Trade unionist Jimmy Reid described alienation as ‘the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making’. This frustration is endemic in contemporary neoliberalised economies, and according to commentators, including George Monbiot, it contributes to the rise of populist backlashes and disempowerment.
Unions play a vital role in counter-balancing alienation and frustration, responding to organizations imposing alienating practices on their workers. However, neoliberal policies have contributed to a long-term decline of union membership and influence in the Anglosphere and elsewhere.
But workers and unions can counter alienation and other negative effects of neoliberal policies – such as outsourcing, precarity and union decline – in new and imaginative ways.
The United Steelworkers (USW) union in the US is one of many good examples, responding to decades of deindustrialisation and declining union membership. They are developing worker co-operatives that place unions at the heart of enterprises, a model known as union co-ops. They have modified the resilient Mondragon worker co-op model by replacing its social council in co-operatives with more than 50 workers with a Union Bargaining Committee. The committee represents the worker co-operators interests as workers, while other structures represent their interests as owners. Worker representation structures are important according to Mondragon and the USW because there is an inherent risk in worker co-ops that when enterprises achieve scale, workforce engagement in decision making is diluted.
The benefits of worker co-ops have been discussed widely elsewhere. They include empowering workers by involving them in the crucial decision-making processes affecting their working lives, overcoming the alienating factor of lack of control. Indeed, the USW believes that worker co-operators are unlikely to offshore or outsource their own jobs, to design precarity into their employment, or to make themselves redundant in response to business downturns – all tools that neoliberalism makes attractive options regardless of the consequences to workers and communities.
The USW also believes that the active involvement of unions in worker-coops will result in higher union membership within the enterprise, thereby contributing to trade union renewal efforts in some measure. After all, placing unions at the heart of the enterprise allows them to find potential members in a way that is impossible in other contexts.
In a recent study, I examined union co-ops in the US, and Britain’s experience of union involvement with worker co-ops. It sought to determine whether UK unions should be noting the example of their US counterparts, and considered whether lessons can be drawn that should be applied to Britain’s context (and elsewhere).
In the study, I found that the USW’s and other organizations’ efforts to establish union co-ops in the US are ongoing. They have considered the role unions can play in establishing and supporting enterprises to become sustainable, while forging an effective bargaining and representational role.
In Britain, I found that unions often struggle to carve out a role for themselves in worker co-ops, choosing not to engage with them and favouring their traditional role in conventional employment models. Despite sharing common historical roots addressing the iniquities of industrialisation, union and co-operative movements have often nonetheless been wary bedfellows.
The closest parallel to the union co-op model found in Britain was the relationship between Suma Wholefoods (a worker co-op wholefood wholesaler) and the Bakers Union (BFAWU). Suma is a long-established business, and operates a flat pay structure – meaning all its worker/owners are paid the same. They sought to recognise a union, and came to an agreement with the BWAFU, working collaboratively wherever they can, only moving to opposite sides of the table when a dispute or issue arises. I found that the arrangement is working well, suggesting that the BFAWU have successfully defined a beneficial role for themselves in worker co-ops. The BFAWU cite Suma as a good employment model to others, and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other worker co-ops.
A sector that may be ripe for the union co-op model in Britain is adult social care, although it is noteworthy that the USW and others are developing union co-ops in the industrial sectors they organise in. Skills for Care, an organization working with employers to increase skill levels in the social care industry, report that the number of adult social care jobs in Britain in 2014 was estimated at 1.55 million, and since 2009 local authority jobs in the sector had shrunk by 50,000, while the private sector had grown by 225,000.
However, in my study I found that some unions seemed to be failing to target this growth area of employment in public services. Instead, they were choosing to adopt an ideological mantra that public services should be delivered by the public sector, or were oblivious to the opportunities presented by alternative models of work organisation.
Arguably their ideology or lack of interest flies in the face of the trajectory of the neoliberal assault on public services, and it abandons workers to largely non-unionised employers operating alienating work practises, and denying unions the oxygen of membership growth and innovative thought and action.
There are already examples in Italy, the US, Britain and elsewhere of how social care coops are successfully meeting rising social care demand in the private sector, often encouraging union membership and participation in the process.
Perhaps, it is time that the union movement in Britain and elsewhere took note of what the USW and others in the US are doing in respect of unionised worker co-ops. It’s worth considering how the union co-op model could be applied to their own context, how it may counter alienation amongst their members, and how it may contribute towards their renewal efforts.
Teaser photo credit: The United Steelworkers headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Flickr user Joseph under a Creative Commons Licence