The road to self management

The success of the Spanish employee owned cluster of co-operatives, Mondragon, has shone a light on the potential for businesses to be owned and run by the people who work in them.

That model is commonly seen as challenging to traditional banks and investors, who are locked out. But it has also been challenging to some in the labour movement, who believe in the representation rather than the ownership of employees.

In the UK, that debate on self management stretches back one hundred years, with arguments then between those who favoured nationalisation of industries such as coal and those who argued for mines for the miners.

Well, the good news is that over the past year, Mondragon has been working with unions in the USA to develop models for enterprise development.

This week, the US Steelworkers Union, Mondragon, and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center announced its model for developing sustainable jobs using the combination of worker ownership and the collective bargaining process, with a union-coop model template.

This is the right time for new thinking. Rather than argue over the ruins of the last economy, it is time for those who care about good work, to help bring it about.

Love your neighbour says the Queen. Well, she has a few…

The Queen in Parliament has asked us to love our neighbours.

Actually, Britain isn’t bad at this. At Coops UK recently, we took a look at the state of neighbourliness in Britain in a report called ‘Co-operative Streets’.

Problem neighbours, anti-social behaviour and all manner of disputes are a regular media feature as they do make good stories. “My nan” as one young person told me recently “has taken all her four neighbours to court and she’ll tell everyone about it.” It is easy to dub people as ‘neighbours from hell’ without considering what that also says about where you live.

Yes, we found, we are less neighbourly than a generation ago. But the number of neighbours willing to help out is no less than three decades ago. And there are new ways to be a good neighbour. While the number of people looking after neighbours’ pets or plants has halved over thirty years, over thirty million people now take in parcels for their neighbour.

In Essex, which doesn’t have the best reputation for neighbourliness, the wonderful Chelmsford Star Co-operative has printed cards for their members to introduce themselves to their neighbours. Practical, helpful, co-operative.

Across the UK, there are at least twenty one million conversations taking place each day between neighbours. Fourteen million people drop round for a chat with their neighbour. One in four people keep a spare key with the neighbours. We know the name on average of seven people who live in our direct neighbourhood – with women knowing one more on average than men.

I don’t know if the Queen knows more or less neighbours – after all, she has a few.

And don’t forget that your neighbour is supposed to love you too. As Mae West commented, “love thy neighbour… and if he happens to be tall, debonair and devastating, it will be that much easier.”

Food we can trust

I am chairing the ‘Making Local Food Work’ Conference, with some hundreds of producers coming together. I think the last big food event I did was somewhat different – when I was invited to be a judge in the prestigious Product of the Year contest for the food industry. There were entries from every major food company and the experience was pretty awful.

Britain’s food and drink industry is big business. It is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, with a turnover of £66 billion. It employs 500,000 people and buys two out of every three potato, lettuce, tomato, hop, pig and sheep leaving our farms (the other little pig goes to market overseas).

But there was no imagination – and no sense that British food comes from Britain. Each product was heralded with a breathless folder lying in front of it of promotional hype prepared by the PR team or agency: the beer with not too little and not too much alcohol. The chocolate that tastes like heaven.

You say it once and it sounds good, but repeat it, and like all PR puff, it dissolves away – probably just like the products they described. Heaven chocolate was there no doubt to compete with the successful ‘Divine’ fair trade chocolate that has plumped up the children of ethical consumers for ten years. With chocolate farmers from the Kuapa Kokoo co-operative sitting on the company board, Divine was a genuine innovation.

If there was one thing that stood out as one of the shared directions for the herd, though, it was the focus on food and drink for children; gummy chews in which sugar and artificial ingredients fuse with 25% fruit juice for a natural feel; everywhere you look, saturated fat, but lower than before… ‘junk lite’ that the marketers called the trend for ‘permissable treats’. Retailers “will not want to miss the opportunities for profit from sugar consumers” – sugar consumers… there you go, children in a marketing nutshell.

In 2002, Don Curry reported to Government in January 2002, he said that the future of farming in England lay in business models that encouraged them to be stewards of land and nature and to improve the health of people. The real innovation of his widely-welcomed report ‘Farming and Food, a sustainable future’ was that it made the link between people and the food they eat. Our changing tastes and the complexity of where food comes from breaks that link.

We used to be self-sufficient in beef. Now we eat the prime, import steak and export the low-value parts. In poultry we export the legs and extremities of chickens and import the breasts. In a globalised economy, only by reconnecting food producers and consumers is there a hope of a sustainable farming future for the next generation.

And how should we do this? In terms of diet and health, Sir Don asked farmers and the food industry to reach back to the 1950s, to learn what it takes to change the habits of a nation through a consistent campaign over time. We need, he says, a response to the issues of diet and nutrition as consistent and coherent as the decades-long road safety strategy.  This is a good analogy.

Back in the 1950s, the number of children killed on the road was climbing fast as more cars came onto the road. It seemed, to some, inevitable – just as the rise of industrial food may do today. Cars were becoming cheaper, more available and people wanted them. Parents, it was said, should take more responsibility for what their children got up to.

But what made the change was a government lead, combined with industry action and individual education and support.

The School Crossing Patrol Act of 1953 gave lollipop patrols the power to help children cross the road safely. It gave us the bushy-tailed road safety character “Tufty”, created in the same year, and the “Lookout club”. Many other initiatives built on this including driving tests, the green cross code, speed restrictions, drink driving campaigns and zebra & pelican crossings.

There were 797 child fatalities on the roads in England in 1953. Today, despite many more cars on the road, the figure is 169. In other countries of Europe, who have done road safety better over recent years, it is lower still.

We are still at an early stage, compared to this, but I see the rise of local food as a leading contributor to a revolution over time in our food habits.

We want convenience yes, and we will want food to be affordable. But at times, we also want to be informed, to be involved, to be inspired.

We want food that is fresh, that is seasonal, and in tune with nature.

We want food we can trust from businesses we can trust. 

Disaster can bring us together

There has been a lot of good coverage of the tsunami a year ago in Japan. The UK movement came together to raise funds for the relief too, working through the very effective co-operative sector in Japan.

Here is a true story of an earlier disaster and how communities in Japan responded through shared action.

In 1959, a giant typhoon ravaged the Ise Bay off Japan, leading to a tsunami which caused over five thousand deaths in the coastal area.
Three hundred volunteers, local people and those from further afield, came together to help with relief and then, after the operations, formed
the MMH Co-op with their savings, which is now one of Japan’s leading health co-operatives, supporting over seven hundred self-help (‘Han’)
local health and welfare groups.

Toshihiko Shibata MD, Honorary Chairman of the co-operative explains that “the Great East Japan Earthquake, accompanied by the crisis at
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is so big and serious that such a little co-op may seem unable to do anything about them. The answer is
very simple. Health co-operatives in Japan are part of voluntary grass-roots movements by the people in local communities. MMH Co-op has
almost no significant subsidy from government, no special sponsors and consists of relatively poor people. We can act to overcome the effects
of terrible disaster because of the sincere practices of our fundamental philosophy, to ‘create communities where everyone can let their light

The co-operative operates a range of health related enterprises, including a restaurant named ‘Hope’ and in their flagship modern
hospital, paid for through member investment, in Nagoya City a cafe called ‘Rochdale’. They have built a ‘welfare village’ for recuperation
of people of all ages.

The street names, chosen by the members include ‘Waiwai’ and ‘Gayagaya’, both onomatopoeias for the sound of chatter.

Disasters break us apart, but, with a little hope, they can also bring us together.

Four horses, no more

The big global issues of energy can be set out in simple terms if you use units of people and animals. And get a friend to check your figures.

This is what James Watt did in the industrial revolution when he coined the term ‘horse power’ to measure his steam engines, in units in turn named after him. A horse generates up to seven hundred and fifty watts.

You or I might generate around eighty to one hundred watts and the strongest people we know up to a quarter of the power of a horse.

There are now calculations of how much energy we rely on in daily use in these terms. Professor Hans Peter Durr, associated with the World Future Council, has estimated that each person in Europe relies on the equivalent of sixty (strong) people-power – or, as I would extrapolate from his calculations, fifteen horsepower. These are assumed to work six days a week, ten hours a day. The US numbers are still higher – based on 110 people, or twenty eight horses.

Buckminster Fuller described these as the idea of ‘energy slaves’ that allow us to do so much more than our own bodies could sustain.

Sadly, in nature’s terms, this is by no means sustainable number of horses, as we rely on the cheat’s trick of machines powered by non-renewable energy. With my maths kindly corrected by Josef, a sustainable number of horses would be up to less than four each.

The next time someone talks about what should be done about energy, imagine four horses in your garden. That would be a sustainable lifestyle.

It is still a fair pack of muscle to have at your disposal – and somehow more beautiful than our world now being carved up by the fossil fuel guzzling descendants of the first steam engines in the north of England to outpace a stallion.

We learn best together

Think small groups working together when it comes to learning. That is one conclusion I take from the wonderful new collection on co-operation in education published by the Society for Co-operative Studies.

The introduction of small group learning in a number of US schools dates back to the end of segregation. The model of co-operative learning helped children to develop a respect for each other as equals, in a culture that did not always reinforce that.

A whole field of co-operative learning, with practitioners worldwide, has developed around the practice of team work – how to encourage positive interdependence in settings in which people can support each other to learn.

A fun example, described by Bette Chambers, Professor at the University of York, is co-operative musical chairs. The standard game is about removing a chair each time the music runs, so that when it stops, one child after the scrabble is excluded. The coop model removes one chair each time, but asks all the children to try to pile onto the chairs that remain. A different kind of fun.

In England, though, Wendy Joliffe, researcher at the University of Hull, reports that the shift to widespread testing after the 1988 Education Reform Act has reduced small group learning, in favour of whole class teaching and individual work.

There is a threat that competition outweighs co-operation in schools, workplaces and in educational policy, whereas what we want is a balance. The emergence of co-operative schools in England, Spain and elsewhere and the resonance of co-operative learning across the world is at least a hopeful sign and a positive vision for education.

Chelsea and UK plc

What’s good for Chelsea is good for the UK economy? Not true.

Andre Villas Boas said just two weeks ago that he didn’t need the players to support what he was trying to do with the club – just the owner. “They don’t have to back my project, only the owner needs to back my project.” What he said could have been echoed by many UK business leaders – it is the shareholders who matter, not the workforce.

This model of ownership doesn’t work on the field – great sides have great belief – and it is not great off it. Managers and business CEOs may be paid vast sums now, but the restless impatience of owners means they themselves have no time to perform. The average tenure of a CEO is getting shorter all the time – at around four years (estimates vary), staff at most companies stay longer than their boss. It is a mad way to run a business or an economy.

What we need are models of ownership that are aligned with the passions of the people involved, whether it is sport or in business. If it is results that matter, current owners can do better by developing ways to share ownership over time.

Andre Villas Boas will have another go somewhere else. Better luck next time.

The international year of co-operative …spaghetti

Rodrigo tells me he loves shopping, which is lucky. He runs the network Eurocoop, which represents retail consumer cooperatives with thirty five thousand cooperative shops across Europe.

He is keen to encourage joint buying across the cooperative sector and there are some good examples, including Eroski in Spain with mutual partners in Germany and France, who are showing the way.

His suggestion, at our recent retail cooperative conference in Stratford, is that we start perhaps with one product and build from there. And what? He suggests pasta.

So you heard it here first. 2012 is the International Year of Co-operatives. 2013 could become the … International Year of Co-operative Spaghetti.

Milk and wine

We are all conditioned to love milkmen in Britain. The following notices brought a smile to my face, as examples of how members of the Wine Society co-operative get to know and love the people who deliver their wine.

Both were examples given to me by Sarah Evans, who is the very accomplished Chair of the Wine Society.

“If out, leave by outhouse, NOT with neighbours – dog friendly, cat scared, ducks for sale.”

“Leave as usual by the front door and write on the box ‘Caution: swine fever'”

PS I’d be interested in one day telling the story of co-operatives in wine. Does anyone know of any sympathetic wine writers?