Workers co-ops and trade unions: uneasy bedfellows

Last night I was at an event put on by Stir magazine, ‘Old Forms, New Strategies: Trade Unions, Co-operatives and the Commons’, which discussed the historical lack of co-operation between trade unions and the co-operative movement in the UK.

The lack of interaction is not an accident. A mixture of ideology and self-interest means that mainstream socialism in the UK, while not averse to consumer co-ops, has been very suspicious of workers co-ops. Since self-management undermines the conflict between workers and the bosses they saw it, possibly correctly, as something that would undermine their strength and collective bargaining power. Certainly several people at the meeting described how unions become pretty superfluous in a situation of self-management.

Since I think that co-ops give people invaluable experience in collective self-management, I think the union and state-socialist hostility to workers co-ops also reveals their dirty secret: they were never interested in worker self-rule as much as in the grandees of the their movement getting into power. But given the historical support for Leninism etc I guess this only confirms what we already knew.

The discussion about what can be done now to heal this rift between two streams of socialism didn’t get very far. People pointed out that unions and co-ops have a shared interest in defending shared space against neo-liberal assaults, but some conflicts were also pointed out: trade unions resist outsourcing through workers co-operatives even when it is obvious that the outsourcing is inevitable and the other option is profit-making companies.

What came out very strongly was also that there is not much solidarity between parts of the co-operative movement. Co-ops are almost too autonomous and rarely unite to flex their muscles. Trade unions have traditionally been more outward-looking than co-ops, perhaps because they have more direct economic incentives to be so – they have to influence government policy in order to keep public sector jobs for example.

It would be nice to see co-ops acting in a more united way, promoting the idea of democratic control in a wider political sense. I wonder though if for this to work we need to tweak co-ops a bit in order to increase their economic interdependence and reduce their habit of being inward-looking. The co-operative principles say that co-ops should promote wider co-operation, but perhaps they need to be structured to make that more a part of their DNA, or perhaps forms of economic interaction can be designed that will draw co-ops closer together and so increase their power to fight together.

As for working with trade unions, I think that depends partly on co-ops showing more solidarity with each other and with wider political fights, but also on the unions dropping their opposition to or lack of interest in collective self-management.

9 Comments


  1. I listen to the American economist Richard Wolff often and he advocates forming worker co-ops should be a core part of what trade unions do. They should fight for their members’ conditions obviously but also threaten to form coops and actually form competing coops if large number of workers are laid off or they employer ups sticks. Against another US economist, Andrew Kliman, (sorry this is getting quite America) argues that it doesn’t matter who controls an enterprise, it still has to follow rules to remain competitive – ie lay off workers, speed up production. “If you are in capitalist system, you cannot just issue a directiv to refrain from laying off workers”. I’ve never worked for a coop – from what I can gather, Mondragon, a collective of coops in Spain, is different in important ways. But is it different enough? You say in your piece that co-ops are alternatives to outsourcing to for profit companies. But coops are for profit companies, just organised differently. If they didn’t make a profit they wouldn’t exist

    Reply
    1. preorg

      I think those objections are valid if you see co-ops as being the answer to ‘What would the ideal economy look like?’. But I see co-ops as answers to some more pragmatic questions: ‘How can people improve their living conditions now?’ and importantly ‘How can people get the skills they need to democratically, collectively run an economy?’

      I think co-ops are only part of the solution to the first question, and possibly just a part of the transition. But I see those latter two questions above as pretty important. I hear a lot of radicals talking about an economy they would feel in control of, and if pressed most of them would admit that if you tried to move immediately to a non-market, people-managed economy it would be a failure, because people don’t have the skills right now. But I haven’t often seen any proposed solutions to this problem. Co-ops are a place you can develop collective self-management skills now. While also controlling your working conditions etc.

      A technical aside on the issue of profit. Does co-op profit function in the same way? The main objection that the marxist point of view has against profit seems to be that it is stealing the worker’s labour. But that is not happening in a co-op, so what would be the systemic effects if everyone were in a ‘profit-making co-op’ and the other types of corporation didn’t exist? Did Yugoslavia work like that or did everything return to the state? I keep making a mental note to research Yugoslavian economics and failing to find any books that talk about it in detail.

      Reply
      1. Lee Tien-Hock

        I’m another person who keeps meaning to read up on the economics of the SFRY, but hasn’t done so yet. You might know this all too well already, but your description, “what would be the systemic effects if everyone were in a ‘profit-making co-op’ and the other types of corporation didn’t exist,” roughly corresponds with certain variants of what has been called mutualism, which is also associated with market anarchism. There are capitalist and anti-capitalist versions, and my sympathies are largely with the latter. An interesting website advocating market anarchist principles is the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS).

        Reply
  2. preorg

    Just found this:
    http://balkanologie.revues.org/681

    It seems to be written from quite a managerialist perspective (e.g. attributing ‘enterprise’ to private forces only) but has some interesting things to say:

    In a purely competitive and “free” self-management system, workers would have no reason to strike against themselves. In practice, nonetheless, the high degree of government intervention in enterprise affairs provoked adverse reaction in workers. Workers were striking not against enterprise, but against government policy.

    The façade of self-management, as Zagorka Golubović has rightly noted, lies in the inherent incompatibility between democratic practice and the control of a one-party Marxist state. Self-management was bound to fail because workers and enterprise itself had no real influence—despite the claims of the (one-party Marxist) state—on decision making, production process, or social policy58. The reasons for failure can be thus summarized, briefly, as :

    1. Yugoslav society rested on a form of control from a single “all encompassing” ruling ideology. This reality excluded the basic principles of self-organization, self-determination, self-management, and self-government.

    2. The real authority of the state allowed, at best, a “paternalistic self-manage­ment.” Self-management was an appendage to the state, rather than its alternative.

    3. Self-management was developed by those who implemented Stalinist post-war development in Yugoslavia until 1948. Thus, self-management was neither a form of social innovation nor a theoretical reassessment of the Soviet model, but rather a form of appropriation in the hands of those who maintained real power

    Reply
    1. Lee Tien-Hock

      Fascinating and enlightening, just from that little excerpt! Intend to read the full article soon. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
    2. Tim

      In “Wither Socialism?” Stiglitz argues that there are fundemental limits related to the cost of aquiring and transmitting information that lead to serious mis-allocation in both deregulated free-market systems and tightly-regulated planned systems. As I understand it, he accuses the centrally planned economies and the market-fundamentalists of making precisely the same error – that of assuming that information can be aquired and transmitted efficiently.

      Reply
      1. preorg

        Hmm, interesting perspective. Does he propose specific solutions to the problem?

        Reply
        1. Tim

          Well, he talks about trying to use markets where they work and government where they don’t – but it is not really specific as I remember. It is more about how his research can explain the kind of outcomes seen in those centrally planned economies, taking a look at various different amounts of markets vs central planning in different “socialist” governments that happened. In The Roaring Nineties he writes a bit about what they tried in the US when he was working for Clinton, and why he thinks it didn’t work. And in Globalization and its Discontents he writes about how he thinks those sort of flawed free-market/free-trade economics have damaged various contries during globalisation, and that many of the flaws are to do with information costs and pre-existing inequalities. Wither Socialism is by far the most techinical, but it is a while since I read any of his books.

          Reply
        2. Tim

          I suppose in alot of ways his second two books are pretty much “well, I though this might work, so i tried it and it made things even worse – probably for these reasons – so lets not do that again”.

          Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>