Tag Archives: ethical business

Workers’ Co-operatives: escape from the rat-race | The Occupied Times

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. [1] 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.” [2]

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 [3]:

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.” [4]

[1] www.weirdigans.co.uk    [2] www.footprinters.co.uk    [3] www.radicalroutes.org.uk    [4] www.social.un.org/coopsyear

Published in The Occupied Times

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‘Caring Capitalism’ – a contradiction in terms?

Ask ten people – occupiers, bankers, journalists, company directors – not whether they agree with capitalism but instead “What is Capitalism?”. The ten different answers proffered suggest that the ‘are we anti-capitalist?’ question is moot.

Those who identify with the anti-capitalist label describe capitalism as necessarily exploitative. They see it as a system in which fatcats callously use and abuse the labour of subordinates to further their own greed and gains.

Those who identify themselves as capitalists see it as a system which allows trade, social mobility, entrepreneurship and rewards for hard work. They compare it favourably with failed communist systems. They can’t see an alternative unless we go back to the stone-age.

Many of these capitalists believe that in recent years capitalism has gone wrong. They agree with the anti-capitalists that a tiny minority have raked in profits without the corresponding hard work and market success that could perhaps justify such riches.

In a pure capitalist system, no bank or business would be ‘too big to fail’. If those in charge made mistakes, they’d lose money and power and status in just the same way that a small business owner would. When governments use tax-payers’ money in bail-outs, capitalism is transformed into ‘corporate socialism’. This is a system so ludicrous that it’s little wonder people are camping on cold city streets across Europe and the U.S. Put simply, this is a system whereby the wealthiest 1%, drunk on their own power and greed, crash economies leading to suffering for everyone except themselves… then insist we prop them up so that they can carry on lording it over us (and our governments).

There are very few people who truly believe this is okay. Those who do must surely be members of the self-serving elite, or masochists. Splitting the rest of us into capitalists and anti-capitalists (and assuming that critics of capitalism must necessarily be socialists or communists) is a simple divide-to-rule strategy. We should be making alliances with all those who see that the current system has gone wrong.

Some in the Occupy movement would like to do away with money, to replace it perhaps with a barter system. Others believe that it is not money per se that is the problem – money, after all, is just tokens that allow us to exchange things without having to do a straight swap. Many argue that usury is the real root of all evil. Usury – condemned by the early Christian church and by Islamic law – is the begetting of interest via provision of loans. It enables people to make money simply by having money, to become wealthy without work. It rides on a ‘something for nothing’ culture (which, strangely, is what the Occupy movement is often falsely represented as wanting). Promotion of high-interest loans to the poverty-stricken is the most crass and socially destructive end of the usury spectrum. The complex gambling inherent in today’s institutions of high finance is also all about using money to beget money – and as we’ve recently experienced, the gamblers risk not their own livelihoods but ours.

So, we could regulate to minimise the excesses of usury and high-finance gambling. What else could we do to address financial injustice and economic crisis? Something all occupiers would agree on is that a tinkering with the current system – shoe-horning in a few extra regulations – is not enough. Radical overhaul is required. If we can find a way to join forces not only with unions, students and public sector workers but also with small business owners and entrepreneurs, we might have a serious chance of achieving this. Taking a majority of the self-avowed capitalists with us into a better future… that must be the goal. So what are these capitalists thinking? I asked…

‘Capitalist’ Number One admitted to being

jaded by a system that awards 50% pay rises to executives who – like bankers, and unlike true entrepreneurs – take no real hit on the downside.” Despite disillusionment he said “I still believe in capitalism as a system for ensuring greater prosperity for all… but what we have is selfish cronyism where cartels of old boys’ networks reward each other for failure.”

‘Capitalist’ Number Two said:

How about obliging individuals and corporations to devote a significant proportion of their resources, energy and profits to serving their communities? Small businesses and individuals would ‘pay back’ on a local scale; the big boys would contribute on an international scale. The penalty for avoidance would be crippling taxation or, ultimately, criminalisation. Harness the energy of the smartest people and put funds where they’re really needed. Imagine the good that Microsoft and others could do, not to mention banks, if obliged to focus their brainpower and resources on solving (instead of creating) global problems. I’ve even worked out how this could be implemented…”.

‘Capitalist’ Number Three sees trade as an essential tenet of humanity but would like all unethical trading to be outlawed. She says we already know how to do this:

Workers’ Co-operatives, Social Enterprises and Community Interest Companies have ethics enshrined in their constitutions to cover environmental and social considerations, workers’ rights and animal rights. Fairtrade regulators, the Soil Association, Radical Routes and other bodies already exist; these could be networked and expanded to oversee businesses and to alert a fearsome inspectorate (something like HMRC but with more teeth and fewer loopholes) should breaches of ethics be suspected. Fines large enough to act as a serious deterrent would be imposed for a first breach; subsequent breaches if proven to be intentional or due to negligence would result in forced company closure, with assets to be seized and put directly into redressing the problems caused.”

If these kinds of solutions were implemented, would the resulting system still be Capitalism?

You could call it Caring Capitalism”, suggested Capitalist One. The others shook their heads and grimaced.

Let’s skip the ‘isms’,” said Capitalist Two. “Let’s just call it… a collection of Bloody Good Ideas?”

That’ll do,” decided Capitalist Three. “Now can we get on with the revolution?”

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