Published: 03 December 2012
Extracted chapter from Griffiths, David (Ed.) Co-operators - Co-operation and Co-operatives, Southeast Housing Co-operative Ltd, 2012, pp 36-37.
How we understand our place is the world is shaped by our relationship to the economy and where we fit in to it. If we are born into a family who have money and can use it to make things happen, we grow up with a sense of entitlement around decision-making. If our family is poor and has never been in a position of making decisions, we often grow up assuming that things like politics are nothing to do with us. This alienates large numbers of people from any sense of power and control over own their lives.
What does this have to do with co-ops?
Co-ops give us the opportunity to reshape our relationship to these power structures. In the have and have-nots world of power, co-operatives can give decision-making capacity to all members equally. This means that people who have been excluded from controlling aspects of their lives, can achieve more autonomy, an opportunity to lead a more fulfilling life.
If you have the means at your disposal, you can access the resources - the capital and the entitlement - to make the things happen which you want to happen. This is the case only for a few of us. Otherwise the way that we can make things happen is to pool our resources together, and to decide together what our goals are and how to distribute our gains (and losses) fairly.
Another forum in which we do this is trade unions. Why is that different to a co-op? At the end of the day, if our workplace is not organised democratically, if the surplus (and the losses) generated by our collective labour are the private property of others, then we will perpetuate a society of haves and have-nots, of people who believe they are entitled to make decisions that affect others, and people who are alienated from decision-making. We will fail to fulfil any potential as human beings to build a healthy, rewarding and inclusive society.
In our unions, when we enter into bargaining, we are claiming a voice for the have-nots of the decision-making power. We are challenging those with the entitlement, the owners and the managers, to relinquish some of their power and move closer to the democracy of a co-operative. However, whilst the owners of the business maintain ownership of the consequences of the decisions - the success or otherwise of the business - we end up in a tussle where the ‘bosses’ feel like it is not fair because they have to wear all the risk and suffer the consequences of all these demands the workers are making. They are positioned to be the ‘haves’ when it comes to the decision-making power.
What we don’t seem to realise is how retarding this is, how we fail to get the best from people when they a) are not entitled to make decisions about the things that affect them and b) are separated from the consequences of the decisions that they do make.
We could choose to make a business financially sustainable, rather than profitable, and create employment with the surplus. We could change the way we measure return, efficiency, success. The most efficient way to produce clothing is a sweat shop, which does not have overheads such as living wages, and costs of implementing workplace safety, and so more surplus can be directed to shareholders, or the clothing can be sold more competitively in the market. However, this creates an external cost, of employees who cannot support themselves to have a decent life. If how we measure the success is the maximum social good, or number of decent jobs that can be created from that business, then the co-op model serves us well. It is for this reason that 75% of the Fair Trade in the world is produced by co-ops.
It’s not really a new thing. My first bank account was with a credit union. My grandparents were members of mutual societies. But it could lead to something new.
Linda Seaborn became a founding member of the Cohousing Co-operative in 1993. She speaks Spanish and is interested in co-operatives in Latin America. Linda has worked in community services and higher education and currently works for the government supporting vocational education, and is active in the union movement.