The democratic workplace

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The democratic workplace

Can employees be in full control of their business? Amy Hall writes about the possibilities and problems of worker co-operatives.


The worker-members of ChiFresh Kitchen started their business in May2020. They employ workers who were in prison before. They have been busy through the Covid-19 pandemic. They cook healthy, culturally OK food for their community in Chicago. They make emergency food and food for schools. They make hundreds of meals every day. Credit: KAI BROWN

In 2012, the UK government said that it was shutting 36 Remploy factories. These factories employ people with disabilities and so hundreds of workers had an uncertain future.

In West Yorkshire, 12 former employees from the Leeds and Pontefract Remploy factories decided to take action. They put together their £5,000 ($6,900) redundancy payments and started a worker co-operative. Now, their co-operative, Enabled Works, is doing very well. It is a packing, distribution, and storage business with 22 worker-members. Everyone has a different job but they all get the same hourly pay. John Wormald is Enabled Works’ manager. He told Co-operatives UK, ‘People said that disabled people couldn’t run their own business. If you have disabilities life’s a challenge, so this was just another challenge for us.’

International co-operative body CICOPA thinks that around 11.5 million people are members of worker co-operatives around the world. But it’s likely that this number is much higher because there is not enough reliable data. Members are the owners, the bosses, and the employees of their businesses. They control everything, their own conditions and deciding what to do with profits. And it seems that workplace democracy is going well. Evidence suggests that worker-controlled companies are more productive than other businesses.

Worker co-operatives can be two members, or tens of thousands. A group of 60 started Asiapro Multi-Purpose Co-operative in the Philippines in 1999. They wanted good, secure work for marginalized people. It now has about 65,000 members working in very different industries like construction, IT, education, and hotel management.

Worker-run companies like Asiapro and Enabled Works are part of a world co-operative movement. It employs more than 12 per cent of working people. There are consumer co-operatives (like the Co-operative Group in the UK) – producer co-operatives, or multistakeholder co-operatives like New Internationalist. Our worker-members run New Internationalist day-to-day but it also has 4,600 reader-owners. They can make sure we keep our values.

Workers’ choice

In a worker co-operative, the workers decide what to do with the profits. If its workers owned Apple, we think that in 2014 its 98,000 employees could each have received $403,000 in dividends plus their salaries. Or they could prefer to invest profits into the business, invest them in the local community, or donate to good causes. In a co-operative, the workers are in control. Each worker has the same voting rights and they have the power in the business not shareholders.

Diana Dovgan is secretary general of CICOPA. She says, ‘Of course profit is important for co-operatives because with profit you pay the wages and make your business work. But it’s what you do with the profits that makes you different from other businesses.’

With salaries, the same salary for everyone is common. Or there is a cap, a limit on the difference between the lowest-paid and the highest-paid workers. Workers can also decide to introduce their own management or employ people outside of the co-operative.

Co-operatives are still not common in some parts of the world, but they are not new. People have always helped each other. But the beginning of the co-operative model is in the industrial revolution when workers organized a better life. People often say that the modern co-operative movement started in Rochdale in the northwest of England. There, in 1844, a group of workers called the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened a shop to sell inexpensive food to its customer-members.

Co-operatives also played a part in the story of the British Empire. Anti-colonial movements, including the Uganda African Farmers Union used co-operatives to challenge the colonial economy and share the resources of farmers to take control of the cotton and coffee markets.

Co-operatives and capitalism

Co-operatives and capitalism have a difficult relationship. Cath Muller is a UK-based co-operative organizer. She says, ‘We’re trying to change capitalism.’ Workers might have better jobs in a co-operative but there may not be an opportunity for co-operatives to change society.

Muller is part of Radical Routes – a group of UK co-operatives. For Muller social change is a clear aim. She came to co-operatives through environmental activism. ‘There was a moment when I realized that some co-operatives are there just for themselves and that’s fine. They’re just a nicer way of doing capitalism… in fact that’s what most co-operatives are.’

For example, a fruit-and-vegetable co-operative might have excellent conditions for its workers and suppliers, and sell food at a reasonable price to its neighbourhood. If another fruit-and-vegetable shop with lower prices and more variety opens nearby, the co-op might find it difficult to bring in enough customers for their income and to pay bills.

When other businesses have financial problems, bosses and shareholders can decide to lose workers. When a worker co-operative has problems, the members decide what to do. This makes worker co-ops better at keeping jobs during financial problems. Workers can also decide to work without pay, do long hours, or lose employee benefits.

Trust in workers

Being a member of a co-op is still very different from working in other businesses and this can mean a different way of thinking. Muller says, ‘The idea that you could have some power is difficult for a lot of people to understand. Usually, you are the boss or the worker. ‘Most people coming into a co-operative have never been in one before and they need to learn how to act and think differently. They need to trust their fellow workers. It takes time for people to forget their fears.’

For Dovgan, worker co-operatives have a lot to teach us about the world of employment, including how workers can know what’s best for them and their businesses. ‘There’s a lot of mistrust about workers,’ she says. ‘People think that they are just interested in doing their jobs, getting paid, and that’s all.

‘Worker co-operatives teach us is that it’s possible for workers to run their business. The cleaner in a co-operative can be the owner and help to make decisions together with the engineer.’

Back at West Yorkshire’s Enabled Works, Wormald agrees, ‘We work with each other’s strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses.’


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)