At our Manifesto launch, we were asked lots of questions by text and email.

We’ve tried to answer them here. Some questions have been combined for simplicity.

Q: Do you see union-coops developing in the housing co-operative sector? Housing co-ops are run democratically by tenant-members. Some housing coops employ staff directly while others use managing agencies (which are or originated as co-ops). 
Housing co-ops come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but most are homes that are owned collectively (mortgaged) by the member-tenants or owned by housing associations or councils but tenants are able to run as co-ops. 
The member-tenants work in all sorts of jobs or none and there are wider family members. 
So, can housing co-ops become union-coops in the way you envisage?

A: We don’t see that, because union-coops are really designed for worker co-ops, owned and controlled by the workforce, but we believe TUs should be involved in community organising in this sector. A union-coop supplying services to a housing co-op could be involved in a multi-stakeholder model, but with the proviso that in matters relating to employment the worker members hold majority voting rights in line with our manifesto.

Principle 10 prompts big questions about the contractual and institutional arrangements for the 10% financial levy. How are these arrangements to be established? By who? And under whose control will they operate?

A: Principle 10 is one of the strictly bounded ethical principles upon which the union co-op is run. Rather than being a ‘one size fits all model’, it is flexible, and each individual union-coop needs to adapt it to respond to local contexts, needs and requirements. Co-operatives are by definition, autonomous, so the contractual and institutional arrangements of the 10% levy should be formalised when the union co-op is set up. It should be administered by each union co-op as they see fit, spending it themselves on their own activity, or passing it to other bodies – it’s up to them. 

 Union role in governance – What “formal place” will a union have in a worker co-op’s governance? Would this role be exercised primarily by union members within the co-op, or primarily by the union as a corporate entity? Will worker co-op articles/rules give the union/union members distinct voting and representation rights? What happens if the majority of workers want to end the relationship with that union?

A: The union co-op model is not a one size fits all solution to achieving a unionised worker co-op as explained in the manifesto. Accordingly, the role of the union will vary according to the wishes of the workers involved though ideally there would be a formal recognition and facilities agreement including a formal bargaining and consultation structure. 

We anticipate a TU representing members who are worker-owners as well as those who are employed by the business but who are not worker-owners. The union committee we are proposing in the Manifesto should be mostly made up of co-op members who are union members but could also have full time officers sitting in if that was felt to be appropriate. Its remit would be the general interests of co-op members as employees.

The bargaining and consultation structure would work the same as in any other business that recognises a union for these purposes. Member democracy may be representative in larger scale enterprises for the purposes of bargaining and consultation, but decision making would be based on the 1 member 1 vote principle.

The workers as owners and operators of the business have the ultimate say in who represents their interests as workers. If a union co-op voted to end a relationship with a union that would be indicative of a fundamental breakdown in the relationship, though this is not a scenario we anticipate happening if the will is there from both parties to work collaboratively. 

 100% unionisation – How exactly would this be achieved during the creation of the worker co-op? And how exactly would it be maintained afterwards? Would membership of the worker co-op only ever be open to those who join a particular union? What if a worker-member wished to leave a particular union, perhaps to join another? Is there room for multiple unions in a union co-op?

A: We know of an employer that was a tanker firm in the food and waste industry that went beyond a simple recognition agreement and actually paid the union subs of its employees i.e. 100% unionised = almost a closed shop. We anticipate a union co-op may wish to do this. If a member wished to leave and join another union, or no union, that is their right under employment law in any case. It is also legally possible to adopt a constitution that makes membership of a union a condition of co-op membership, so all co-op members will be union members as well, and if the member left the union, they would cease to be a co-op member but continue as an employee.

A union-coop, if it followed the example we give above, would need to give consideration to this issue and ensure this was covered in its contracts of employment based on legal advice and negotiation with the union.

As for multiple unions in a union-coop, that’s perfectly possible if members so choose, but probably only makes sense in larger co-ops.

Q: Page 6, option 3 on converting consumer co-operatives to worker co-operatives. What is the evidence for the statement that “many of them are not unionised”? There is an implication that consumer co-operatives are somehow inferior to union-coops. Do you propose a hierarchy of co-operatives, with some superior to others? That is certainly not supported by ILO Recommendation No. 193.

A: We haven’t conducted or seen a survey of union membership in co-ops as opposed to other businesses, but only 23.5% of workers in the UK are union members, and there is no evidence that co-ops are significantly different. Many consumer co-ops are very small, such as village pubs and shops, employ both paid staff and volunteers, everyone knows each other, and they see no need for unions. The large consumer co-ops, of course, employ staff who are largely unionised, but the workers are not the majority of the co-op members, so they don’t fit the union-coop model. 

As to a hierarchy of co-ops, we don’t feel one type of co-op is superior to others, they are all different, but connected by a common set of principles. All members of the union-coops:uk working group are members of consumer co-ops, many of us more than one.

Q: How would large more social democratic unions push for more workplace control for their workers and eliminate the worker/boss dynamic when it would run counter to their stated goals of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage?

A: Workers involved in negotiating and (crucially) deciding on their pay, terms and conditions are not only more likely to pay themselves a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, but are also far less likely to outsource or offshore their own jobs in the manner the standard capitalist model does.

Q: Unions such as the IWW are committed to the goals of industrial democracy and we face huge issues with democracy on the shop floor across the vast majority of companies. How achievable are the goals of turning unionised hierarchical workplaces into unionised worker-coops be? Shouldn’t this be the centre piece of all unions’ activities, large and small? Why do larger unions not try for this on the scales that are needed?

A: Our view is that because of the historical dominance of the UK co-op movement by consumer co-ops, many people don’t fully understand the difference between worker and consumer co-ops, and so miss the key linkage between unions and worker co-ops, both serve their members by working to create Decent Work. We see our mission is to flag up that difference and convince both of the advantages of working with each other.

Arguably, all unions have a goal of industrial democracy and this seems to be the ultimate end for current renewal and organising missions being pursued by the major unions. In reality, these organising campaigns can appear to be led by simple membership growth objectives, but there is an implicit logic towards voice and democracy. After all, membership gains may not be sustainable without attention to broader legitimacy claims. 

Q: Have you any structural tips on balancing a management board’s need to keep confidentiality on sensitive and ongoing issues, versus checks on board becoming an internal and self-serving elite?

A: This is a big question, and one not exclusive to worker co-ops, or even to the broader co-op movement. Look at how many PLCs have been effectively taken over by a management/director class that doesn’t serve shareholders’ interests – just their own – and line their pockets with bonuses that are bigger than the profits. Each organisation has to develop a governance model that creates and maintains member engagement.

Q: Do you have suggestions/examples of union-coop wages structures/incentives/T&Cs, that are fair, but which also can motivate staff?

A: There are some examples, of which SUMA is the best known, which operate a generous flat wage structure allied to job rotation and democratic control of the workplace. This has not been achieved without a great deal of debate and compromise between the protagonists, but it does demonstrate that even a firm of this scale (over 100 staff) can achieve pay parity while encouraging motivation and business innovation.

Q: The issue of addressing ‘top-slicing’ arises from a model that equates hierarchy with differential pay. How will unionised co-operatives help empower numbers of people to collectively ‘buy-out’ existing companies as investment opportunities to then introduce, afresh, the core co-operative principles of business?

A: Our aim is to build a movement that has resources and experience to add the knowledge held by a whole range of union branches and Co-operative Development Bodies (CDBs) across the UK. Our aim is to get trade unions engaged in the process of intervening when a company comes up for sale, and to work with the local and national CDBs to offer an alternative to the takeover by Management Buy-out or by outside Venture Capitalists. In doing so we need to enable people to see past short-term gains, and to see Decent Work as a return on investment alongside a reasonable return on capital invested.

Q: Apart from the political influence that Union involvement brings, how will a unionised co-operative offer anything at all different to a standard co-operative model? Or is this a mechanism for unions to transform standard capitalist business models into co-operatives?

A: The union co-op model brings a formal consultation and bargaining structure to a worker co-op, one that benefits from the knowledge, experience and resources of unions whose primary purpose is to consult and bargain with employers. Unions can bring specialist sectoral or industry specific expertise to a union co-op, specialist knowledge in the realms of health and safety and employment law, and they could conceivably be involved in seed funding start-ups or providing resources. We welcome ideas and suggestions as to what unions could consider bringing to worker co-ops. 

The union-coop model provides a means by which the historical grand dames of capitalist remediation (the union and co-operative movements) can re-identify with each other and work more collaboratively to challenge the economic status quo in the interest of ordinary people.

Transformation of standard capitalist businesses into unionised worker co-ops is possible but not without its difficulties in terms of having the necessary legislative, regulatory and financial regimes in place to support this. We see our primary audience at this time as being existing worker co-ops interested in becoming unionised via the union co-op model, and start-up businesses.

Q: Do you worry that the union coop model – with its elected board that hires managers – doesn’t really challenge the division and hierarchy between blue/white collar, manual/intellectual workers? How do you think the union-coop model could work for
workers who demand a high degree of day-to-day control of, and collective autonomy within, the production process; and in small co-ops?

A: The Manifesto example, with three groupings of overlapping responsibility, is designed for co-operatives with a representative governance and a fixed hierarchical management structure, which is common amongst larger co-ops. However, many smaller worker coops have a flat structure with job rotation, and for them example doesn’t apply, but the principle of separating out the role of employer from employee and involving the union formally in decisions around employee rights and remuneration still applies.

Suma is our primary example pointing towards a different outcome to that laid out in the example in our Manifesto, though tensions inevitably increase according to the scale and complexity of an organisation. However, the purpose of the union committee within a union-coop business would be to ensure the interests of all its members were given due weight through exercising a balance between representative democracy and 1 worker 1 vote democracy.

Q: Do you see cultural and legal variations, and the patchy uneven relationship between unions and coops in different countries, continuing to be expressed in fragmented, nationally based organising networks? Or does the union-coop model have the potential to become a transnational force of working-class advancement? If so, what would that look like?

A: The vast majority of ordinary working people in the UK have never heard of organisations like the ITUC, ILO, etc. and they are unaware of what they do. With us being +40 years into the neoliberal era, they could reasonably be argued as having been ineffectual at best in challenging the corrosive effects of neoliberalism such as wealth and income inequality, workers’ rights, and climate change. Our strategy is to get the union-coop model going here in the UK and the transnational links (some already in place such as our relationship with 1 worker: 1 vote in the US) will develop naturally and hopefully in a more effective way than has previously been the case. Let’s stop the gravy train before it starts and create instead a movement focussed on participatory democracy and creating Decent Work. 

Q: Why would you need a Union in an already fully democratic, equal pay worker co-op?

A: The following points are ways we anticipate union involvement may bring benefit to a worker co-op:

  • Work relationships are human relationships and wherever humans gather and interact comes the opportunity for disagreement, discord, and dispute. A primary function of a union is to seek to resolve these tensions, often through negotiation and compromise, and sometimes by resort to legal means which may be prohibitively expensive for an individual to countenance. A union brings that expertise to a worker co-op in situations when human relationships become strained or break down (as they inevitably can).
  • A union can provide specialist knowledge and training in respect of health and safety and employment law, their strength in equalities brings value to any organisation and unions such as mine have an educational offer that can develop individuals and bring value to their employers 
  • Union involvement can be very empowering to an individual who may have been previously disempowered or marginalised by mainstream society.
  • Unions may be able to assist with seed funding start-ups which often struggle to find decent sources of funding.
  • Unions could provide other facilities to start ups.
  • Unions offer benefits to their members such as hardship funds, death grants, personal injury claims etc. 
  • Unions would not hold back in pointing out when members of a union co-op may be on the point of exploiting themselves, or the business model was clearly not in the interests of those involved.
  • Finally, we don’t see the union-coop model as a panacea. Neither do we see it as being a fixed one-size fits all model. We do know however that unions do bring value and utility to worker co-ops and we think there should be more of them.

Q: I think the manifesto is so important to shape the knowledge that comes from fighting against bosses and asking ourselves what happens next. What this does need though is a strong worker organised movement in the workplace/community to ensure that bosses do give up their power. Do you think reformist unions are able to think beyond the worker/boss dynamic enough?

A: Traditional unions have their value, but they are usually to be found in the ‘old’ model of work. They have done some brilliant work in the past but how fit are they for now and the future?  Some of the ‘new unions’, (e.g. UVW and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain etc) clearly show great promise and are comfortable working with co-ops. That is the crux of the matter. 

Long established unions are often embedded in either state or private models of ownership & it takes a huge leap to understand, engage with and support worker control/employee ownership.  Some smaller unions, especially those in media and the arts, where self-employment has been the norm for decades, have addressed the changes in work, are adept at organising the self-employed, and are supportive of worker co-ops as a route to better terms and conditions. 

Sometimes the reluctance to embrace worker co-ops is down to totally understandable positioning such as defending what is deemed to be ‘the public sector’ – however much that has been captured by ‘neo-liberals’.  We do need to win the traditional unions over but union-coops, by their very nature are about equal partnership between owners/members/workers/trade unions. This is just not the terrain of ‘old unions’ or traditional workplaces. Union-coops are much more complex, messy and harder to make work but should get you beyond the traditional power and ownership dynamics. Consequently, we are working on building support for the model from traditional unions. We are encouraging them to see union-coops through a solidarity lens – it’s about organising for Decent Work after all. 

It is also important to recognise that traditional unions are engaged in a fight for survival, legitimacy and growth in the face of decades of decline. Ongoing union renewal efforts can have a democratising impulse and open up spaces for new alliances, re-engagement with communities and new visioning of the organisation of work. Resistance to privatisation in the public sector need not translate into opposition to union coops and union-coops represent a substantial opportunity to grow union membership and activism in areas of historically low union density and precarious work.

Q: When you talk about the Union Co-op Manifesto primarily/specifically aimed at worker co-ops, this might exclude consortium co-ops, where workers co-operate, but retain their self-employed status.

A: Yes, union-coops are highly relevant to the self-employed co-op constituency. The Musicians’ Union case study (no 8) gives an example of how this has been done in the UK, and similar consortium workers co-ops exist for actors with Equity support, as well as NUJ member journalists. 

Q: The chat list at your Manifesto launch showed many people are active in unions and the Co-operative Movement, who will recognise that there are issues around unions and co-ops which are not straightforward.  So, this movement will need to be driven forward politically from both the co-op and union side, since many people don’t see co-ops within a market economy, but as a key feature of an alternative social economy.

A: Yes, this needs to be driven forward as a political issue by unions, as well as co-ops. Many people who are not closely involved in the co-operative movement can assume that co-ops are just a softer part of the market economy. They can also be unaware of the importance of democracy in the co-op model. Education about co-operatives, and the effect they can have on society will be as important as politics in developing the model. This includes education of union leaders, workers and consumers. Traditionally, union learning has been conducted on an inclusive, democratic, participatory and co-operative basis; arguably a platform for considering the appeal of cooperative organisational forms.

Q:  We need to pay attention to the cultural differences between nations. One size definitely does not fit all. What works in France with proud citizens of the republic will fail in class drenched UK where people automatically divide into leaders and led, superior and subordinate.  And that determines how the co-op will work or not. How the members will get along together or argue while the business stagnates or let someone take over.
How is this dimension of union-coops being addressed?

A: This is an important issue and has been a restraining factor in worker co-op development in the UK, as well as in attempts to get workers a statutory place on larger company boards. 

Education is a key co-operative principle (Principle 5) and is essential for active member engagement in successfully running a co-op. Rotation of roles and responsibilities is one way of ensuring that members are familiar with and responsible for all areas of the business (like Suma). Another solution is for worker members to evaluate the managers (like Formula Servizi) so that workers continue to have a strong voice. 

Q: Training Worker Directors should be an activity Co-operative Development workers and Trade Unions on should collaborate on. Is there evidence of this happening?

A: There has been little done on this in recent years, the Co-operative College has suffered cut backs in recent decades, and, of course, college based trade union education programmes have been ruthlessly cut back by UK Government “austerity”.

There is work underway to develop the Co-operative College into a Co-operative University, and we anticipate growing this being one of its future functions, although finding funds is always a challenge under this Government.

Q: Our Community Social Care Co-op is a small scale, locally based, multi-stakeholder co-op with representation of staff members, service user/family members and community/volunteer members on the Board. Our aim is to bring all the different sorts of people involved in delivering and receiving social care in one Community Co-op. All workers will be members. Have you any thoughts or advice on how the brilliant principles outlined in the Manifesto could be applied by a Community Co-op like ours…?

A: The union-coop model is designed to integrate the relevant trade union(s) into the governance of the co-operative, so as to represent fully the dual role that worker members play, being both employers and employees, and so to deal with the conflicts that can arise between the financial and other interests of the co-op they own and manage, and their interests as its workers. This can only work in the form of a “union-coop” when the organisation is majority owned and controlled by the workforce, and in the model you describe, the ownership of the employer is much more diverse.

In a community co-op, particularly one like yours, which is involved in social care, there is a values based need to involve the service users and other stakeholders adopting the union-coop model can be difficult. One solution is to ensure the workforce are in majority control of the co-op, the other is not to use the union-coop model as such, but to build a healthy relationship with the union in a modified form of co-operative governance, where the union committee (or its equivalent) has a reduced role in the overall governance, and the co-op still adopts all of the 10 principles. This is a model we would welcome, although it doesn’t precisely fit the union-coop definition. We don’t see union-coops as the answer to everything, just one answer to creating Decent Work. Progressive c-ooperatives in the care sector represent an exciting development that should also appeal to established trade unions who have often struggled to gain traction in a field dominated by exploitative employers and precarious work. 

Q: Do you have any thoughts about the tension between a Union commitment to represent every individual member and get the best outcome possible for them and the requirement for a co-op to consider and act in the best interest of all its members.  Thinking specifically where a grievance/disciplinary issue relates to an individual not contributing fully (“pulling their weight”).

A: The union committee, built into the governance model, has a remit to address workforce issues on a general, rather than an individual basis. Individual disputes, disciplinaries, dismissals, etc. would be dealt with in the normal way, with the union representing the individual employee versus the co-operative employer. In small firms, family firms, etc. this is always difficult, and union-coops are no exception. Where there is formal hierarchical management it is perhaps easier than in a co-op with collective governance, as the managers will have a clear role and separation of powers, but it’s personal, so it’s never easy.

Q: If we accept that it is relatively “easy” to convince the majority of workers that democratic enterprise is the way to go, how do we convince them that running their own business, in the first place, is a possible and desirable way of earning a living.  Scotland in particular lags behind in business start-up and the UK performance isn’t great in itself.

A: In the UK we are hidebound by the class system, elite schools and universities, and little support for collective entrepreneurship, so we start from a hard place. In those countries that have had revolutions, and/or have fully comprehensive education, there is more confidence in ordinary working people that they can win struggles and they do have the skills to run a business.

Apart from a complete change in our social and educational systems, the union and co-operative movements have to step up their educational programmes to demonstrate to working people what is possible and give them confidence to give it a go. Some of the new municipal approaches to re-calibrate local economies have usefully identified universities as key anchor institutions. This opens up the potential to re-orientate universities away from the pull of neoliberal consumerism to locate themselves as an important community asset. This can involve mobilising resources into SME and co-operative development, actions also congruent with objectives to support graduate employment. Such developments are, for example, envisaged in the Preston Model of community wealth building.

Q: There has been examples of unions in the UK divesting their members pension funds from fossil fuel companies. What role can union members pension funds play in helping create more unionised worker co-operatives?

A: Pension law in the UK effectively puts company pension schemes in the hands of the employer, unlike in many other countries where they are controlled by unions, so there is a limit to what the UK unions can do to influence these. On the other hand, large co-op societies with their own schemes, local authorities and other public/civil society schemes have the freedom to invest where they choose, providing the economic case is sound and protects the fund’s financial position, so there is scope for sympathetic pension trustees to invest in co-operatives of all kinds.