Co-operative Argentina – visits to a hotel, a bank, a theatre, a restaurant and a print shop

Hugo Cabrera enjoys teaching printing skills to young people coming out of prison, because he has been on the wrong side of the law himself.

In 1992, he and fellow workers at the Grafica Campichuelo print works occupied the site, in protest at its closure by the government and in defiance of an expulsion order from the police.

Forty three of the workers, with the active support of their trade union, came together to bid to save their livelihoods by saving the machinery and the business. To end the conflict and perhaps because they thought it would fail, the Government allowed them to reform as a worker cooperative.

Eleven of those founders, with a workforce now of fifty, are still with the business, which holds the contract for printing car registration documents.

Bringing new people in, without sharing the context of that extraordinary start, took time but they were committed to operating in an open way as a cooperative. “To begin with,” explains Hugo “young workers would watch debates at our Assembly like a crowd at a tennis match. To change that, we moved to decision making in smaller circles, giving new people a chance to participate and build their confidence to contribute and to challenge.”

Hugo has retired now, with the benefits that the cooperative had been able to build up, and now leads the social programme of the business, a foundation which supports training and work skills for people who are homeless or ex-offenders.

Grafica Campichuelo is one example of a recovered or recuperated enterprise, where firms went bankrupt and once abandoned, were taken over by the workforce as a coop.

Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires is a second example. With a coffee shop, Utopia, and artwork on its walls, the hotel provides free space for solidarity groups, such as recently the annual meeting of the human rights collective that formed during the Dictatorship years. The Mothers of the Disappeared (of the Plaza de Mayo) are now grandmothers and great grandmothers, but their spirit is undimmed and as economic challenges mount up again in Argentina, they carry the torch for democracy and human rights.

Ana Martina of the US Worker Coop Federation at the Hotel Bauen

A hotel, a bank, a theatre, a restaurant and a print shop are among the co-ops I have had the chance to visit over three days in Buenos Aires, alongside the programme of the International Cooperative Alliance. (I have written a report of the Assembly of the Alliance for Co-op News, which you can find here.)

As the President of the national Cooperative Bank, with 250 branches and 1.5m members, put it to me: “our job is to combine efficiency and democracy and to demonstrate that the result is a better bottom line”.


Can organisations have courage? A story of brave hearts and values led organisation

This week, on 18 October 2018, it is World Values Day.

The first World Values Day was soon after Routledge published my own book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business in 2016 and it has been wonderful to see the


day grow and spread. There are millions of organisations working worldwide that are led by values – not least 2.9 million co-operatives that are bound by a common, global statement of values and principles. By chance, the same day is International Credit Union Day, of financial co-ops around the world.

There is a short introduction to World Values Day by Charles Fowler in a blog for the RSA. The day in short is an opportunity to think about your most deeply held values and to act on them. Staying true to our values and acting on them has never been more important and this year’s core theme is around one core principle of co-operatives, shared with many others, which is about care for the community.


Residents of Joy Village, Nigeria

One of the less recognised values that I have looked out for since my book was published is that of bravery. I had the chance to ask a number of key people involved in one such organisation at an event with former colleagues on consumer rights in Edinburgh. The organisation was the Scottish Consumer Council which lasted for around forty years until merged and disbanded a decade ago.

The Scottish Consumer Council was fearless in championing the interests of the consumer against some formidable industry interests, including lawyers, farmers and financiers. Yet it was never a campaigning organisation, fuelled by self certainty or self righteousness. Its reports were careful in their detail and considered in their findings. What the organisation had, under Chairs such as Dames Barbara Kelly and Deirdre Hutton and Directors Peter Gibson, Martyn Evans and Trisha McAuley, was courage.

How can a lawyer ever be his own judge - Sarah O'Neill SCC Scotsman 6 September 1999 2To be threatened with legal action by the Law Society in Scotland or shouted down in a room with hundreds of farmers took personal courage, but key was the extent to which the organisation stood behind the individual on the end of that. It did pay off, such as work starting with the 1986 report I’m Not Happy with My Solicitor, which led over time to basic information on the costs of legal advice and the formation of an independent complaints system for lawyers across the country. The history of the organisation is told in a report funded by the Peter Gibson Memorial Fund.

A culture for courage I learned was down to the following:

  • the encouragement at staff level of fierce and forensic internal debate
  • careful review and decision making by the Board before going public, and then
  • complete loyalty across Directors and staff teams to those making the case in public.

This means maximising internal diversity, to anticipate tests and challenges that could come up in the outside world, and drawing on the confidence such a principle engenders to commit from the top down to external unity, whatever the pressures were that emerged.

We should not confuse courage with marketing – it is easy for companies to claim to be bold. And we should not confuse courage with recklessness, at least if you are an organisation and you want to succeed over time. Courage is an individual attribute, so for different individuals across an organisation all to share courage as an organisational value I think requires the opposite of recklessness.

Organisational courage is the creation of a space for shared safety in which people can be courageous, because they are prepared for what is to come through a process of learning.

The most courageous organisations are those that have a commitment to foster internal challenge and dissent, in which fears are anticipated, opportunities tested and lessons learned.

How community shares became a game changer for local action in the UK

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 18.15.19Community shares have become a real co-operative game changer for local projects across the UK.

Community shares allows communities of people to come together, to crowdfund to save or launch enterprises, such as pubs or renewable energy projects, by investing often small sums of money and becoming co‑owners in the process.

Over the last decade, and we are working on the data so these are tentative, around 120,000 people have co-invested well over £100 million in 350 community businesses.

Getting the quality right, to flag up risks and keep trust high has been key to its success. Three years ago, at the community sports centre of FC United, we launched the Community Shares Standard, a quality assurance mark for the field. Since then, exactly one hundred initiatives have received the standard mark. That’s nice timing as this week, in England, is Communities Week.

The Community Shares Standard Mark was developed by the Community Shares Unit, run by Co‑operatives UK and Locality, with early support from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to underpin the quality of share offers.

eden-community-limited_1The 100th standard mark recipient, Eden‑Rose Community Limited in Suffolk, aims to raise £80,000 from the local community to support its mission to use woodlands and the natural environment as a way to provide support to children and adults with life‑limiting illnesses, such as cancer.

Capital matters for projects like this. Equity is what most social ventures typically need: patient capital for the long term rather than expensive short-term debt, which is where the wider field of social investment has tended to focus. Most social enterprises are under-capitalised and over-trading. They are on a knife edge, with tight balance sheets and nervy cash flow.

For a community share offer, you need a clear business at its heart with income over time, so that there is a route to repaying capital over time. The assets are then locked. They can’t be distributed, but they can of course be repaid – at par value.

By becoming a member owner of a community benefit society and investing through community shares, a person who may have once “donated” and be at arms length from the operation of a charity can now move closer to the cause they believe in and have a real say and involvement in how their money is used. The story of Clevedon Pier is an example of one organisation retaining its charitable status but moving to a democratic society model to enable it to raise community shares – set out in a Charity Commission case report as a positive example for other charities to follow.

Some open market research that Co-operatives UK has conducted shows that one in four people would invest money or time to help save local community assets.

23% would be likely to invest to help save their local pub from closure, and they would give time and energy to help run other local assets such as a local park or public space (25%), historical site or building (24%), or cinema or theatre (16%).

Local shares? Local people investing in local enterprises? If it sounds like a return to a community capitalism or mutuality of the past, remember that it is different. It uses modern technology platforms, mobilises communities to act as communities and, critically, keeps control in the hands of democratically organised members.

It is a reinvention of the co-operative form for new times. Community shares is a way to get things done.

Can business ever be the good guy?

Eighteen years ago, I was at the think tank New Economics Foundation and we looked then at the commercial value of being trusted as a business. We found some impressive gains to a number of brands who were consistent at translating trust into customer and workforce loyalty. But as a whole, the field of business saw trust as something to take advantage of, rather than something to build.

In work led by my colleague Alex MacGillivray, we compared data then (2000) with eighteen years previously and found that the proportion of people who believe that companies are fair to consumers was down from 61% to 44%. It was as if to get on in business was seen as getting one over on your customers.

From a customer perspective, if you were trusting, renewing insurance or sticking with mortgage deals for example, then the result tended to be that you got a worse deal. The great withdrawal of consumer trust in UK business is sad to see but it has been rational given the way that business overall has behaved.

Today, we updated the research, repeating the same survey questions of 1983 and 2001. This shows a continuation in the trend away from trust in business. Just over one in three people (36%) now believe that most companies in the UK are fair to consumers.

consumer confidenceAt the same time, some businesses retain high levels of consumer trust. Over six out of ten people (62%) surveyed trust co-operative businesses, such as The Co-op Group or Arla, which are owned by their members who all have a say in how the business is run.

This data follows on from last month’s Co-op Economy report, published by Co-operatives UK, which found that new co-ops are almost twice as likely as start-up companies to survive their first five years.

What are the drivers for this? Digging behind the headline, the results suggested that the strongest driver for whether people trust an individual businesses comes from it is a good employer. Customer service and value comes close behind. This suggests that the decline of trust in business is not that customers are losing out, but gaining as employees. They are losing out in both contexts. Over three out of four people (76%) now believe that big business benefits owners at the expense of its workers.

dogs-567257_1920High street closures, falling profits and uncertainty around Brexit makes this an extraordinarily challenging period for British business, but it will be tougher still if the UK has indeed hit a new low in terms of consumer confidence in business.

The academic research on trust tends to recognise the value of when people turn down opportunities for short-term personal gain in favour of shared benefit over the longer-term. Action like this is good at building trust, because it has a proof point. Over time, the pattern of behaviour can be recognised as the expression of underlying values – and again trust can be rooted over time in the affiliation that comes with shared values.

It may feel that business can never be the good guy – or the good gal. But in a co-operative, this trust-building feature fits very closely two time-honoured commitment devices of profit sharing and giving a voice to those involved in the business.

hand-683909It is no good for anyone for business to be cast as a perpetual baddy. It puts people off from getting involved themselves in enterprise, it puts people off as workers with the UK’s lower levels of engagement and productivity, it puts people off in terms of trying new products and services from good businesses trying to innovate.

Business can’t just be about investors. It is time for UK Plc, before it is too late, to learn to recast its relationship with customers and employees in a more co-operative spirit.

The clown that said NO – the fable of a freelancer co-op

doll-1792845The big top was full, the band started to play and the ringmaster in his shiny top hat turned to the audience to start the show.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the circus! We will begin with the Clown and the Donkey…”

The clown and the donkey ambled on and then stood together in the centre. Nothing happened. The crowd stopped clapping, leaning forward, bustling to see what was going on, talking amongst themselves.

“Jump! Play tricks” called the ringmaster, cracking his whip.

The crowd quietened and then the clown said ‘NO’.

“What are you up to?” asked the ringmaster, as the crowd fell silent.

“I don’t want to play the fool for others any more. I want to tell stories” declared the clown.

“And you?” The ringmaster flew at the donkey, arm raised, whip in hand. “Do you want to tell stories too?”

“No, I just want to listen to my friend telling his stories” answered the donkey patiently.

The clown and the donkey were ushered off by the ringmaster, but each of the following acts, the dancing horse, the giraffe, the lion and the dog followed suit and refused to go on.

“I am not going on with this show – it is a silly exhibition and I am not proud of it” said Ferdinand, the dancing horse.

circus-2885542_1920Sacked straight after the show, with no back pay, the six performers left the circus, and decided to form a freelancer co-operative.

They travelled a long distance together. When they arrived in a small town, the clown painted posters which read “Circus Co-op – for Children and Poets only”.

Three days later, the show began. There were crowds of children and a lot of grownups as well – evidently there were a lot of poets living in this town.

The clown told his stories, the animals listened in and joined in when they felt like it. The children were enchanted. The adults had never seen anything like it. By the close, it had broken all the records for TripAdviser reviews. The circus was magnificent because the clown and his friends could be themselves and play as they had longed to do for years.

Everyone was happy now. The children, the adults and the performers were all happy. And at the end of the show, the clown said ‘YES’.



This is a re-telling of a story by Dimitrije Sidjanski, who escaped to Switzerland as a prisoner of war in 1945. Sidjanski and his wife Brigitte started a children’s publishing company Nord-Sud Verlag. Under a pseudonym drawn from the names of their first three children, Mischa Damjan, he wrote the book, The Clown Said No, with illustrations by the distinguished glass painter Gian Casty. My brother, Bob, gave me the book recently, out of his own exploration with writing on the adventures of Pierrot the clown.

Freelancer and worker co-operatives are a growing way in which people can work together without a ringmaster or whip.

Rainbow_fish_original_coverThe publishing house founded by Sidjanski went on to global fame as the publishers of the Rainbow Fish by Swiss writer and illustrator Marcus Pfister. The Rainbow Fish tells the story of a vain and beautiful fish, who learns from a wise octopus that by sharing with friends, he will discover how to be happy.

The best children’s stories, it turns out, can be wise and wonderful fables of co-operative education.

Worker ownership in the USA – a new law for #coops and #employeeownership

There are celebrations across the co-operative sector in the USA, with the passing yesterday of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act. With support from across the political spectrum and championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, this has been signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

Kirsten Gillibrand, US Senator for New York

Michael Peck, the inspirational founder of the US ‘1 worker, 1 vote‘ campaign in concert with the Spanish co-operative Mondragón, was one of the advocates for the new law, which will encourage the formation and conversion of firms to employee ownership. A wide range of backers came together – in the American Sustainable Business Council’s “Ownership4All” campaign – to argue for the legislation, which is now being heralded as the biggest breakthrough on worker ownership in the USA for twenty years. The Non-Profit Quarterly describes it as ‘historic’.

Peck comments that “this signed legislation shows how broadened and deepened worker ownership emphasizing self-reliance, profit-seeking bootstrapping, stakeholder & sweat equity & workplace democracy, is fully bipartisan and ‘made in America’.” 

The hope is that what can emerge from this is not simply an extension of the Employee Share Ownership models. These offer corporate income tax exemptions but often with relatively weak employee ownership and control. New options, for example, could include tax reliefs for payments of both interest and principal on worker co-operative loans, encouraging more active forms of employee ownership. The legislation should also open up access to loans from the Small Business Administration across the USA.

The moral for the UK and other European countries is to work together in alliances across the political spectrum and across the institutional divides which have held different forms of employee ownership back – from trusts and share ownership schemes through to worker co-ops and new models of freelancer co-ops.

Timed to coincide with the new law, an analysis for the Harvard Business Review, co-authored by Peck, concludes that worker ownership can lead to high performance and innovation. What the USA needs, it concludes, is an increase in worker ownership.

And it looks like it is going to get it.

I will if you will – why co-operation is key to sustainable consumption and production #CoopsDay #SDGs

Today is the International Day of Co-operatives, marked by the United Nations and co-operatives worldwide. The theme this year focuses on one of the key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – sustainable consumption and production.

To link with this in a timely way, I have a report on co-operatives and the SDGs published by Co-op News – an English language version of an earlier paper commissioned originally for our new sister organisation in Japan.

In 2006, I co-chaired with Alan Knight a roundtable on sustainable consumption with a number of distinguished members, such as Rita Clifton and Tim Jackson, and our report, influential at the time, was one of those rare times when seventy pages of findings could be summed up in a single title: I Will If You Will.

In the report we said:

Some people insist that sustainable consumption inevitably means ‘consuming less’. Others maintain, just as fervently, that it is not about consuming less at all but about ‘consuming differently’.

In the first camp are those who lament the ‘rampant materialism’ of modern society and suggest that we would actually be happier and enjoy a better quality of life by consuming less. They point to evidence of voluntary ‘down-shifting’: people who appear to opt for a better work-life balance, more quality time with their families and a low- consumption lifestyle.

In the second camp are those who suggest that consuming less would restrict choice and reduce the quality of people’s lives. They argue instead that sustainable consumption involves ‘consuming efficiently’. They highlight the transformative power of the market to deliver greater efficiency in industrial processes, cleaner and greener products, and more sustainable consumer choices.

This division suggests two distinct routes to sustainable consumption. One looks for deeper engagement with the natural world, aims for increased self-reliance and simpler lives, and calls for large-scale changes in people’s aspirations and behaviours. The other seeks sustainability in the continuing march of progress, opening out the possibility of new, more sustainable products that simultaneously improve our lives. We appear to be offered a choice between two competing alternatives. Which route should we choose?

The reality is that this suggestion of a ‘fork in the road’ is misleading. Neither model of change is complete in itself. The first makes vast and possibly unrealistic demands on human nature. It risks alienating those whose behaviour it seeks to change. The second neglects one of the key lessons from the past: that efficiency improvements are often outstripped by growing aspirations and increased consumption elsewhere. Neither model is yet capable of demonstrating that it will lead to a ‘one planet’ society. In reality, elements from both strategies are going to be needed.

The divided view highlights some of the key issues that lie at the heart of the challenge of sustainable consumption. The first is a lack of clarity over the term ‘consumption’ itself. The second is the link between consumption and economic stability. A third is the role of business in delivering sustainability. A fourth is inequality. The fifth is the complexity of lifestyle aspirations in modern society.

Looking back now, this seems perhaps too hopeful: that small scale changes – such as eco-rating of fridges and freezers – could build the constituency for large scale and transformative cultural change.

The challenge at the heart of sustainable consumption and production remains a moral tension, as to whether we can draw a line and say ‘no more’.

The challenge is whether we are able to develop a shared framework of ethics that recognises that, within the limits we face, overconsumption by one group is in principle… an act of theft from another, or an act of violence on those that face the consequences of an unsustainable world.

So much of the sustainability challenge is in the nature of what researchers call a collective action problem.

That means that we need to give far more attention over time to the traditional tools of social co-operation in order to solve them – civic engagement, collaboration across the economy, peace building and conflict resolution, inter-state regulation and policy… and the nurturing and affirmation of the values of co-operation throughout.

Not just today, but every day.