ILO COOP 100 Interview

ILO COOP 100 Interview with Rebecca Harvey, Executive Editor of Co-operative News

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 | 06 October 2020

Could you tell us about your studies and background and how you came about working on cooperatives leading up to your work with Co-operative News since 2013?

Co-operative News is actually the first co-operative that I worked for! My background is media and education – I studied English and Communications and did a post-graduate degree in Visual Comms, followed by work in project management, teaching, journalism and design. I moved to Manchester, UK, about 10 years ago, and was aware of the Co-op Group food shops and a few local worker co-operatives in the area where I lived. But when I applied to Co-operative News, I didn't know much about the business model and had no idea of the scale and scope of the movement, either in the UK or internationally. I joined as deputy editor, overseeing the redesign of the look and feel of the printed publication, and was appointed executive editor in 2018. It has been a very steep learning curve, but a joyful one, too. The co-operators who make up cooperatives are incredible people, and I am privileged to help tell their story.

You are the 15th Executive Editor of Cooperative news in its 149-year history. Could you tell us about Cooperative News and its structure and its relation to the larger cooperative movement?

A short history: Early co-operators were anxious that the world should know of their new ideas of cooperation, and the most potent means in the 19th century was the printed word. Co-operative News wasn't the first journal of co-operation. In May 1828, Dr William King began producing a 48-page monthly publication that he called The Co-operator, which ran for just over two years. In 1960, the Manchester Equitable Society revived the title; in 1961, ownership of The Co-operator was transferred to Henry Pitman (the brother of the inventor of Pitman's shorthand). However, although an enthusiastic co-operator, Pitman was also a champion of many other causes, including public health, and he later changed the publication's name to The Co-operator and Anti-Vaccinator. The UK movement became concerned that their cause was getting mixed up with too many others and, as the movement grew in the 1860s, there was a campaign for an official newspaper. The Co-operative Newspaper Society (later Co-operative Press) was established in 1871, and the first issue of Co-operative News was published in September that year.

Early on, Co-operative News very much focused on the UK movement, and the retail societies that sprung up in replication of the Rochdale Method. It covered international issues too, and there are marvelous illustrations and articles about the first International Cooperative Congress (1895) and the first International Cooperators Day (1923), for example. But Co-op News has changed as the UK – and global – movement has evolved. Today Co-operative Press membership is open to both organizations and individuals, and over half of our online readers are from outside of the UK. One of our tasks at the moment is to make sure that this internationalism is reflected in the membership and governance of the society. In terms of colleagues, we are a pretty small, tight-knit team – four staff and some wonderful freelancers.

If someone asks me what Co-operative News is, my standard one-liner is that it is a news website and monthly magazine about and for the global cooperative community. We seek to connect cooperatives, champion their successes, and also challenge them on uncooperative activity and behaviours. In addition to news creation, we also provide design, editorial and communications services to other cooperatives. For example, we are currently leading a communications consortium that is providing support to the International Cooperative Alliance in the lead-up to the 33rd World Cooperative Congress, taking place in Seoul, South Korea, in December 2021.

The cooperative movement is often accused of being too insular and inward-looking, and I would agree with that to a certain extent – but is also important that cooperatives know about and learn from their cooperative peers. Through independent reportage on the movement, Co-operative News provides a space for expert, institutional analysis and conversations that are also relevant to the wider global contexts of sustainability, economic alternatives and the future of work – particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. 2021 will be our 150th anniversary year, and in the lead up to that, we are completing some exciting work around our digital outputs and membership propositions.

You are the second woman editor of Co-op News. How can cooperatives drive women economic empowerment and gender equality?

I think that when asking 'how' cooperatives could drive women economic empowerment and equality, it's important to also ask whether they actually do. The lowest-paid jobs in UK retail cooperatives are still largely held by women (who juggle part-time work with traditional caring responsibilities), while of the 18 or so retail societies remaining, only three have female chief executives. Then there are examples where the cooperative model can hinder (or at least make very little difference to) gender equality when you look at a wider economic context. Sometimes social and traditional norms can affect the impact cooperatives can have on female empowerment, for example through a lack of access to education or capital.

Wherever they are, and in whatever sector, it helps when women support other women in cooperatives. In 2016 Co-operative News, in partnership with Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative College, revisited the Co-operative Women's Challenge. This was originally launched in 2011 to encourage work towards equity in representation in democratic structures; increase the number of women in senior management roles; and campaign for gender equality across economic and social participation. This work is continuing, particularly through the Women in Cooperatives Facebook group and a new series of monthly webinars, titled Cooperative Women's Voices, which launched on Wednesday 30 September with a conversation with Sara Vicari of

Could you share with us the role that cooperative ownership could play in developing independent media institutions?

There is a difference between media about cooperatives and cooperatively owned media. Co-operative News is fairly unique in that it does both. Cooperative journalism (about cooperation) is very established in several countries, including Nepal and India, and there are many podcasts and radio shows about cooperatives too.

In the UK, there has been a long-standing problem of media consolidation and centralization, meaning that the journalists producing 'local' news are often based hundreds of miles away, and do not have the local knowledge or context to give a truly balanced account. More widely, this can have a knock-on effect for civic engagement: one report on the decline of local newspapers linked the closure of titles to reduced election turnout. Cooperatively owned media helps in that regard. For example, the Bristol Cable and Meteor Manchester cover local news in their own cities; and as they are cooperatives, their independence means they can cover the stories and issues that are genuinely important to their members, who are based in the communities they serve.

While cooperation can certainly help develop independent media institutions, it is not always the right answer. Globally, one of the problems is that media cooperatives have not been able to offer members a real return, and there have been plenty that failed because of the rise in digital media and the ease of access to information. In Canada, staff at failing Canadian newspaper business Groupe Capitales Médias (GCM) launched a fundraising campaign to save their titles as cooperatives. Covid-19 hit just as the co-op got up and running and it has now ceased print editions and gone digital only (this was the long term plan, but the pandemic accelerated this as ad sales fell). The media cooperatives that are successful have a core, committed membership base and a genuine purpose that chimes with those members.

What do you think is the value added of the ILO in its work on promoting and advancing cooperatives, mutuals and other social and solidarity economy organizations?

While there are several ideological overlaps between the ILO and cooperation, the ILO plugs into a wider global community and can advocate for cooperatives, mutuals and other SSE organizations in that space. The ILO can help demonstrate that cooperatives can be an option. There are many individuals, organizations and institutions who do not know about cooperatives, let alone the value they can bring, and the ILO can help cooperatives, mutuals and other SSE organizations communicate to an audience much wider than any those enterprises can reach by themselves.

The world of work is experiencing various challenges including the unfolding crises around the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you think cooperatives, mutuals and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) institutions can be partners in responding to these challenges?

The Covid-19 pandemic has been awful, but one silver lining has been how organizations have partnered, organized and cooperated for the good of others. In the UK for example, hyper-local mutual aid groups sprung up, bringing people together on streets, in towns and through social media, in response to the outbreak. Throughout the crisis, Co-op News has reported on responses by cooperatives, mutuals and SSEs – including in terms of job retention, work environments and employment opportunities. There have been some positive stories of cooperatives working and supporting each other in partnership, such as the Wales Cooperative Centre launching a Covid-19 helpline for social business and New York worker cooperatives launching a Covid-19 emergency fund for immigrant cooperatives and colleagues who could not access government relief.

But there are also stories of struggles, redundancies and situations where the challenges are just too great. In July, US outdoor leisure co-op REI laid off 400 workers and later sold its newly built HQ to switch to long-term remote working – and in September, Canada's largest co-op (another outdoor equipment retailer, MEC) was sold to a US private equity firm.

But a good starting point for a response for cooperatives – as well and mutuals and wider SSE – is using the cooperative principles as the basis for a checklist. Are your members democratically involved in the decisions you make as the crisis continues to unfold? Are they being encouraged to participate economically, if possible? What crisis-specific education, training and information is your cooperative receiving/providing? Are you cooperating with other cooperatives, mutuals and wider SSE organizations? How are you serving your communities?