Transatlantic Co-operativism

Autumn 2020 #31
written by
Nathan Shneider, Esteban Kelly, Cath Muller
illustration by
Kate Healy
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The UK & US co-operative movements have been inspiring each other for centuries. But what can we learn from each other now as we rebuild our respective movements in response to the economic crisis and social injustice?

This is a transcript of the panel about the future of co-operation in the UK and US during Stir to Action’s Playground for the New Economy festival, 1st-3rd September 2020.

NS: First of all I want to emphasise the importance of these cross-oceanic, cross-continental discussions. It’s been part of the rise of something that became ‘platform co-operativism’, with meetings between the US and Europe, and also connections between social movements, like Occupy Wall Street, and the rise of the sharing economy. Then I started coming to Europe and the UK during that time, trying to think through what was going on and starting to see some manifestations of people trying to figure out how to build a tech that was owned and governed by people.

At first I think that Europe and the UK brought into the conversation an openness to a broader range of financing options, that venture capitalism isn’t always the only game in town, and certain logics around social innovation. And [there were] ideas and jargon that we don’t use in the US that created space for thinking about growing our technology in different ways. There is a history of interactions between unions and public services that open the door to some of these conversations in ways that we didn’t see. This conversation emerged continentally. And that’s continuing very much in the context of the work I’ve been doing through ‘Exit to Community’, trying to create pathways for democratic ownership and governance. What it targets is the particular idea of the ‘exit’. If you approached a person on the street and you said, “We’re working on exits” they might look at you funny and say, “What do you mean... is there a fire in the building, should I exit?” But if you approached someone in the street in Silicon Valley and you said you were doing something about exits they will give you a look of recognition and say, “Tell me more”. The exit is a crucial moment in the life of any start-up.

But what if exits involved something else, with community ownership changing the destination for start-ups. So it recognises that maybe not every co-owned platform or company is something that begins as a co-operative or the like, but maybe it finds its way there. With worker-ownership conversions, the UK has its history of incentivising these kinds of conversions with public policy. Through this we know that it is possible to see this as a kind of destination. We have a new publication, a zine which explores these questions, and it’s available now for free in print and online. It’s asking what kinds of tools we could use to make something like a worker-ownership conversion more available, so that’s the challenge we’re working with now.

Esteban Kelly - illustration by Kate Healy

EK: I’ve been excited about us being increasingly in contact with each other, not just in the UK and in the US, but in this international space; it’s part of what fuels our momentum, our inspiration, and our organising. But I also think a lot of the ideas, and the strategies, and that cross-pollination will not just unlock new approaches to co-operative development but also accelerate the work we have been doing. I wanted to start with one of the last things Nathan was just saying – the question about how easy is it: there’s all the stuff we understand as movement organisers, or folks who do technical assistance, or who are involved in co-operatives in different ways. But there is this question of how we facilitate, or even do the assessment and diagnostics of the existing state of the sector and infrastructure, to be able to have a sense of how hard, and how easy, it is. And what does it take for people to discover worker ownership, to know about it or be excited about it, and make that incredibly arduous leap from the desire for workplace democracy to having an up-and-running co- operative or democratic workplace? And I’m saying that not hypothetically but very much in the context of the US – it’s still fairly small but we’ve been growing at a pretty rapid pace. We’re still waiting to see how the data shakes in the aftermath of the pandemic, and with the immediate hit economically for some of those businesses. By all accounts worker co- ops are more resilient at this time; I’ve only heard of one worker co-op closing in the US permanently.

In the US we think about this in a couple of ways. We are part of a rapidly growing sector where even our own federation is growing at a faster pace than co-ops are developing themselves. Although it’s hard to know because it’s not a centralised system here. Mostly you just go and do a thing and hopefully we discover you, or you reach out to someone in the vast network to get the support you need in order to become a co-operative. Generally we see, just to distil it, two different models or pathways to accelerating growth. One is very entrepreneurial, a start-up or freelance venture that’s converted into a co-op. The other is to take an existing business and convert it into worker ownership, which demands a different set of technical assistance. The question is: how easy is it for an entrepreneur to form and launch their business as a co-operative, which is most likely to be a micro- business, compared with how easy it is to convert an existing business into a worker co-operative?

A lot of what we’ve done, especially in the last decade – the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops just turned 16 this year – was filling in all those gaps in the ecosystem to facilitate co-operative growth, co-operative organising, and also to ensure that the existing businesses are thriving, which is really our mandate as a grassroots membership trade organisation. We’re doing this in a way that reaches new audiences, that allows for cultural pluralism, and not just for people to feel that maybe there’s a way for them to be included, or that we’re a diverse network, which certainly we are, but actually to feel ownership of it and to feel leadership of it. The majority of our board are bilingual English and Spanish speakers, most of our staff are People of Colour, and I think that ends up mattering for being liaisons and representatives in the community. But it also enables training and technical assistance to be provided in a culturally competent and culturally relevant, pedagogical modality that reaches those audiences. I think that where it starts to dovetail with Nathan’s work is not so much around converting existing business or supporting startups but thinking about it more in terms of workplace organising: the way that labour organisers do their work, which is taking existing workforces of people who are very dissatisfied with their conditions. So we’re able to take dissatisfied and alienated workers, whether they’re journalists or in the gig economy, and start the process of thinking about ways to take those groups and organise them into co-operative businesses that then can be contracted within a value chain or within some sort of logistics chain. And frankly, that’s a great opportunity for expanding worker-ownership because a lot of corporations are trying to outsource, downsize, shrink, and subcontract, rather than take on the responsibilities of having employees.

CM: To talk about what we mean by transatlantic co-operativism, I was thinking about what is really the point of being in touch with each other. When comparing the UK and UK worker co-op movement, it seems that in the US movement there is so much going on; that the Federation and the support network seems very well resourced in comparison to what we have in the UK. We have, in terms of actually employed people in the worker co-op movement, one part-time member of staff at Co-ops UK and a project worker, so it’s a really different scene and the really exciting thing that I think has happened, not just during covid-19, but with the rise of platform co-ops and just the digital space is that despite the fact that we are trying to do everything through bootstrapping and through activists, rather than paid staff, is that there’s all this stuff coming out from the Federation and support network from the rest of the movement in the States and Canada which we can use and point people to, which is incredibly useful. And not just the resources that are coming out – clearly there’s legal structures and contexts that are not the same, but in terms of the philosophical basis we have a lot more in common with North Americans culturally than we do with the Italians, or French, or Spanish. So what’s coming out of the States is far more relevant.

You also referred to the work you’re doing on race and class which it seems we don’t know where to start with here. It’s been really useful in my neighbourhood to have Kali Akuno and Saki Hall from Co-operation Jackson, and it just seemed to me a breath of fresh air to be able to say to people from African Caribbean backgrounds where I live, “Hey, look, black people can do co-ops!” And it just seems to be this thing that’s not really in the zeitgeist, certainly in the North of England – London and Manchester may be a bit different – but the co- operative movement is not really in the zeitgeist in the UK at all, so we’re really needing that input from the States.

It’s not just resources, it’s also community. We’ve got digital spaces now where it’s becoming more normal to have people from all over the world taking part in various events. At the UK’s Worker Co-op Weekend – online this year – we had people from North America, and Argentina, and other places. And there’s also infrastructural changes, such as social. coop, or Mastodon, which is like Twitter, a little co-operative ‘fediverse’; and there’s meet. coop being set up, an alternative to Zoom that is cooperatively-owned, and again created by people between Canada, the States, the UK, and various other places. This co-operative infrastructure is global in reach, but I think we’re creating a lot of links in the English- speaking world.

EK: Before we were founded 16 years ago there was no single organisation to connect the dots to support the strategic growth of the movement. There was organising in the sense of a bunch of co-operatives that were clustered around parts of the Pacific Northwest (in Oregon and Washington state) or in the San Francisco Bay Area with California, who would get together, but there really was also not a strategy about how we were building this. What can we learn from other models, especially overseas, where they have an organised national association or federation for worker cooperatives and we don’t? There was no infusion of a massive grant, though there was some solidarity from other co-operatives. By the time I was hired in 2015, two major things had changed: one change is that we had spun off a sister non-profit organisation which was duly charged with helping to build scale and capacity for the sector itself and to resource co-operatives – financial capital – and a small role in advocacy, capturing philanthropic grants in order to help us grow.

We started working more in tandem, to great effect. I started five years ago when there were only a few members of staff; we now have just over ten people. A lot of what was different was an approach to take the work of racial and economic justice seriously. This was codified when our members created a grassroots member council within our federation about three years ago, called the Racial and Economic Justice Council. But enough of our leaders entered into co-operative organising (I don’t use the term ‘movement’ because to me we’re nowhere near what a movement is) from actual grassroots movements: some were involved in the Occupy movements, especially Occupy Sandy; in immigrant rights and immigrant justice movements; and some labour movements. So I think that’s where the shift came from. It was not that people were co-operators learning on the job about how to orient toward community-organising a bigger politics. Even rhetorically, in terms of how to make that case, whether it’s to policymakers or to coalitions of folks who should be in this movement with us, or even just to co-sign in solidarity with climate justice movements, with housing movements, with Cancel Rent movements. That was our background the whole time before we entered into this space.

Nathan Schneider - illustration by Kate Healy

CM: It’s interesting that you’re talking about bringing people from the social justice movement, because Radical Routes really is a federation of radical co-operatives [RR member co-ops are committed to social change action. RR has described itself as the co-operative part of the radical social change movement, rather than the radical part of the co-op movement], but very largely housing co-ops, really almost entirely housing co-ops [and so not very active in the co-op movement at all]. But it started as workers co-ops in the 80s when there was a big worker co-op infrastructure organisation, the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (icom) [and so didn’t feel the need to be active in the co-op space]. icom gradually faded at the end of the ‘80s and the ‘90s. They were providing loads of training and resources, but they had more staff and required more money than the dwindling numbers of members could support, and eventually, around 2000, it folded in with the consumer movement, the Co-operative Union, and became Co-operatives UK. And since that time we have not had our own organisation, and to some degree it’s possible that the reduction in funding to Co-ops UK will galvanise more grassroots, autonomous activity from the workers co-op movement. That’s been seen for a long time as a weakness for the rest of us. We started the Worker Co-op Weekends about five years ago – at the first one we started the Worker Co-op Solidarity Fund, so that’s open to individuals all putting in £1 a week; it’s not a formal organisation, but people can decide where we spend money, there’s a vote, that’s the extent of it, but when it was set up it was seen as potentially the way that we could eventually move out from under the control of Co-ops UK, or the dependency on Co-ops UK. But [that fund is not in 6 figures yet, so] we do have to take ourselves seriously and get into those big pots of money, and have people who can work full-time on developing worker co-operatives.

Esteban Kelly is the executive director for the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and is an important leader and creative force in solidarity economy and co-op movements.

Cath Muller is involved in workers co-operatives, Radical Routes and the Worker Co-op Council, because co-ops are tools for equality, liberation from wage slavery, overcoming capitalism and the end of ecological exploitation.

Nathan Schneider is a journalist and author who covers social movements in the United States, and a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Autumn 2020 #31
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