Last year, the International Institute for Self-Management held its annual meeting at the University of Teeside in a wet, coastal, and quite beautiful section of England. It had been 10 years since our organization had last met in England, and at that time, the UK cooperative movement appeared to be at low tide. In 1992, we heard stories of businesses and markets removing the word ńcooperative from their names for fear of alienating potential customers. Worker owned enterprises were few and far between. Though by no means dead, the movement whose 19th century Rochdale cooperative gave us all a starting point seemed unsure of itself and its future.
But what a difference a decade can make! On whatever measure you like, the UK cooperative movement had turned their situation at least 150 degrees around. Worker co-ops now existed, in highly sophisticated and competitive forms, in virtually every sector industrial, retail, financial, media, recreation, etc. Consumer co-ops had formed a national and large-scale grocery and retail chain, and often were of a size and scope that rivaled, say, Stop and Shop. National organizations, including a robust Co-op Bank, had been created to facilitate collaboration and partnering among different sorts of co-ops and to provide technical and financial assistance throughout the UK. Especially remarkable, I felt, was the formation of cooperatives in two sectors: internet consulting and community recreation facilities. Through the first, almost every sector of the UK's cooperative movement had been enabled to directly communicate, plan, and work with all of the others; moreover, ordinary folk, often initially unfamiliar with and intimidated by virtual reality, had learned that, and how, they could express their views and send their voices to remote places. As for community recreation facilities, these appeared to take a unique hybrid form, with local towns partnering with recreation staff to create co-owned ńco-ops that provided up-to-date exercise equipment and health programs.
In any case, the land of Rochdale had done something equally important as the original co-op founders. It had shown that the cooperative idea need not be a marginal one, but can spread widely and powerfully throughout an entire country's economy.
How was this possible? What took place in those 10 short years?*
Some partial answers here are provided by a down-to-earth, fast-paced and extremely well made video, The Co-op Advantage, which in just 18 minutes profiles dozens of different sorts of cooperatives as well as interviewing many workers within them, along with national leaders of the UK cooperative movement. I cannot think of a better brief introduction to the strengths and benefits of cooperatives than this video it's packed with potential lessons for us all. The (I believe, quite surmountable) problem is getting it converted from the UK video format to something that plays on north american video systems. I have the UK version, which I'd gladly make available for this purpose: Can anyone cooperate on this with me? If so, write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Editors' Note: We have contacted IIS members in the UK asking for their responses to these questions to be printed in issue #58.