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Transatlantic Exchange

Illustration by
Alice Nutley

Building a Worker Co-operation Movement

There is a sense that the co-operative movement has forgotten how to be a movement, how to organise a mass of people to meet their collective needs. A new federation has emerged called with a goal to motivate, educate, and organise people to start, strengthen, and grow worker co-ops. This new cooperative, like many, is starting with little capital and is searching for answers. How to build a mass movement of people to make change, but how to do it in a non-exploitative way. As part of their research they reached out to the US, travelling to Philadelphia for the conference of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. During the visit John Atherton and Kiri Langmead listened to inspirational stories and accounts of struggle from members of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA) and the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives (NYC NWC); all of whom are further ahead on their movement building journey of linking the social justice issues and community needs, with the economic development of worker co-ops. This conversation emerged from discussions that began at that conference. The conversation focuses on the challenges and tensions associated with the use of paid and unpaid labour when building a movement.

JA: At, we are still playing very heavily with this idea of using a lot of volunteers. So there'll be some paid work, but basically we’ll be relying a lot on volunteers. We're interested in the journey that you went on; whether it was very volunteer heavy at the start and then transitioned to paid work? 

EK: I wouldn't have ever called the US Federation heavily volunteer run or led, because that's a relative term. I know how many organisations truly are heavily volunteer led, you know – Habitat for Humanity, for example, where there are armies of volunteers who are building houses. The majority of the people who had their shoulders to the wheel for the early days of the federation were volunteers. And by that, I mean we had one paid staff member, working 10 or 12 hours a week, and nine board members. Our board committees did stuff; the bylaws committee wasn't just enforcing the bylaws, they were writing them, they were figuring out governance; the membership committee was literally reviewing applications from members. We didn't have staff doing that. But that's something more than volunteers – I mean, they're volunteers in the sense that they were not paid for it, but they weren't random people who were like, “hi, I support the cause. What can I do?” These were leaders. As we grew, we started to realise that we couldn’t do everything with one part-time staff member and the board, so began to integrate contractors into projects and events, and eventually created more paid roles. This in turn enabled the federation to utilise voluntary labour more effectively. If you have someone paid to organise the conference, then that person can also organise volunteers in a way that a part time executive director who's literally filing taxes and convening board meetings doesn't have the capacity to do. So that's really when volunteer stuff beyond just our board got a little more serious, but it was always really project based. It was usually really small and intensive like OK, we're gonna have these four people do deep translation, or work on a data project to create maps of where the worker co-ops are, or do the graphic design for the maps, or work on our logo. It really wasn't a plug and play thing, and I'm sort of saying that as a contrast to faith-based volunteerism, or non-profits like housing groups or food security groups. 

AS: In terms of our staff and operations, we have no volunteers. We have committees where our board are volunteers, and we have people we're doing work with and who we are in coalition with in terms of policy navigation. We work with people who are looking to build a public bank, for instance. They are volunteering and also coming to committee meetings to work with PACA. But that's as a coalition partnership. In terms of operations, no, we have no volunteers. A lot of it is handled by the staff.

JA: Looking to the future, have you got any particular strategy around volunteer programmes? 

EK: A lot of our members who are involved in our peer networks and similar initiatives, they do that in an unpaid capacity. But that's just like participation; it's engagement, it's not volunteering. Increasingly our strategy has been toward finding resources – we see it as our job to find resources and then connect our members to those resources. It's not quite like a trickle-down thing; I think it's more committed than that and there's more of a sort of business sense to it. These are workers, and if they're taking time out away from their workplaces, then we need to subsidise that in some way, even if it's not comparable to the wage – it might be more, it might be less than the wage that they would be making inside of their workplaces.

JA: But you do what you can.

EK: Yeah, we do. We can at least give something that's like a show of respect and also that helps you justify it to your co-workers, because most of your co-workers might not understand what all this national organising stuff is that doesn't feel particularly relevant to our sales, our clients or me driving a forklift. It becomes a little easier to justify and say “look, we received a check that's meant to offset some of the loss of time from what I'm taking away from my work in order to invest it here, and that's also important.”

We have also done labour trade for members, for co-operatives to work off their dues. And we still have a dues trade program where members offer their services in exchange for money. In the early years, it was always more helpful to say: you can just host our e-mail addresses, you could just build our website, you can just design the logo; that's more helpful than you giving us a couple hundred dollars or whatever. Over the course of time, disproportionately certain co-ops and certain industries just had more access to that. We always need things printed, interpretation, translation, some tech stuff. And this informed how we set up our peer technical assistance network, where the co-operatives who we didn't have a direct need for but were interested in some sort of dues trade, were able to mentor other co-ops. So that was another way of tapping into solidarity economics without actually having monetary exchange going on; but again I wouldn't use the language of ‘volunteering’ for what that was. The co-operatives were doing work in exchange for monetary dues, and we would follow up and check whether they delivered, you know, $600 worth of value and services to this other person, and not just take it on good faith, because some other co-op was actually paying money.

Illustration by Alice Nutley

Open High Streets

Grace Crabtree

Over the past three years, the Heritage Trust Network (HTN) have been working with Locality to deliver Open High Streets, a series of events funded as part of the Architectural Heritage Fund’s (AHF) Transforming Places through Heritage programme. Through grants covering project viability, development, and capital grants – known as Transformational Project Grants – AHF have been supporting high street regeneration led by local groups with the aim of bringing historic buildings back into use and, specifically, into community ownership. Stir to Action came onboard Open High Streets to deliver a series of workshops exploring approaches to community engagement, cross-sector collaboration, and alternative sources of project funding. I caught up with a few of the panellists to learn a bit more about their work.


Since 2015, Valley Heritage have been supporting the regeneration of historic buildings in the Rossendale area of Lancashire. At the start of 2019 they became aware that the former Lancashire and Yorkshire Bank, in Bacup, was coming onto the market. The Grade II-listed building had been let as accommodation on an unmanaged basis, leading to poor living conditions. The occupants, some with significant social needs, were becoming a focal point for anti-social behaviour in the town, and the owners no longer wanted to manage it. Valley Heritage undertook a rapid business planning process, looking at the potential uses of the building with affordable housing and workspace being the main priorities. 

As Stephen Anderson, chairperson of Valley Heritage, explained, “around that time, we'd been having conversations with a local charity called M3 Project, exploring the idea of repurposing heritage assets to provide accommodation for young people at risk of homelessness. With the bank, we saw that it was a real opportunity to pilot this idea with a bit more scale.” With the support of a £195K loan from AHF, Valley Heritage acquired the former bank building, and with a £350k Transformational Project Grant in 2020 they restored and remodelled the space into a co-working space – Alliance Bacup – on the lower floors, and self-contained flats on the upper floors for young people at risk of homelessness. 

Stephen and Jenna Johnston, as long-standing members of the Heritage Trust Network, lead the Network’s North West branch. “It takes a lot of tenacity over a long period of time to get these projects moving. HTN provides a forum that demonstrates that there are lots of other people going through the same sort of challenges,” Stephen explains. In 2019, Valley Heritage also became one of the Architectural Heritage Fund’s pilot ‘Heritage Development Trusts’, enabling them to hire a part-time Heritage Projects Officer, the first member of staff in an otherwise volunteer-led organisation. This has also led to further conversations on “quite tricky strategic issues, everything from, ‘How do you represent your building on your accounts?’, through to ‘Have you got an agreement with your local authority, and what does it look like?’ And it gets shared with such freedom, such generosity, which is the hallmark of the network”. 

Projects in the pipeline for Valley Heritage include a ‘closed church’ they are hoping to reuse for overnight stay accommodation; a project around decarbonising terraced houses, at scale and with some novel renewable energy technology; and, more unusually, Lancashire’s history of shoe manufacturing has brought a collection of historic shoes into Valley Heritage’s custodianship, which they plan to use to tell stories about the local community’s past.

Portraits produced by Paint the Change for the launch of Alice Billings house. Image courtesy of Sylvie Belbouab.


Another group bringing buildings back to life is Creative Land Trust (CLT), whose focus is providing affordable studio space for artists and makers in London. There is a tradition of affordable studio providers going back to the 1960s with projects such as Acme and space Studios, but few today have secure freeholds. As Yves Blais, the Operations Manager at CLT, explains, “the general problem that [studio providers] face is that their leases are often only short term. At the end of these leases, the rents are either hiked to a new level that just makes them completely unattainable”, or they might be developed into more lucrative residential space. CLT acquires funds to take on long leases or freeholds, and this secure ownership means they cap rents charged on the studios, allowing tenants to pay affordable rates, based on the Mayor of London’s Artists’ Workspace Data Note 2018 which measures the average of what artists across London can pay, compared with the much higher market rate. 

The day we spoke, Creative Land Trust’s first property, Wallis Road Studios, had just opened. CLT have taken on a 999 year lease, which is effectively a freehold, in a new mixed-use development in Hackney Wick. On the ground and lower ground floors, 33,000 square feet of space has been divided into studios. 

The Architectural Heritage Fund have awarded CLT a series of grants for their second site, Alice Billings House in Stratford, East London. Alice Billings House was originally built in the early 1900s as accommodation for West Ham Fire Station’s firefighters, but the station shut in 1964, leaving the site – part of which is on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ register – empty for decades. CLT won a bid to take on the site from Newham Council, aligning with their Community Wealth Building and Levelling Up targets through CLT’s arguing for the critical need to support the creative sector through affordable, sustainable spaces, as well as bringing people to the industry who wouldn’t otherwise see it as a viable career option. The AHF grants have supported the building’s restoration, with a £150K Project Viability Grant to develop and test their proposals, followed by a £100K Project Development Grant, both in 2021; and a £116.8K Transformational Project Grant towards the capital costs. 

“We’re really hoping that Alice Billings House acts as a hub to be a catalyst for engaging more people, and for culture-led regeneration”, Yves explains. The project will see some of the ground floor turned into a public-facing project space, directly correlating to the artistic activity happening elsewhere in the building. “We’re trying to work with what's already there. Behind everything is a need to make sure that what we're doing is impactful for people in the local community.” 

Creative Land Trust received money from the Greater London Authority through the High Streets for All Challenge, and through this set up an open call for an arts organisation to propose a project along the high street highlighting what was about to happen in Alice Billings House. The community activist group Paint the Change was commissioned to work with local schools and artists to develop portraits of ‘local heroes’, with a selection being displayed around the neighbourhood. Also with the GLA funds, CLT are commissioning a high street strategy report to locate unused spaces that could be activated as studios or creative spaces, and create a cultural and heritage programme that responds to local need. They are hoping to work with further local authorities across London in the near future, bringing more historic buildings back to life and putting decisions about local spaces back into the hands of residents.

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The Advocacy Implosion? Popular Membership in Civic Life

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

Since the financial crisis, setting up social consultancies, agencies, think tanks – and other “memberless entities” – has seemed to be the only option for a new generation of civic organisers. In more than a decade of relentless experimentation, there’s been a proliferation of 'by design' civic initiatives operating in an extremely competitive market of policy brands and inclusive economic models, each contending for the limited resources of private foundations and local government. But why has a certain “civic trend” – the transformation from popularly rooted membership groups to staff-driven NGOs – come to monopolise the current definition of political action and social reform?

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Q&A: Public-Common Partnerships

Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) are a proposed approach to the common ownership and governance of assets and resources. Imagined as a reverse engineering of the Public-Private Partnerships that dominated the past 40 years, PCPs propose a role for public institutions in both de-risking and enabling processes of commoning. At its core, a PCP is a joint enterprise that incorporates ‘common associations’, public bodies, and wider stakeholders in the ownership and governance of assets, ranging from coastal aquaculture and country farms to urban high streets. Through creating different opportunities for democratic engagement, and through bringing profits under popular democratic control, PCPs are conceptualised as a vehicle for the expansive definancialisation and democratisation of the economy. 

Frances Northrop interviews Bertie Russell, Keir Milburn & Kai Heron to understand more about their development and how they fit into the wider movement for the democratic economy.

Frances: So how did the idea of PCPs come about? 

Bert: We first started working on the idea of Public Common Partnerships in 2017. One thing that characterised this period was a sort of ‘left hope’, not least due to the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, which had not existed for quite a long time. One of the key things to have come from that period was an acceleration in new economic thinking, where one of the most emblematic interventions was the 2017 Alternative Models of Ownership report. Rather than looking backwards to the 1940s and 50s, with a focus on top-down state ownership and centralised approaches to governance, this new economic thinking was starting to explore what alternative approaches to public ownership could actually look like. What does it mean, in terms of popular participation? What does that mean in terms of who actually owns something? How do these different forms of ownership contribute to a wider ecosocialist transition? 

Keir: A key impetus for us was an article written by Martin O’Neill and Joe Guinan in Renewal Journal called The Institutional Turn: Labour’s new political economy, to which we authored a response titled What Can an Institution Do? Towards public-common partnerships and a new common sense. Firstly, we argued that we had to take seriously the wider effects of the way assets and resources are governed, to consider the positive and negative spillover effects of particular institutional designs. Secondly, reform of public institutions was a central part of the neoliberal revolution precisely because of these spillover effects, changing the way people thought about themselves by inculcating an individualistic mode of thinking [resulting in wider detrimental effects for the prospects for the development of socialist/anti-capitalist movements]. 

So the question for us became, how would you change that? How could processes of democratic governance linked to democratic ownership reverse the social-political effects of neoliberal institutional governance? What sort of institutions could help develop democratic subjects who are able to participate in a flourishing democracy that sees problems as social problems that can be addressed through collective action and cooperation?

Bert: Thinking about the wider socio-political effects of institutional forms certainly isn’t just the preserve of the left. If we take Margaret Thatcher at her word when she said that “economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul”, then we need to consider the past 40 years of economic interventions – from the Right to Buy policy to the marketisation of the NHS – as concerted attempts to fundamentally shift the psychological composition of societies. These reforms weren’t just about making the rich richer, but changing the ‘common sense’ of what it means to be a citizen, and what appears politically and socially possible. Institutional design is part of a political strategy.

Keir: We presented some of these initial ideas at a conference in early 2019 called Equality and Democracy in Local and City Government, which was significant in bringing together a lot of people associated with this new heterodox economic practice and thinking. It was there that we met Matthew Lawrence, who was in the process of establishing a new think tank called Common Wealth. Mat invited us to expand on the idea of PCPs in more depth and set out how we hoped they would contribute to a wider project of socialist transformation, which resulted in Common Wealth’s first publication: Public Common Partnerships – Building New Circuits of Collective Ownership.

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Failure is an option

Kelly Bewers and Dan Woolley

The Hubble Telescope, one of the most incredible inventions in our recent times, was designed with failure in mind. Kathryn Sullivan, one of the astronauts onboard Hubble, explains in her brilliant book Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention (2019), how the engineers and inventors accepted that many of its components would be defunct and ultimately replaced by more effective solutions. The NASA team were humble in their belief (and hope) that future generations would improve on their efforts. This acceptance of ‘failure’ as an intrinsic and inevitable evolution of growth, development, and learning enabled the team to create an incredible machine that could be maintained long into the future. 

It’s hard to imagine a more complex feat of human engineering, collaboration, and systems design than sending a telescope like Hubble into orbit. If institutions like NASA can accept and, more importantly, design for and learn from failure, then surely we could apply the same thinking to our social, environmental, and economic issues.

Unfortunately, anyone casting an eye over the third sector – both its constituent charities and social enterprises, and the institutions (primarily funders) that prop up the ecosystem – will struggle in vain to find any evidence of failure, let alone associated learnings. This is not the fault of any individual organisation; rather it’s a cultural problem, whose roots are long and deep. 

Instigating a culture that foregrounds failure isn’t radical, it’s logical. If those working in social change organisations can feel released from the burdens and constraints of unhelpful performance indicators and have permission to innovate – grounded in the insight, evidence, and learning from the communities and lived experience of those who use services and need care – then change might emerge more quickly and more effectively.

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