Credit unions today and the challenges they face

An interesting commission came my way recently from Co-operative News to take stock of the state of the credit union movement across the world. The piece is now published and can be found on CN’s website. (There’s also a link on my own website, www.andrewbibby.com/coops.html)

Learning from France

The news out of Calais of the increasingly desperate attempts by workers there to save at least some of the jobs at the SeaFrance cooperative, which – as I’ve blogged here before  – had previously been contracted to run the MyFerryLink cross-channel ships, is not encouraging but should not blind us to the strength of the worker cooperative sector in France and to the considerable use which has been made in recent years of the SCOP cooperative legal form for rescues of businesses in difficulties.

One example is the now cooperatively run daily newspaper Nice-Matin, and I’ve written elsewhere about, for example, the printing company Hélio-Corbeil where about eighty jobs were saved and the textile firm Fontanille, based in the Auvergne, which after 150 years run as a family concern was successfully saved as a cooperative about three years ago. In many of these ‘rescue’ cooperatives, the trade unions have been key players in the restructuring work.

I think we need more information in Britain about these initiatives just across the Channel, particularly as links begin to develop over here again between parts of the cooperative movement and trade unions. Anyone able to take this on?

Remembering Jesse Gray

The photo I posted here yesterday is of J.C. Gray (Jesse Clement Gray) who was General Secretary of the Co-operative Union from 1891 to 1911, a time when the cooperative movement was riven with disagreements and with the potential for splits. Gray, who combined political adroitness with vision, kept the movement united and built its strength. He also had much to do with the successful development of the international movement following the launch of the International Co-operative Alliance in 1895. He’s been unjustly forgotten.

I will be giving an short informal talk on Jesse Gray this Thursday lunchtime to those working in Holyoake House in Manchester, just in case this may conceivably be you.

Attention! Controversy ahead!

The news this weekend that Co-operative Party general secretary Karin Christiansen is standing down after three years should, I think, be seen as an opportunity for the movement to reconsider whether it needs a political party.

I know that talk of this kind runs the risk of playing into the hands of those in the Co-operative Group looking for opportunities to cut back on their funding for the Party. But I still think the discussion one worth having.

What I think is urgently needed at this juncture in the British cooperative movement is a broad-based grouping which brings together individuals who are committed to cooperative principles and who want to see the movement strengthened. (This is what the activists at Co-operative Business Consultants are calling for, in their current Co-operative Ways Forward campaign for democratic cooperation).

What I’m not convinced is needed any more is a body established as a fully-fledged political party, with its curiously arcane relationship with the Labour Party.

Ideally I’d like to see the Co-operative Party turn itself instead into a vibrant membership body (perhaps by making common cause with Co-operative Ways Forward). This could even, dare I say it, attract cooperatively members of other political parties such as the SNP or Lib Dems who are currently excluded from membership by the direct Labour Party link.

If it’s argued that such a solution would deprive MPs and councillors who sit under the ‘Labour and Co-operative’ label of much-needed support, I have a response. Just as trade union members can pay a political levy to Labour, so members of my suggested organisation could also elect to pay a levy to Labour.

The Co-operative Party was formed in 1917 specifically because the government was discriminating against coops. Some in the movement at the time weren’t convinced a would-be parliamentary party was the correct response. Now in 2015 I think the argument is even harder to make.

Buying a truck to collect the mango harvest

It appears I have bought a truck to help mango farmers who are working cooperatively in Burkina Faso.

Well, not quite. I have lent the money to the farmers to enable them to buy the truck.

Well, even that’s not quite right. The Burkina Faso farmers’ organisation Association Ton has borrowed money from the UK-based cooperative Shared Interest. Shared Interest takes in share capital from British investors and lends it out again to fair trade producers in developing countries.

I am a modest shareholder in Shared Interest, an initiative I first covered journalistically when it was launched twenty-five years or so ago and whose development I have since followed with considerable interest.  Their latest newsletter has just arrived, and with it news of where it has recently invested my savings. The newsletter, and much else, is at www.shared-interest.com.

Holyoake: an Agitator’s life, on-line

For about sixty years in the nineteenth and early twentieth century George Jacob Holyoake was an important figure in the British cooperative movement. It’s no coincidence that Co-operatives UK’s head office in Manchester is in a building named Holyoake House.

Holyoake was, among much else, a journalist and writer.  When I was researching my book All Our Own Work last year, I burrowed away in the British Library reading several of his writings, including his account of the Rochdale Pioneers. I needn’t have bothered going to Euston Road.  Gillian Lonergan, the archivist at the National Co-operative Archive, has drawn my attention to an excellent website where most of Holyoake’s key books on the early coop movement have been digitised, as well as his autobiography (it has the great title Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life).

You’ll find the website here.

New square in Manchester’s co-op quarter needs a name

Let’s be honest, not all the press releases from the Co-operative Group make gripping reading. But here’s one that has caught my eye.

The ‘co-operative quarter’ in Manchester, just beside Victoria Station, is undergoing a facelift at the moment, with dirty streets being newly paved and a town square created on what was once an unprepossessing warehouse building. It’s a mess at the moment but will certainly look better when it’s done.

The Group and the developers are now inviting the public to come up with a name for the new square. I think the name should have a strong co-op connection, and have sent in my own suggestion (since you ask, I’m suggesting Neale Square, after the co-op leader and long-serving General Secretary of the Co-operative Union Edward Vansittart Neale, since the other great Victorian co-op leader George Jacob Holyoake already has his name given to Holyoake House next door).

You can offer suggestions too. Details here.

New exhibition launches this Saturday at Rochdale museum

I’ll be in Rochdale this Saturday, at the Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum in Toad Lane.  The museum (in the Pioneers’ original grocery shop, of course) has recently had a complete make-over with much more space now available for temporary exhibitions.

And that’s why I’ll be there. The museum staff have organised an exhibition The Workers Who Ran Their Own Mill to link in with the publication of my book All Our Own Work, about the manufacturing cooperative in Hebden Bridge which during the later part of the nineteenth century was very much an exemplar of successful ‘productive cooperation’ (it was, in modern parlance, a workers’ cooperative).

The exhibition is being launched on Saturday afternoon, at 1pm-3pm, and all are welcome. You’ll find all the details here. (The museum is asking for an rsvp to museum@co-op.ac.uk to enable them to organise catering.)

And in the meantime I must get down to thinking about the short presentation I’ll be making as part of the event.

(Photo below: the mill the workers ran, as it is today)

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International Day of Cooperatives

Tomorrow is the first Saturday in July and therefore – as determined by the United Nations – the International Day of Cooperatives.

I’ll be involved locally, and as I am lucky to live in a town with a rich cooperative history I’ll be at events to commemorate that heritage, including a cooperative history guided walk.  But I’ll also be at an event at lunchtime which is looking forward, not back. Today’s cooperatives – and we have plenty of active cooperatives in our neighbourhood – will be coming together to share their news, to network, and to work out how we can strengthen further the cooperative sector locally.

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I wish you a stimulating and enjoyable International Day of Cooperatives as well.