Our Vice Principal Cilla attended the 3rd Biennial Union-Co-op Symposium in Cincinnati earlier this month. See what she thought below!

This has got to be one of the most amazing events I have ever attended. First was the ‘local’ political context. The day previously Donald Trump had retweeted the vitriol of Britain First and as the only Brit in a conference of 250 people, the first hour was shaped by a continuous stream of apologies. At the same time, new tax laws were about to be voted through Senate, further deepening inequalities and diminishing public funding. This made for a febrile and angry, as well as constructive, two days.

Second was the level of co-operative diversity in the room - age, gender, class, and ethnicity - but also sectoral representation. As you might expect, there were food, agricultural and social care co-operatives but there were also manufacturing and construction co-operatives, recuperated industries, tyre recycling and car wash co-operatives, IT firms and housing co-operatives. The diversity extended to a strong trade union presence, with both ‘blue and white collar unions’ representing a large number of what would be termed precarious workers in the UK. In the US unions and co-operatives are increasingly looking at the option of forming worker and employee owned co-operatives to challenge deprivation, racism and the gentrification of neighbourhoods. 

Thirdly was the level of innovative thinking in the room. Much of the discussion was on how trade unions, co-operatives and communities can organise together to put some of the Mondragon type ideas into practice – in particular around the subordination of capital to labour and issues to do with non-extractive investment and finance.

Practical examples...

Here are some of the big ideas of the conference distilled into one example of how co-ops and unions can organise together. In one of the sessions, five Puerto Rican car wash workers described how they went into work one morning to find that the carwash had been locked up and their employer had fled, owing them each a month’s wages. One of the workers had a trade union organiser as a brother–in-law and together, they came up with a plan. The workers joined the union and the union drew on some of its own funds and community funds to help to recapitalise the business through no-interest investment. The workers agreed to survive on reduced pay for a month and now the car wash is a co-operative that has expanded to 12 members. At the same time, the union has gained new members, helped the co-operators with legal issues and worked with them to help them learn how to collectively negotiate their terms and conditions as a co-operative.  

Watch this space for 2018 news on trade union/ co-operative activity hosted by the Co-operative College.  Also expect a new report out soon!