I said in my last blog that I wanted to return to the question of what the British co-op movement (and, hopefully, a future co-operatively-minded Labour government) can learn from recent developments in France, where workers’ coops (SCOPs: Sociétés coopératives et participatives) have been growing in numbers in recent years.
There are currently around 2300 SCOPs. They include start-ups, employee buy-outs of existing companies (for example, when the owner wants to sell up), and employee rescues of failing businesses (always the hardest option of the three). In the last category, I mentioned here the worker-led rescue of the daily Nice-Matin newspaper chain at the time the co-op was being established. I’ve also mentioned several times the Sea France ferry co-op, now unfortunately no longer trading.
I got talking to Eleonore Perrin Massebiaux at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester last month, and afterwards she kindly gave me the link to a recent article she’s written which provides a very good introduction to what is happening n France. Elly also sent me a link to a useful publication Beyond the Crisis from the European worker co-op federation CECOP, which somehow I missed when it came out a few years ago. CECOP’s report gives detailed information on what’s happening in France, Spain and Italy. (The version online claims to be a draft, but since no final text appears to have been published we won’t worry too much about that).
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?
Sadly it is looking increasingly unlikely that British holidaymakers will be able to choose a cooperative option when planning to take their car across to France.
The future of the workers cooperative (SCOP SeaFrance) based in Calais, which employs over 600 staff, is highly uncertain. Eurotunnel, which currently owns the My Ferry Link Dover-Calais ferries had previously contracted the management of the service to the cooperative. However, it withdrew from this agreement two days ago (June 2). SCOP SeaFrance is now likely to have to go into legal administration.
The story is complicated: the UK Competition and Markets Authority had ruled that Eurotunnel was breaking competition law by owning the ferries as well as the Channel Tunnel, and Eurotunnel put its ferry business up for sale in January. As a consequence the cooperative joined a broader social enterprise venture which made a formal bid for the business, one of several received.
However after all this a major surprise: the British supreme court ruled last month that Eurotunnel was not, in fact, in breach of competition law. Eurotunnel say that, despite this, the sale is going ahead – and that their previous decision to terminate the deal with SCOP SeaFrance will not be revoked.
There remains a slim chance that a new cooperative solution of some kind may be possible.
A little cheerfulness has been breaking out over the past two days in a windy and wintry Calais… or more precisely among the 533 employees of the cross-channel ferry company MyFerryLink which has its main base there.
MyFerryLink operates three boats on the Dover-Calais crossing, and is structured as a workers’ cooperative incorporated under French law (to be technical, it is a SCOP, a société coopérative et participative). The coop was created two years ago, with trade union support, after the former ferry operator SeaFrance went out of business and the majority of MyFerryLink’s workers are ex-SeaFrance staff. You can read the piece I wrote at the time for The Guardian here.
When the cooperative was established it did a deal with EuroTunnel, who purchased the three ships MyFerryLink needed and leased them back to the coop. EuroTunnel also encouraged freight operators with hazardous cargo to use the boats rather than the tunnel. However this arrangement fell foul of the UK Competition Commission which ruled in July that EuroTunnel had acquired an unfair market share. As a consequence MyFerryLink were told they would have to stop using Dover port, potentially putting the fledgling venture out of business.
The Competition Commission ruling was partially overturned at an appeal earlier this week in London. Although the legal battle is continuing, the response in France has been to see the tribunal decision as “a victory and a relief”, according to MyFerryLink senior management. “We’re proud of all that the staff have done since the start of this adventure, which has been difficult,” said Raphaël Doutrebente, deputy Director-General for the cooperative in an interview yesterday with the newspaper Libération.