat their main day-to-day concerns head on - compensation, conditions, security, workplace culture, management cretinism. When it talks about worker cooperatives, it tends to lapse into the language of 'motherhood and apple pie' by focusing on enhanced productivity and employee contentment (higher output-per-employee, commitment to the firm, peace between employees and management) - which I don't think particularly chimes with those workers who might be inspired enough or fucked off enough to take over a business, or put the sweat equity into starting their own.

The movement here has a habit of talking about cooperation in general as if its main purpose was changing distribution ('fairness') and consumption ('sustainability') - including the 'consumption' of work. 'We're all consumers now' - encouraged to identify as empowered influencers of the marketplace. This is ideological. I don't believe most workers buy it, since most of them have limited or pretty much prescribed/proscribed consumption choices. The flip side is that in the UK we've neglected to propagandise about producer cooperation  (other than agri/horticulturalists) - although we do bang on a lot about reproducers ('communities').

When workers co-operate with each other, it often means withdrawing their cooperation with the work system as generally understood. In other words, not all cooperation is good for us. Yet, we're a reflexively cooperative species. The work system is profitable because people tend to want to creatively strive, and therefore over-deliver on their employment contracts. In most contexts, that means workers are cutting their own throats.

If some or all of this is true, we have to work out how to talk about it.