On worker(s’) cooperatives

I was writing a piece yesterday about the way that cooperatives adhere – or sometimes don’t adhere – to core labour standards and fundamental rights in the workplace and was advised to have a look at the World Declaration on Worker Cooperatives, prepared by the global worker coop federation CICOPA and agreed in 2005. It’s good. I like the definition of workers’ cooperatives “having the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, in order to improve the quality of life of the worker-members, dignify human work, allow workers’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development”.

I hadn’t come across the Declaration before and should have done, I think. Well done, CICOPA.

Incidentally, just as we in Britain say tomahto and over in the States they say tomaato, we say workers’ coop and they say worker coop. How did that come about?  Should we try to come to some sort of agreement on this?

Here’s how member democracy works at the Nationwide

I have just been invited to take my part in the Nationwide Building Society’s democratic process. Or in other words, the voting paper for the 2014 AGM has arrived in the post.

I will vote, of course, but I can’t say I’m very excited by the prospect. The way member control operates in the Nationwide (as in so many other larger building societies) is not an attractive one. We are invited to endorse – or otherwise – the board members already in place. There are no alternative candidates to select.

The board is, in short, a self-perpetuating one. In years where board vacancies occur new directors are co-opted and only subsequently presented to the membership for endorsement. This may well produce a board with some of the right professional competencies, but it doesn’t suggest an organisation where members’ voices can really be listened to.

Actually, Nationwide is interesting because there was a time back in the 1990s when independent candidates regularly stood against board nominees and were actually elected to the board on (from memory) three occasions. I remember covering the news when the first independent, Sheila Heywood, was successful in her election. Some of this interest by activists in the Nationwide was historical, coming from the fact that Nationwide was originally the cooperative movement’s building society.

Recent times have seen attempts at direct member candidacy in building society elections wither away (leaving aside for a moment the Ecology). It’s a pity. It’s also directly relevant to the debate at the Co-operative Group on future governance arrangements since Lord Myners’ recommendations propose a very similar arrangement for board elections as building societies.

In the meantime, back to my voting paper. I see that Nationwide’s chief executive Graham Beale has target remuneration of £2.31m for 2014/15, with a possible maximum of £2.74m. Curiously, these amounts are given by Nationwide in the booklet to members as £2,312K and £2,749K – is this because somehow that way they seem less gigantic?

No coop solution possible for Co-op Group farm

The plan to prepare a cooperative bid to purchase one of the Co-operative Group’s farms, the Tillington apple farm in Herefordshire, has unfortunately not proved possible to progress. You’ll find the statement which went up on Monday this week from the group involved here: As they say, “We thought there was a realistic chance of being accepted by the Co-op as a bona fide bidder but unfortunately the short timescales, the difficulties of getting full and timely information from Co-op Group, and the complexities of the business meant that any bid would have been symbolic rather than the realistic proposition that we were fundraising for.”

Nevertheless Pete Riley, Martin Large and Mark Walton deserve congratulating for the work they have put in on this initiative. As they say, “There were several positive outcomes from this campaign which should enable us to be better prepared next time there is an opportunity to buy farm land for community benefit.”


Learning from history

As a momentary pause from all the tales of Co-operative Group troubles, let me make two comments. First, the cooperative movement is worldwide. We need to keep the global perspective to remember that elsewhere coops are demonstrating they are a robust and successful business model.

And secondly, there has been a cooperative movement in Britain for at least two hundred years and I am confident to predict that there will continue to be a British cooperative movement in the years ahead, whatever is happening at present at the Group.

I’ve been an active user of the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester for some months now, for research for a forthcoming history I’m writing on early productive coops, and yesterday the archivist Gillian Lonergan took time to take me downstairs and show me the archives stacks where all the material is carefully conserved. It’s a fascinating and valuable repository of the results of the cooperative impulse in Britain going back to the early nineteenth century, with some real treasures. I’m sure Gillian would like me to add that the archive is looked after by the Co-operative Heritage Trust (associated with the Co-operative College) and is there for all to use.