Willy St: Co-op for Consumers, Union for the Workers

Beatrix Potter ( who with her husband Sidney Webb led the Fabian Socialists (predecessors to the Labour Party in the UK) generally opposed the notion of worker co-ops. The argument went something along the lines that all humans share the status of “consumers”. A worker co-op would create a tyranny over the consumer. For this, and many other reasons, the co-op movement in the UK has largely focused on consumer co-ops (until recently that is). However, the Fabians also supported labor unions and helped form the Labour Party (and to some extent the Co-operative Party). The Labor and Co-op Party run as sister parties in the UK and right now, I believe that the Co-op Party has a record number of candidates (50) for the current election. For many years then, the operating rule has been “co-op for consumers, unions for workers”.

Of course, that this the UK experience. In the modern US experience, consumer co-ops have generally only been friendly to labor unions in competing businesses, not their own. Right now, a historic effort is underway in Madison, Wisconsin to negotiate a contract between the Williamson Street Grocery Co-op and United Electrical Workers. UE won an election among the workers with a staggering 80% of the voting workers in support of representation by UE.

Willy St. Management, while claiming to be pro-union, hired a firm that specializes in helping companies undermine labor unions and sent out a 1950’s era management letter attacking the union right before the vote. Nevertheless, at this point, everyone seems to be negotiating in good faith.

The Union has been engaging the consumer-owners of the co-op as allies (and I am a former member). This short video provides a very concise argument for why anyone who supports cooperation should also support labor unions:

My take has always been that, in a consumer co-op, the consumers are joining together democratically to speak with one voice in the marketplace to meet their needs. Likewise, the workers should also be able to come together in a democratic fashion and speak with one voice. We need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that just being a co-op makes a group of 35,000 people a “good employer” especially when almost all of the power of ownership is concentrated into the single person of a General Manager.

If the idea that consumers can band together to get a stronger voice in the market, why shouldn’t workers also band together to get a stronger voice in negotiating working conditions and compensation.

As Carl notes in the video, the wealth created by the Willy St. Co-op didn’t just happen or fall out of the sky. It came from the hard work of over 450 employees of the cooperative.

The co-op movement has always been about social justice. The Rochdale Pioneers started out as a means to gain universal suffrage, create a fair marketplace, and overturn the social injustices of the Industrial Revolution. The Co-op Movement and the Labor Movement began hand-in-hand in Manchester, UK. The board of the Willy St. Co-op and its management should be embracing the union, not fighting against it.

 

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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