One worker, one vote

In terms of innovation, my friend Pat Conaty is usually years ahead, so when he has been talking about something for a while, there is a fair bet, it will soon land somewhere in the UK in practice.

Pat is fascinated by new models of co-operative banking, ranging from loan funds such as the Aston Reinvestment Trust he set up years ago through to Nordic ‘free’ banking – the JAK movement – which has yet to arrive here but ought to be popular. The latest source of inspiration, he tells me, is from Cleveland, USA, where there are some remarkable examples of economic democracy and innovation.  And one of the blueprints for a potential new bank in Cleveland, in turn, is the Mondragon Co-operative.

Started in 1956 with five workers in a small shop in the Basque country making kerosene stoves, Mondragon now has over 100,000 worker-owners in some 260 enterprises across 40 countries. It has annual sales of more than 16 billion Euros with a wide range of products–high tech machine tools, motor buses, household appliances and a chain of supermarkets. Its new model supermarkets, Eroski, are spreading well across France, for example. Mondragon also runs its own banks, health clinics, welfare system, schools and the 4,000 student Mondragon University- all worker-owned coops.

‘This is not heaven and we are not angels’ is a common saying in Mondragon, but it remains nonetheless a source of energy and enduring inspiration.

A recent initiative has been to tie up with the United Steelworkers (USW) union in the USA to turn businesses facing closure in the recession into worker-owned cooperatives.

“We have lots of experience with Employee Share Ownership,” explains the USW International President Leo W. Gerard, “but we have found that it doesn’t take long for the Wall Street types to push workers aside and take back control. We see Mondragon’s cooperative model with ‘one worker, one vote’ ownership as a means to re-empower workers and make business accountable to Main Street instead of Wall Street.”

I sense that we Brits tend to cling on to our hierarchies. Pat is a Californian, so he is different. But a little bit of Basque could do us good.


Find, play, share

Information is fast becoming one of the most powerful tools for social change. A new, draft report from the Australian Taskforce on public sector information (I have been a member of the reference group at distance) scans best practice internationally and makes some great suggestions on how its government can unlock the information that it collects.

The report cites Three Laws of Open Government Data developed by David Eaves, another member of the reference group. This is: if it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist; if it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage; and if a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower. He sums this up as the ability to “find, play, share.”

The report also cites a nice reminder on the wisdom of crowds, that in Who Wants to be a Millionaire, asking the audience gets it right 90% of the time, whereas phoning a friend only gives you a 65% chance of success.

Knowledge, like people, works best in communities.

Needy nation

Sinking and Swimming is a new report by the Young Foundation. It is big, it is complex but it is also a fantastic overview and a wonderfully sophisticated look at Britain.

The team takes a framework of the ‘needs’ that we have as human beings and offers a systematic look at how we are doing as a nation. As I read it, what is visible tends to be addressed. What is invisible – like mental ill-health and night workers – tends to be left neglected. What helps people make it through is when they have the mindset, the skills and above all the supportive relationships to bounce back.

There is a new formula emerging here – for personal action, community co-operation and state policies that promote well-being in a more rounded way.

Sink or Swim is a landmark.

Kit-Kat Co-op

Coopérative Agricole Kavokiva de Daloa, known as Kavokiva, is ten years old this year. Its birthday present is a fair trade Kit Kat.

Kavokiva is the cocoa co-operative that will be supplying the chocolate for fair trade Kit Kats, in stores from the New Year. Nestle’s first fair trade product was coffee, but Kit-Kat now takes a market leader and gives it the fair trade treatment.

The co-operative has 6,000 farmers as members, each growing on an average of 3 hectares. By buying and selling together, the farmers get a better deal and the co-op has been able to reinvest in the community, providing bicycles to farmers, loans for schooling and a health centre for their families.

The Kit Kat Co-op is good news.

Santa sprint

Dog walking is a little different when you have 1,300 Santas in your local park doing a charity run…