Union co-ops: decent work for a better work

By union-coops:uk

Anita Mangan, one of the IEI steering committee and a lecturer in the School of Management, brings us a blog from the union-coops movement. How can the strengths of trade unions and co-operatives be brought together?

The economy and society are in crisis. We are facing so many pressing questions about the future of work and our communities. What does the future of work look like? How can we achieve democracy and fairness in the workplace or fight in-work poverty? Do we have to accept the gig economy and precarious work? Is there a way of creating decent work? Is there anything we can do about unemployment, food poverty, empty commercial properties in our towns and cities? How can we ‘build back better’ after Covid-19? What can we do about the disappearance of services? Are there solidarity economy solutions to these questions?

The International Labour Organisation’s Recommendation 193 states that decent work is a right for everyone and that co‑operatives, working with trade unions, are one of the best ways to achieve it. Co-operatives and trades unions have a shared history dating back to the 19th century and their collective efforts to respond to pressing social needs. The union co-op model draws on that shared history. It does so by offering a vision for democratically organised workplaces, using a model that counters mainstream economic narratives.

A union co-op is a fully unionised, worker co-operative, owned and controlled by those who own and work in it (although it may have others in membership, as long as they are in a minority). Trade unions are at the heart of this solidarity economy solution: a union co-op offers the potential for a 100% unionised workforce, with the union an essential part of the governance. The union co-op model can deliver improved wages and other terms and conditions by eliminating top-slicing by external owners. It offers us an opportunity to reset the working world, harnessing the collective power of workers, their knowledge, skills and creativity through strong partnerships with unions.

The principles for the union co-op include the seven principles adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance, as well as three additional principles which are focused on protecting worker’s rights, creating decent work and paying a fair wage. The ten core union co-op principles are: (1) voluntary and open membership; (2) democratic member control; (3) member economic participation; (4) autonomy and independence; (5) education, training and information; (6) co-operation among co-operatives; (7) concern for community; (8) subsidiarity of capital to labour; (9) solidarity and fairness in renumeration; and (10) commitment to union co-op development.

The first four principles enshrine the ideals of equality, fairness, democratic control and autonomy in a union co-op. Principles 5 – 7 move beyond the individual union co-op to outline how they should interact positively with the local community and other co-ops. Principles 8, 9 and 10 have been developed from the ideas of the Mondragon worker co-operatives in Spain and are a vital addition to the International Co-operative Alliance’s principles because they enshrine workers’ rights and fair pay into the governance of the union co-op. We suggest that these 10 core principles form a set of strictly bounded ethical principles by which each union co-op is run. However, while they guide the shaping of each union co-op, they also allow flexibility for each individual union co-op to adapt and respond to local contexts. The union co-op model is not a ‘one size fits all’ model: it is flexible and can adapt to local needs and requirements.

The idea of the union co-op has emerged from studying the formal collaborations in different countries between trade unions and the co-operative movement. The experience of union co-ops in the United States has been a particular source of encouragement. For example, United Steelworkers (USW), the largest trade union in North America, has developed a union co-op model as a response to trade union decline, and to counter the effects of neoliberal practices such as offshoring and wage suppression. The core governance model promotes fully integrated workplace ownership and trade union representation allowing the benefits of trade union services and worker ownership to be delivered simultaneously. Their economic development network (1worker1vote.org) operates in 10 cities across the US. Similarly, the Service Employees International Union has supported the development of worker co-operatives in the US care industry, the empowered workers being mainly women of colour now in control of their work and with improved terms and conditions.

Union co-ops are already well-established in the United States and there is much we can learn about the activism, funding and creativity behind the movement. To learn more about the US experience of union co-ops, union-coops:uk hosted an online seminar with key US union and co-operative activists. The speakers were Michael Peck (1worker1vote.org), Ra Criscitiello (Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers West), Kristen Barker and Ellen Vera (both from Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative) and Kevin O’Brien (worX Printing). The event is sponsored by BFAWU, MU and Co-operative Ways Forward.

The seminar was recorded and is available here. We are planning further seminars and a conference throughout 2021-22. If you want to hear more about union co-op work, sign up to our blog.

About the authors

The authors are part of union-coops:uk which is a campaigning organisation of co-operators and trade union activists working to create fully unionised worker co-operatives, that have unions at the core of their democracy. Anita Mangan is also a member of the Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative.

This blog is adapted from:

BIRD, A., CONATY, P., MANGAN, A., MCKEOWN, M., ROSS, C. & TAYLOR, S. 2020. Democracy and work. In: PARKER, M. (ed.) Live after Covid-19: The other side of the crisis. Bristol: Bristol University Press.