Workers’ co-operatives are an anomaly. They exist within the current system while embodying its antithesis. Maybe that’s why governments have ignored them. Despite a history dating back to the Industrial Revolution and the existence of over 2000 UK-based workers’ co-operatives, there is no legal definition of a co-op in Britain. Recognition may be about to increase dramatically, as 2012 is the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives.
The UN is pouring resources into promoting the co-operative model as an alternative means of doing business, while raising awareness of how invaluable co-operatives are in reducing poverty, generating employment, enhancing social integration and increasing sustainability.
We’re led to believe that competition is necessary in the market-place; that business is all about cut and thrust and cutting costs; that bosses boss and workers work and the former are worth far more than the latter. Co-operatives challenge those assumptions, being comprised of voluntary members who jointly and equally control and contribute to the co-op for their own benefit and that of their community. Guided by values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others, co-operatives emphasise the ‘people and planet before profit’ message at the heart of the Occupy movement.
Workers’ co-ops are based on the idea that a workplace should be controlled by those who actually put the work in and that everyone involved should benefit equally. Only workers may be members of the co-op and all members have an equal say in running the business. Many co-operatives use consensus decision making and workers often take turns to do unpopular tasks. While individual skills, experience and preferences are taken into account, attempts are made to provide training and skill-shares so that everyone has a chance to participate in all areas of the work.
A classic image: Protesters carrying banners demanding jobs. Perhaps some left school or college only to find themselves stumbling uncertainly into a no-hope future. Others face redundancy. Some are long-term unemployed, in benefit traps, increasingly unemployable. Jobs are the obvious answer but they’re not always what they’re cracked up to be. Ask those whose work pays the mortgage but drains the soul. Exploitative McJobs aren’t what those marchers really want but “A living wage and meaningful, creative employment that I can be proud of” doesn’t fit neatly onto a placard.
Workers’ co-operatives are an alternative to oppression in the workplace. They are not an alternative to hard work and often require a degree of commitment and responsibility far higher than that demanded in more conventional employment. The pay-back comes in making ones own decisions, co-operating with like-minded people, being in a work environment that is not all about the money. In a workers’ co-op, the well-being of workers, communities and the environment is more important than chasing profit. That’s radical in today’s society.
“Where most companies put profit, we put ethics – right at the heart of what we do. We refuse to compromise for an easy life or a cheap deal.” So says Weirdigans Cafe Co-operative.  What does this mean in practice? It means buying organic ingredients, local fresh produce and fair-trade dried goods. It means using a solar-powered, energy-efficient sound system and LED lighting. It means working long hours for minimum wage then sitting around a campfire with a bunch of workmates who’re all equal, who care about each other and wouldn’t dream of playing competitive workplace politics. Caring for customers is high on the list of priorities, as is supporting campaigns against GM foodstuffs and spreading the Occupy message. Lining one’s own pockets doesn’t get a mention.
Footprint Workers’ Co-operative: “As we have no bosses we run [our printing business] as we want, doing interesting jobs for interesting people. We want to be straightforward, friendly, responsible and responsive… We do it as ethically as we can, printing on proper recycled paper, powered by a genuine green electricity tariff and using the least environmentally damaging processes we can find. We also give a percentage of the money we make to worthy projects.” 
The socially useful and educational aspects of co-ops come first for many in the movement. Profit-seeking is rare. Sales translate into fair wages and are used to improve both workers’ conditions and service provision for customers. Successful co-operatives often put money back into their communities, donate to charities or support other co-operatives through networks such as Radical Routes.
The Occupy movement – with its emphasis on equality, transparency, democracy and sustainability – is so in tune with the more radical co-ops that it’s difficult to tell their statements apart. This is Radical Routes, a network of co-ops seeking to change the status quo :
“Our world is shaped by the forces of greed, capitalism and materialism, where maximum production and optimum profits are vigorously pursued, making life a misery for many and putting us and the environment at risk. The system is ultimately controlled by the rich and powerful, the capitalists and bureaucrats, through the use of many mechanisms such as ownership of the economy (making people slaves to a job) and control of the media (creating a passive culture).”
And this is Occupy London:
“With its relentless pursuit of profit at all cost, the present corporate system fits the definition of a psychopath, driving the rapid destruction of our society and the natural environment. This is done only to benefit a small minority and not the needs of the 99 per cent. The way corporations and governments are intertwined fundamentally undermines democracy. Corporations are rarely transparent or accountable to the people… The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives…”
Perhaps co-operatives are one of the alternatives Occupy is seeking. Occupy and the co-operative movement could co-operate to the benefit of both of their communities and to benefit the 99 per cent currently caught in the lonely rat race of oppression and meaningless or non-existent work. Key messages coming from the UN reflect this.
“Co-operative enterprises empower people… improve livelihoods and strengthen the economy… enable sustainable development… balance social and economic demands… promote democratic principles… [provide] a pathway out of poverty… [provide] a sustainable business model for youth…”
The UN slogan for 2012: “Cooperative enterprises build a better world.” 
 www.weirdigans.co.uk  www.footprinters.co.uk  www.radicalroutes.org.uk  www.social.un.org/coopsyear
Published in The Occupied Times