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.