ILO COOP 100 Interview

Interview with Stirling Smith, SYNDICOOP project

Established in March 1920, the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit marks its Centenary in 2020. On this occasion, the ILO COOP 100 Interview series features past and present ILO colleagues and key partners who were closely engaged in the ILO's work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). The interviews reflect on their experience and contributions in the past and shares their thoughts on the future of cooperatives and the SSE in a changing world of work.

Article | 15 May 2020

You have worked with the trade union and cooperative movements alike. How did your interest in world of work issues first started?

I studied history at university and became especially interested in the history of trade unions and left political parties, what is known in the UK as “a labour history”. I then went on to do a PhD which focussed on one city, Hull, which is a port on the east coast of England. I studied the history of trade unions and the Labour Party there between 1910 and 1940. After that, my first job was with the Workers Education Association, an organisation established in 1903, by people involved in both the cooperative and trade union movements. As part of my job, I was involved in teaching workers’ representatives.

What do you think are the links between the labour and cooperative movements, historically and to this day?

Robert Owen by William Henry Brooke / Public domain
You need to go right back to the period of the Industrial Revolution. As the modern factory system became established, and new industrial towns were created, with appalling conditions, a new class came into being: the working class. Like many people studying history at this period, I was usually influenced by a book published 1963, EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. He argued that working people developed a plethora of responses to their new relationship with employers, the inhumane conditions, and their lack of a voice. By the 1850s, two of these had become well established and with a separate identity - the trade union movement and the cooperative movement. But up until, say the 1840s, the boundaries between these different movements were much more fluid. For me, this period of fluidity is almost personified in the idea and careers of Robert Owen. He inspired the famous Rochdale Pioneers, who established the consumer cooperative model that became very successful in the UK. He also led one of the largest national trade union organisations. For historians of the ILO, he is also particularly important as one of the earliest figures to call for international regulation of workers conditions. Which is why there is a bust of him in the ILO library.

But, as I say, by the 1850s there was a clear institutionalisation and separation of these two currents. Many individuals were active in both movements, and the cooperative movement as an employer, followed particularly progressive practices.

What cooperatives and trade unions have in common is that they are membership based organizations for working men and women. They are established and run by members themselves. They share a common belief that the world should be ordered in the interests of workers, not for shareholders of remote banks and multinational companies.

This is a particularly British perspective. In other European countries, there were linkages between trade unions and cooperative movements, often because these had been established by socialist parties. And following the encyclical, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labour) issued in 1891, by Pope Leo XIII, Roman Catholic trade union and cooperative movements were established, as part of a family of social organisations.
We can also see some interesting models in Asia. In Singapore, the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) has been a very strong supporter of consumer cooperatives, with the aim of “making the worker’s dollar go further”. This recognises that workers are not just producers, but they are also consumers. Again, for those interested in the history of the ILO, this insight was felt particularly strongly by Albert Thomas, the first Director-General, who had a background in both the cooperative and trade union movements.

In India, there is a long tradition of consumer cooperatives established to serve the workers in a particular enterprise, and unions have been closely associated with these. They flourish, for example, on Indian railways.

Turning to Africa, in Rwanda a registered cooperative of motorcycle taxi drivers was at the same time a member of the trade union national centre. This was an interesting case where we can see what I referred to earlier as the “fluid boundaries”.

Could you share with us some of the highlights of your work including at the ILO on the interface of the trade union and cooperative movements?

I was very lucky to be part of the ILO’s SYNDICOOP project, particularly writing a training manual which tried to capture the learning from the activities in four East African countries - Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. I was able to travel throughout these countries and visit examples of where trade unions and cooperatives had worked together.

I think it is no accident that the International Labour conference in the year 2002 adopted Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation (No. 193), and approved a major report on Decent Work and the Informal Economy. These two work streams, I believe, came together in the SYNDICOOP project.

As that report commented,

Where there are major constraints to informal operators or workers joining existing employers organizations or trade unions or establishing their own organizations the most effective membership based organisational structure may be that of a cooperative.

Groups such as market traders, or self-employed taxi drivers are first and foremost workers, but too much development theory sees them as being purely entrepreneurs. In fact they need a collective voice, and they need to carry out collective bargaining - not necessarily with an employer with public authorities, who can have a huge influence over their livelihoods.

One of the biggest challenges to trade union and cooperative collaboration is a persistent feeling in some trade union circles that cooperatives are a second-best choice, a sort of ante-chamber to a trade union. In this world view, a workers’ cooperative is an option where a traditional capitalist enterprise fails, the only way to workers jobs is through a cooperative takeover. There is a danger when the trade union movement believes that it should call the shots in these situations.

Trade unions demand that they be recognised and respected as autonomous organisations, and the need to extend the same recognition to cooperatives. And not to see cooperatives as a second best. Like Albert Thomas, they need to recognise that workers can be consumers as well as producers.

Personally, another highlight of my collaboration with the ILO was writing the first guide to recommendation No. 193, published in 2004. At that time, we have been successful at the Cooperative College, in securing funding from the UK government’s Department for International Development. That enabled us to produce a high-quality publication. Funding also enabled publication of the SYNDICOOP handbook and case studies.

We were also fortunate in being able to persuade DFID to fund the COOPAfrica programme.

What do you think is the value added of the ILO in its work on promoting cooperative development?

First and foremost, the ILO as a normative organisation, has produced the global standard or template for cooperative governance, in the form of Recommendation 193. A particularly important feature of the text is the recognition of the autonomy of cooperatives. This is still a major problem in many countries. But when a government comes to review its law on cooperatives, the recommendation must be a starting point.

Another very important feature of the recommendation is the insistence that cooperatives must not be used to undermine decent work. Unfortunately, this is still the case in a number of countries, but the existence of the standard is an important weapon in the fight against the abuse of the cooperative model.

Secondly, the relationship that the ILO has with the ministries of labour, with trade unions and with employers’ organizations is potentially very important in mobilising the support of the key players in the world of work for cooperative development.

There is a growing interest in the wider social and solidarity economy, an umbrella concept for diverse types of enterprises including cooperatives, mutuals and social enterprises among others that pursue social and environmental goals through economic activities. What do you think of the social and solidarity economy?

Quite frankly, I think the term social and solidarity economy is rather too loose. Without clear standards and governance, it would be perfectly possible for an enterprise to claim that it was a social enterprise and at the same time refuse to recognise trade unions. A social enterprise could maintain the same relationships between owners and workers as exist in a traditional capitalist enterprise. This is where cooperatives have a very clear and distinctive “unique selling point”.

The existence of the recommendation, and the statement and cooperative identity provide a much clearer benchmark for an enterprise that truly has social aims. Of course, there are examples of cooperatives that do not live up to these principles. But nevertheless, the principles are there and we can fight for those principles.

The world of work is experiencing various challenges including the onfolding COVID-19 crisis, climate change, demographic shifts and technological developments. What do you think is needed to tap into the potential of cooperatives in advancing decent work and improved living conditions for all?

This is a huge question! Especially once Covid 19 has been overcome (through the development of a universally available vaccine) we should be very careful of any calls to go back to “normal”. The so-called normal was a system of irresponsible exploitation of the environment and reckless short-term global value chains.

From the perspective of economic theory, mutually owned enterprises such as cooperatives, can afford to take a long-term view, unlike shareholder owned enterprises that frequently cannot look much beyond the next few years.

The ILO, as the only United Nations agency with a mandate to promote all types of cooperatives, is very well positioned to argue for a new economic model that will place cooperatives at the centre.

It is unlikely that there will be a V-shaped bounce back from the depression Covid 19 has created. Rather, it is likely that many businesses, of different sizes, will fail to survive the economic downturn that Covid 19 will bring about. Here there is certainly a case to convert these enterprises into worker-owned businesses.

The greatest need, and the prerequisite for long-term success in building a cooperative sector, is education. The members, the staff and the leaders of cooperatives all need education, not just in the practical nuts and bolts of running a particular type of business, but in the philosophy and governance of a cooperative enterprise.