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-op 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. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the late, great Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle for Sociocracy for All. He has taught on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College and Presidio Graduate School.
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