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.