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.

Making links: cooperatives and trade unions

Deadlines (and life generally) have meant that I have not had time  to report on an interesting seminar on links between coops and trade unions which was organised by the Co-operative College last Wednesday in London.

There were some stimulating presentations, including one from the Musicians Union who described how in various parts of the country school music teachers – as a response to the loss of their previous employment status with local authorities – are banding together in cooperatives. The MU has produced an excellent handbook Altogether Now:  A Guide to Forming Music Teacher Co-operatives, based on experiences gained at a pioneering cooperative in Swindon set up in 1998.

Both the trade union and the cooperative movement know that they share the same historical roots and the desire for a deeper relationship today was clearly expressed at the seminar.  The development of cooperative schools has seen a useful link made between the Co-operative College and some of the teachers’ unions.

But there remain tensions. As Matt Dykes from the TUC said, his first objective is to see workers who deliver public services remaining as public employees. The implication was that some sort of cooperative arrangement may be better than outright privatisation, but is still something of a fallback.

More fundamentally it was hard to disagree with Cliff Mills of Mutuo, who called for the traditional assumption that public ownership means just state ownership to be re-examined. Like Cliff, I’d maintain that there are other ways that public ownership can be established (some of which may take us back to ideas tried out in the early days of the coop movement in Britain).

If you’re interested in this area and haven’t already come across it, the ILO report from 2013 Trade Unions and Worker Cooperatives: Where are we at? is worth a good look.

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.

Cooperatives and the idea of the Living Wage

I’ve written before on executive pay in cooperatives. What about pay scales at the other end?

Look at the list of UK companies which have signed up voluntarily to pay their staff at Living Wage levels (currently calculated at £8.80 ph in London and £7.65 elsewhere) and you won’t see many coops there. The Phone Co-op is an honourable exception, having joined the scheme last autumn.

But the Co-operative Group has not felt able to adopt the scheme. In response to a 2012 members’ motion from Central and Eastern Region, the Group reported back that it had calculated that the cost of adopting the Living Wage unilaterally would be around £52m. “A voluntary unilateral adoption of the Living Wage risks an employer disadvantaging themselves against competitors,” the Group pointed out.

On the other hand, AGM delegates also received a Board statement with the revealing comment that “in relation to the lowest paid members of staff (for example Customer Services Assistant (CSA’s) Food), the Group has, over a number of years, paid an hourly rate at a level above the National Minimum Wage, but often less than the hourly rate paid by the Co-operative Group’s main food retail competitors.” The statement went on to compare Co-op Group’s (then) hourly rate for CSAs of £6.25 per hour with the equivalent hourly rate in Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Tesco Express of £6.42.

What of other industries? Workers in the leisure industry are also poorly paid, and regrettably you won’t at the moment find the (normally highly regarded) social enterprise Greenwich Leisure (GLL) in the list of accredited Living Wage employers. One person trying single-handedly to change this is Alan Sealy, a member of the Chalfort St Peter leisure centre in Buckinghamshire (now run by GLL). Alan has contacted me to tell me of his efforts to persuade GLL senior management to think again.

“I have no doubt that the principal argument for GLL not paying the Living Wage is that if they did they would lose out on local government contracts,” he says. But, as he points out, increasingly local authorities are themselves committing to the living wage scheme – so there may well be growing pressure from authorities on GLL to follow suit.

I wish Alan Sealy well in his campaign. Incidentally, there’s a useful resource pack on the Living Wage issue produced by the Co-operative College. As this points out, the idea of paying a living wage has been a central theme of the cooperative movement for more than a century.