When was your best day at work? For me, it has been when I have a deep sense of connection with others.
When I was young, it was being part of organising a demonstration on international debt that brought seventy thousand people onto the streets in Birmingham. Now, it is when I know I am part of a team or partnership that pulls together and can take pride in what we achieve.
This Saturday is a chance for all of us to feel some of that, because it is the International Day of Co‑operatives – this year on the theme of the sustainable development goal of ‘Decent Work’.
One in eight people on Earth (12%) is a co‑operator – a member of any of the 3 million cooperatives around the world. These may be credit unions, retail co‑operatives, farmer and fishery co‑ops, insurance mutuals, housing co-ops and many more. As a new book out from the International Co-operative Alliance, Co‑operatives and the World of Work, points out, these co‑operatives provide work – employment or support for livelihoods such as farming – for around one in ten (ten per cent) of the employed population.
What marks this co‑operative work out is that it is needs‑driven. That is a good fit with what we need as human beings to enjoy decent work. As Fritjof Capra puts it – "we can’t be empowered by work that destroys the environment around us or creates systems of inequality. No matter how our work is organised, it cannot fully empower us unless we believe in its purpose".
Purpose matters. Psychoanalytic theories about work suggest that people need a clear concept of their ‘primary task’ if they are to function well in the workplace. And values matter too, as these are what allows people to align with that purpose, to see themselves in the work.
But this is not how employment works in the wider economy. In paid work, people are often being rewarded in terms of money and status when they are behaving destructively. Those who care at home or in the family that are unpaid suffer low status, poor conditions and often stress and personal costs – and the burden of this work continues to fall disproportionately on women, whether they are out of or in the labour market.
Mainstream business is now embracing the idea of purpose. But, as with the overpaid company chief executive who claims that people are their greatest asset, it is often a form of play acting.
Business leaders can claim what they like but they rarely translate it into a system in which their workers can act with integrity in line with those claims. Front line staff face unresolved conflicts as a result and carry much of the confusion day to day. The lower in the hierarchy you are, the more confused or degraded some of the noble goals of purpose can appear.
The key difference that work in a co‑operative brings is the scope to have a voice in that purpose and a voice on what goes on. In the UK’s consumer retail co-operatives, for example, they are structured to have customers as members and the staff are organised as employees. I have written elsewhere about the challenges and opportunities of being a co‑operative employer in a fast turnover employment sector such as retail. But alongside this is a longstanding practice of employees as members, with representation on the Board, often at significant levels (with employees and former employees).
For the worker co‑operative sector, the sharing of power and the opportunities for self‑realisation through work has long been a motivating factor. This is a radical project, full of intent and full of the organising possibilities of transformation across the wider economy. And yet it is practical too, rooted in coming to work as a human being, not as a child and as a partner taking responsibility rather than an employee taking orders. Our short video of the Leeds Bread Co‑op, Reimagine Work, is a wonderful introduction to this world if you haven’t seen it.
We were privileged to welcome worker co‑operatives recently to Manchester around our Co‑op Congress, for the 40th anniversary of the founding of the network CECOP, which gives voice to 35,000 worker co-ops across Europe and 12,000 social co-operatives. At the same time, we also consulted on a new campaign coming up with the Employee Ownership Association to champion the goal of one million worker owners in the UK.
So, celebrate the International Day of Co‑operatives – always the first Saturday in July and the 25th now to be endorsed by the United Nations.
Here in the co‑operative model of participation and purpose are the seeds of a new working class – people linked through work that allows us to be free.
We have work to do.