You have worked with the cooperative and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) movements for many years. How did your interest in cooperatives and wider SSE first start?My interest in cooperatives, and in particular, in workers’ cooperatives, rather got me into trouble with my first boss! This was back in the mid-1970s and I was working in a new town in the United Kingdom as a producer with a local television station. Very much influenced by the social and political changes of the time, and by what I had read about collective and cooperative working in the US, I proposed that our own little team of workers turn ourselves into a cooperative. My colleagues were supportive but our manager, and his board of trustees, disagreed! But never mind: my second job was indeed in a workers’ cooperative, a community bookshop which two friends and I successfully established. And after that I worked for a time for a cooperative development agency offering business advice to new cooperative businesses before beginning a career as a freelance journalist and author – with cooperative business and social enterprise very much one of the areas I cover.
What do you think are the links between the cooperative and wider SSE movements, historically and to this day?I’m interested in business models which, perhaps in different ways, operate for social good and not simply for profit for investors, and that means I take an interest in trends within the wider social and solidarity economy. However, I do need to add a caveat: cooperatives, through the ICA and through ILO Recommendation 193, have a set of internationally agreed values and principles to which all bona-fide cooperatives are expected to adhere. Businesses in the wider SSE do not necessarily have to meet these kinds of requirements.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to work for a range of organisations in the international cooperative movement (including the ILO and the International Cooperative Alliance), and I appreciate very much the wider perspective this has enabled me to have. Work I undertook over several years with UNI Global Union has also seen me working with other parts of the ILO. It’s important, I think, to try to remember the original vision which saw the ILO established after the conflicts of the First World War.
Could you share with us some of the highlights of your work (including with the ILO) with cooperative and SSE movements?
I particularly appreciated the opportunity to work in partnership with the Tanzanian cooperative movement on behalf of the ILO in 2005-2006, and I hope that I was able to contribute something (albeit very modest) to the development of the movement there. I’m also proud of my book on the history of one of the most celebrated productive cooperatives in the UK in the nineteenth century, All Our Own Work (Merlin, 2015).
What do you think is the value added of the ILO in its work on promoting and advancing cooperatives and wider SSE organizations?Every country is different, and every cooperative business in each country is different, but ILO COOP undertakes a very valuable role in promoting and supporting the idea of cooperative business internationally. Its work and advice on legal structures for cooperatives (undertaken over many years) is one notable example, especially as we seek to reassert the democratic principles of cooperative governance following a time in the later twentieth century when the concept suffered dilution and distortion. And of course, ILO Recommendation 193 is a key tool for all who wish to see cooperatives thrive in their own countries.
The world of work is experiencing various challenges including the unfolding crises around the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you think is the role of cooperatives and wider SSE in responding to these challenges?The COVID-19 crisis, and the challenges which face us all because of climate change, should be forcing us to look very closely at the business models which can carry us safely through the rest of the 21st century. My own view is that a return to ‘business as usual’ is not acceptable. It is, however, perhaps is a little too early to know how the global economy will recover from COVID-19, and how cooperative business can assert its role in that recovery.
What do you think is needed for governments to recognize the role that cooperatives and wider SSE can play in responding to crises and rebuilding economies?To an extent, cooperatives have been pushed to the margins in conventional business thinking, and often by governments too. I hope that that can be changed. The world needs decent jobs and strong and
sustainable economies. Cooperative business can provide both.