Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Trade Unions and Co-ops

There was an internet discussion recently begun by John Merrit MD of Social Enterprise link Wessex about the relationships between Trade Unions and Co-ops. He saw some of the key philosophical differences between trade unions and co-ops pointing out that there are strong syndicalist tendencies in co-ops and democratic centralist tendencies in trade unions, despite the fact that co-op members and workers are very often the same people. It is indeed a pity that with a shared criticism of share holder capitalism, co-operators and trade unionists cannot find ways of working together to create new models of democratic ownership.

This is very important. Despite the evidence of the complete failure of neo-liberalism it still has the ruling class and its acolytes in its thrall. Look at the debate about whether the blood sucking leech that has the franchise for the West Coast Mainline should have a beard or not. Despite all the evidence of colossal waste the Labour Party cannot bring itself to state the obvious - that privatisation has been an unmitigated disaster and the railways have to be bought back into some form of public ownership.

As a co-operator I of course believe that the precise form of public ownership should be open for discussion to ensure railway workers, rail-passengers and the government get a say in how then are managed and run. In my opinion there is no scope for private ownership of key utilities they are natural monopolies that as well as carrying out key economic activities also have a social function. Private businesses can often be reasonably well behaved but fundamentally in healthcare, education and the criminal justice system, the pursuit of profit is inappropriate it distorts the outputs and eventually increases the cost of these activities. I remember listening to Gordon Brown railing at the electricity companies about their pricing structures. It is clear that whatever regulatory system you create the companies will use all their efforts to subvert it.

It was even worse when we had those devastating summer floods with Tewkesbury threatened with complete submersion. Brown demanded that private companies should give up profits and dividends and invest more in flood prevention measures. You may as well tell a dog to be a cat. What nonsense these are private companies, if you do not want them to behave like private businesses don’t make them profit seeking in the first place.

This year Co-ops UK have signed a memorandum of understanding with the TUC we have a common interest I believe in protecting the co-operative brand from dilution and reputational damage from the creation of pseudo public service mutuals. But whilst we can easily agree that key services and utilities should be firmly in the public sector that still leaves an awful lot of the economy where there is a greater scope for co-operative ownership models.

The Post Office for example which consists of a large number of small private businesses, the provision of council services like waste collection and grounds maintenance seem ideal for co-operative business models and you don’t need to hear me going on again about a greater role for co-ops in the provision of financial services. In the United States the largest worker co-op is Co-operative Home Care Associates whose two thousand members are represented by branch 1199 of the Services Employees International Union (SEIU). Their slogan is the provision of quality care through quality jobs. Not a message that seems to strike a chord with many of the UK private social care vultures.

Here in the UK UNISON have signed an MOU with the Schools Co-operative Society which promotes Co-operative trust schools. The NASUWT have also signed an agreement with them to ensure schools remain not for profit and democratically accountable. There is no doubt the ground is moving, the masochism of the Conservative cuts will continue whilst they are in power, despite the whining of the Liberal Democrats and if Labour wins the election despite Ed Milibands rhetoric about good and bad businesses Labour has still not woken up to the reality that the old ways have failed and new ownership models are needed.

One recently lost comrade Ken Coates who was the driving force behind the Institute for Workers Control, saw through Tony Blair early on, the removal of the old clause four from the Labour constitution confirmed his fears. For Ken workers control came from his views on poverty and alienation and the fact that people where disempowered. He said it was “not simply about the worker taking all the decisions; it is about the environment being such that human development is the crucial datum and not profit and loss.”

Tory austerity is about destroying any hope of development for the working class, about breaking us so that we are grateful for whatever we are given, the process of alienation runs deep and it is up to us as trade unionists and co-operators to map out an alternative future. As the great Jimmy Reid said in his University rectoral address in 1971,

“Alienation, is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today… it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision making.”

It was true then and it is even truer today. More and more of us are the slaves of global capital and its lackeys prostituting ourselves in search of “investment”. Yet we have a choice - ownership really does matter - we can reverse this trend and find new ways of making capital work for people.

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