12:50pm Monday 9th July 2012
By Matt Clark
Tired of reading about morally bankrupt tax dodgers, greedy bankers and fat cat business bosses and their whopping bonuses? It doesn’t have to be like that, as MATT CLARK reports.
HERE’S something you might have missed. Amid the doom and gloom surrounding this country’s financial meltdown, the co-operative sector of the economy has grown 21 per cent to £33 billion since the start of the credit crunch.
It’s a rare success story in a land of bent bankers and public sector cutbacks. To celebrate, this year is United Nations International Year of Co-operatives, which aims to boost an understanding of the benefits they bring to tens of millions of people across the globe.
Co-operatives, or mutuals, are more than just businesses. People join them to make their communities better places to live in by providing jobs and livelihoods while creating vibrant communities. Uniquely, co-operatives are owned and run by customers, employees or local residents who share the profits and wealth they generate.
In this country, we tend to think of the corner shop Co-op with its divvy stamps, or the local undertakers, but in truth the idea covers every conceivable part of our economy, with one in five of the population being members of co-operatives – and the numbers keep growing.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. At a time when the High Street has never been under more threat, co-operative ventures in this country boast a 97 per cent survival rate.
Not just in Britain, either. Almost all French champagne, Italian parmesan cheese and Spanish olive oil is produced by co-operatives and worldwide there are more than a billion members of co-operatives.
They cover everything from football to fashion and wind farms to web design, with an annual a turnover of $1.1 trillion.
Benenden Healthcare Society in York’s Holgate Park is one example. It was founded in Kent in 1905 as a TB hospital for Post Office workers who were particularly susceptible to the disease because mailbags harboured the germs.
But sanatoriums were a preserve of the rich until Charles Garland, a telegraph clerk, who saw the plight of his fellow workers and suggested they pay some of their wages into a central pot for mutual benefit.
Margaret Joicey, who works for Benenden, says that ethos remains pivotal for the company.
“Because we are member-owned, they can guide us and have a say in our future. In a mutual, everyone’s voice is heard.
“People are getting fed up of hearing how much the top men are taking home – and their bonuses. You don’t get that with co-operatives. I think people are looking for a different way. We’ve had a different way for 100 years and it works.”
Fellow Benenden worker Alison Edeson agrees.
“I think mutuals like us have always had a place. We are not for profit; we put our members first and put each other first.
“Where there was a hunger to be a shareholder, that is now moving away from profit and into having a say. A lot of anger has arisen because people don’t have any control.”
Perhaps that’s the point. In a month where three top bankers have been forced to resign because they put money before people, the nation’s mood seems to have changed. There is also a growing trend for credit unions – where nobody takes a percentage – and an increasing demand for ethical banking.
Take the Co-op Bank which is about to take over 600 branches of Lloyds. It’s been a long time in the planning but what delicious irony that the deal looks set to be sealed while the big four face allegations of malpractice.
It seems we don’t much like corporate accusations of gargantuan greed and we want someone to trust again, which is something co-operatives offer. All decisions are agreed on by the members and there can be no rogue dealers or no self interest, because everyone is working for the common good. The business would quickly fail if they didn’t.
Notable co-operatives in this city include: York City Supporters’ Trust, York Cycleworks and a number of working men’s clubs. The latest is the Golden Ball pub in Bishophill where locals have clubbed together to launch a ten-year share issue and run their own inn.
York Disabled Workers’ Co-operative was set up in 2010 to help people lead more independent lives through employment. Its workforce specialises in making garden furniture from recycled, often donated, wood and John Wilson describes his co-operative as a blueprint for others.
“It’s back to the future. People used to work together in communities, but as the world progressed, business was built on a money ethic,” he says. “Everything became so massive that we forgot what it was all about. Co-operatives take it back to communities.”
One of John’s lads is making sandwich boards for a union demonstration. Ironic really – in a co-operative everyone works together, they have a voice, they don’t need to go on strike.
Maybe the solution has been staring us in the face for 150 years.
“I’d like to think so,” says John. “Ordinary people are saying ‘hang on a minute, greed isn’t good any more’.
“People feel they have no control over anything any more, and not just in this country. They may not agree what they want, but now they know what they don’t want.”
John might be able to help there. His vision is for more social enterprises and workers co-operatives, which have a direct benefit to the community.
“You won’t find leaders talking down to workers. We’re all involved together and that’s the principal it stands for.”
York has a pioneering example in We Are Your Emporium, where co-operatives such as Brunswick Nursery, Blueberry Academy and the Wilberforce Trust take it in turns to sell each other’s wares at the Micklegate shop. “We’ve gone too far in certain directions,” says John. “There’s no pride in what you are doing, but co-operatives have that philosophy and that’s why more people are going down that route.”
We Are Your Emporium in Micklegate, York
The Co-operative movement began in England in the second half of the industrial revolution.
It was an age of child labour, exploitation and poverty and by the early 1800s; food prices were high while wages were being reduced.
During the early part of the century, Robert Owen, who made his fortune in cotton, built a model village at New Lanark and his philanthropic policies are seen as the intellectual founder of the co-operative movement’s ideals.
But the founding fathers were weavers in Rochdale who had failed to have any lasting effect on wages and living conditions by taking strike action.
Instead, they turned to the ideas of Owen and with 28 members, formed the first successful co-operative enterprise, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer Society.
To improve their standard of living, the Rochdale Pioneers set up the first consumer co-operative in a shop in 1844 with an aim to supply good quality goods, cheaply and to return any profit to members of the co-operative.
From those humble beginnings in Rochdale, there are now some 5,450 independent co-operative businesses in the UK and more than 1.4 million worldwide.
The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers worked out that in order to succeed their enterprise must work on seven key principles. Now recognised internationally as the seven co-operative principles, they are:
1. Voluntary and open membership
2. Democratic member control
3. Member economic participation
4. Autonomy and independence
5. Education, training and information
6. Co-operation among co-ops
7. Concern for community.
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