Board elections at the Phone Co-op

I’ve been casting my vote in an election and it’s not been an easy matter. The election is for three members of the board of the Phone Co-op, and there are ten members of the co-op putting themselves forward, many of them clearly strong candidates.

Not easy to decide, but what a nice problem to have!  What a refreshing change from those fake elections for board places on building societies, for example. The Phone Co-op does not pay its non-exec directors particularly lavish fees (directors received just over £1200 a year, last time I looked), but nevertheless its elections are consistently contested and usually – as this time – attract a strong field of candidates.

Good corporate governance?  Give that co-op a tick.

Co-operatives and the gig economy

I’m back from a seminar today in Manchester’s Co-operative College which brought together people from both the co-operative and trade union movements, to discuss ways of helping self-employed workers and those suffering from the worst effects of the gig economy get themselves collectively organised.

Pat Conaty and Alex Bird, who together wrote the useful report Not Alone: co-operative and trade union solution for self-employed workers last year, were there as were representatives of some British unions which in different ways are trying to help their members who are not in traditional employment relationships (I was going to say, people who are in ‘atypical’ work, but these days I think what was once atypical is now regrettably becoming the norm).

There are, we agreed, no easy answers but there are lessons which we in Britain can learn from elsewhere. We heard accounts, for example, of the ‘union coops’ in the United States supported by both the Mondragon Corporation and several labor unions there, of efforts by the main Dutch trade union centre FNV to organise independent workers, and of steps being taken by those in the arts industry in Belgium to co-operate through a shared servicing agency. And we reminded ourselves of ventures further afield, including the inspiring story of refuse collectors in Pune, India, who have improved their condition of work and obtained greater work status through formalising themselves into a co-op.

The gig economy is in the news, and it’s encouraging that there are attempts to fight back against multinationals such as Uber and the major courier companies who are using allegedly ‘independent’ ‘contractors’. The co-op movement needs to get much more actively involved in these sorts of issues.

Congratulations to Cilla Ross at the Co-operative College for making the arrangements for the seminar.

At last! Cohousing initiative has the success it deserves

Enormously good news today from the Older Women’s Cohousing Group, which for years and years (and still yet more years) has been battling away to try to turn their vision of a self-managing housing community into reality. It has been a truly epic initiative, and – against what seemed so often to be heavily stacked odds – the story ends this week in success, as 26 women in the group, aged 50-87, take possession of a block of twenty-five newly built flats in Union Street, High Barnet, north London.

Cohousing is a growing movement, and one which I think has great potential for the baby-boomer generation as it tries to find housing solutions in older age which don’t involve the commercial imperatives of companies such as McCarthy and Stone. The Barnet cohousing community (based, it says here, on “shared values of neighbourliness and mutual support”) includes a mix of home-owners and social renters.  They add that they “want to act as a demonstration project to encourage other older people to plan their later lives and develop similar initiatives”.

Travelling the co-operative way

One of the less impressive acts of the Co-operative Group before the great Co-op Bank meltdown was the time it allowed Thomas Cook in as majority partner of its Co-operative Travel operation, meaning that the ‘national co-operative brand’ established with so much effort and expense almost immediately included a business which was not co-operatively owned at all.

At long last this is to be resolved. The Thomas Cook/Co-op Group joint venture (which also included some outlets from what is now the Central England society) is being wound up with Thomas Cook buying out its co-operative partners. The shops will also be rebranded as Thomas Cook outlets – although not necessarily until the end of 2018.

In the meantime the Midcounties society gets in touch, keen to remind me that they never participated in the Thomas Cook partnership and that their travel agencies remain a direct part of their business. “We are not part of the Joint Venture and are proud of our travel business, proudly boasting the Co-operative name,” they say. Ironically for a time these genuinely co-operatively owned travel agencies were unable to use the national brand. They now boast a slightly adapted version of the brand, something which would no doubt horrify the original graphic designers but which seems to do the trick.

Co-operative business, on a scale from 1 to 10

I was stopped the other day in my local Co-op Group store by a woman from a market research company undertaking research for the Co-op.

I was asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, a number of aspects of the store.  Fresh fruit and veg, for example.  What would you say?  I gave it 5 out of 10.  Well, let’s be honest, I don’t think the Co-op offers particularly good quality produce and although it’s a few years since we went through a whole Autumn without a single English apple on sale (and a few more years back since the co-op astonishingly ran completely out of potatoes one day) there is certainly no room for complacency.

The tidiness of the store? Again, not great. There seems a lack of managerial oversight which gives attention to important details like this.

Value for money? Expensive, compared with the larger supermarkets, although perhaps the fairer comparison is with small convenience stores.

I wasn’t asked about my experience of the self-service kiosks, so I wasn’t able to report the recent occasion when the machine gobbled up a £20 note of mine without appearing to notice it. But I was able to rate staff helpfulness very highly.

It’s good that the Co-op Group is trying to understand what its customers think of its store. My market researcher seemed surprised I had been quite so negative. Just trying to be helpful.

Finding ways forward

Phil Frampton from Co-operative Business Consultants rings.  He is making arrangements for the Ways Forward conference he and other CBC colleagues are organising in January in Manchester (Fri Jan 20th to be precise). We discuss possible ideas for workshops.

This is the fifth such event, and the first four have been valuable occasions which have brought together a good mixture of co-operative activists and practitioners. I’m sure this will be equally useful.

Phil ends our telephone conversation with a request – can I mention the event on my blog?  I just have…


Mondragon’s new PR video

Mondragon, the family of co-operatives which have developed from their Basque homelands into a worldwide set of businesses, have a new promotional video out.  But do you know what? I’m a little disappointed. The video could have been made by almost any multinational, looking to promote itself. There’s only tangential mention of co-operation or worker engagement (and is it my imagination or does the video seem to suggest that it’s a man’s world in Mondragon?). A slight sense of a lost opportunity.