Union Cooperative Strategy – David O’Connell

Of all of our customary expressions, the word “radical” has probably suffered the most diminishing returns. There’s something about it which implies a certain level of irrationality or perhaps even a sort of childish controversialism, someone who is a radical should certainly be taken with a large pinch of salt. It’s colloquially placed in opposition to a “moderate” perspective, which by its own virtue requires much less defense in public debate. In fact, the word “radical” is quite interesting. Like the word radish, it takes its meaning from the Latin word radix, meaning root. A ‘radical solution’ is therefore one which is supposed to get to the root of the problem, and is probably better placed not in opposition to a moderate solution so much as a superficial one. The problem we face is not only a poor grasp of Latin among trade union officials, but perhaps even more seriously, that the labour movement itself has since the 1940s been entirely focused on finding superficial solutions to radical problems – and is now beginning to pay the price.

The past we inherit …

In 2009 I participated in a factory occupation. Workers at the Visteon plant in Enfield had barricaded themselves in, demanding a humane redundancy package after being given five minutes notice to clear out their lockers. Living next door, myself with several others volunteered as guards during the graveyard shifts to make sure management thugs didn’t try to remove the machinery at some unfortunate hour like 4am. A lot could be said about this whole event, but the incident which comes to mind most prominently was a particular factory floor mass meeting which took place after about a week of occupation.

The workers were debating what to do next, and without influence from the smorgasbord of lefty groups attending, began to discuss a full takeover – to start operating the factory again, without bosses. They not only assumed automatically that everyone would be getting roughly the same wage, they also quickly realised they didn’t even want to make automobile components but something more environmentally friendly and useful to the local community, and began to sketch out ideas for what else might be different under worker control.

Now, this didn’t happen. This time. But the attitude is clearly latent in the working class. It was considered pretty obvious in the 1800s that “those who work the mills ought to own them” and seemed pretty obvious to the Visteon workers too. In fact, during my decade long experience as a trade union and workplace organiser, the ownership question comes up quite a lot more than one would expect. On top of bad pay and conditions there remains ultimately a fundamental indignity in renting yourself to an employer, and following orders in return for food and rent money. Tolerating this, or perhaps one should say trying to make it tolerable, is a sort of Sisyphean task for which there is no ultimate reward, as organisers like Jane McAlevey have noted in her commendable article ‘Resistance is not enough‘.

The trade union movement, now on the brink of total collapse, has actually got very little to say about this. The Vichy-style leadership of the trade unions, dedicated to class collaboration and compromise, are not supportive of worker control or even interested in the question when presented within entirely legal parameters. On this point they are seemingly dedicated to remaining opportunistically silent as to avoid any sort of inflammation which may result from challenging the established hegemony.

While unions shirk from their historic objectives and continue their decline, the vacuum they leave is, of course naturally, being filled by someone else. That someone else, if you have not guessed already, is the cooperative movement – and the reasons are not hard to imagine. According to Co-operatives UK, 68% of all workers, and 75% of part time workers say they want more control at work. Without arousing too much debate, I think it can be stated fairly confidently that the cooperative movement offers a far more tangible and immediately relevant method of achieving that, far beyond anything which can be established in a collective agreement. How, or perhaps even “if”, the unions bridge this gap may decide whether unions continue to exist in any meaningful way.

… The future we build

It’s becoming popular on the left to notice the potential for Cooperatives to form the backbone of a sustained revival of worker power, core proponents of this position are people life Richard D Wolff and Gar Alperovitz, but one should also mention in the same breath that several prominent unions have also taken this position, from the USW in America, to the CUT in Brazil and SEWA in India. In fact, a new alliance between Community trade union and IndyCube, seeks to do something similar here in Britain.

People like Erik Olin-Wright refer to worker run enterprises as “strategic battering rams for achieving socialism” and it’s easy to understand the optimism. This line of argument is of course not new, Marx wrote in 1894; “The co-operative factories run by workers themselves are, within the old form, the first examples of the emergence of a new form” adding that he believed “opposition between capital and labour is abolished there”. Indeed, once owned and managed by the workers, the participants have a habit of providing themselves the best possible pay and conditions, and extensive research shows that cooperatives excel in both market and extra market terms.

Stopping short of actual workplace takeovers and buyouts, this strategy provides an immediate set of benefits to the day to day trade unionism you and I are more familiar with. For one thing, capital flight can be eliminated as an objection to trade union organising if any attempt to move the factory abroad results in the workers buying it out. On the one hand, the boss threatening to offshore production if costs get too high can become an opportunity rather than a challenge. Want to move production to Thailand? Ok, but we’re buying the factory and keeping our jobs here. The workers too will have, one can speculate, a newfound confidence in knowing that we are not simply being ham fisted in “recklessly” demanding pay increases. This is because as soon as this all gets too much for the senior management the place will be theirs.

Alternatively, cooperatives can actually be used by trade unions to set higher industry standards and trigger upward spirals. For example, if you have a construction firm run by the workers, within which they provide themselves the best possible pay and conditions, and assuming this construction cooperative operates relatively well, the bosses will have to compete with these terms and conditions in order to retain skilled workers. Which in turn gives added strength to construction unions in negotiations within those firms.

It’s in our hands

Now these strategies are tricky to deploy. There are many successful examples, but equally, many failures which one can enlist to support their side of the argument. An honourable mention must be given to the titanic cost of buying a factory, which requires not just money but also serious levels of organisation. Normally such proposals requires government support – and while helping workers buy out a factory is better for the economy than having unemployed workers sit idly outside a factory they know how to run, these bids are liable to be rejected on ideological grounds. Despite ILO Recommendation 193 encouraging states to prefer worker buyouts to alternative bids, they generally tend to ignore this, if you can believe it.

Following the defeat of the Miners in 1984 , the NUM Branch leader, Tyrone O’Sullivan organised the pit workers to pool their redundancy pay and put in a bid for the mine. Without a hint of irony they responded to the remarks of Hesseltine who scoffed, “if the workers want to run the mines they should buy them”. With some help, they bought the mine and ran it under NUM/Workers control at a profit until 2008, when the coal was exhausted. Allow yourself to imagine if this had been NUM national policy for a moment, and the union had ended up running (at least a fair part of) the British mining industry, and you’ll understand perhaps in part the benefits of being this adventurous.

If we believe in democracy, then allowing the economy to run by a patchwork of private command structures, with no internal democracy or accountability, should make our stomachs turn. Alexis de Tocqueville once asked; “can it be believed that the Democracy which has overthrown the Feudal system and vanquished Kings, will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists?”. The question he poses requires an address, and not all are shy to the challenge.

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6 thoughts on “Union Cooperative Strategy – David O’Connell

  1. But aren’t lots of co-ops also shite places to work? Isn’t there a danger that this would encourage closed-shop union organising?

    Finally, wouldn’t partial self-management be a better goal, for example in things like health and safety? We can get that without paying money we don’t have, winning it through strikes, etc.


    1. Isn’t all work under capitalism basically shite? It seems great when viewed in isolation or from the point of view of individual accumulaltion of welath but other than that its pretty much all shite…. What is your yardstick mate?
      Also whats wrong with closed shops? Just because it hurts your feelies it doesn’t stop it pushing up wages for the whole class.


  2. There are different kinds of cooperatives. So you could have a cooperative which is owned by the workers through majority shareholdings and so on, but which are not actually run by the workers on the shop floor. Like John Lewis etc. What I sort of assume we’re aiming for is a particular kind of cooperative called a “Worker Self Directed Enterprise” (WSDE) where workers own *and* manage the workplace. These can still go wrong of course, but so can unions. So can community campaigns and so on.


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