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Trade unions fear for the future of the Co-op

coopLord Myners impassioned defence of his review of the Co-operative Group in the Observer following his resignation from its board last week will have found favour with many Co-operators. Today, a trade union representing Co-op employees have today leapt into the debate in defence of their members interests, and in support of Myners.

Adrian Jones, a Unite national officer representing 1200 Unite members in a letter to Co-op board members, expressed the fear that “the board level power struggle is putting their livelihoods at risk“. He went on to back Lord Myners call for a comprehensive review of governance in the group.

Last week Usdaw, the shopworkers union which claims to represent 50,000 members working for the Group, also stressed the need for the Co-op Group “to present a clear and coherent strategy as soon as possible“.

A number of voices within the Co-op movement have criticised Myers for failing to properly understand Co-operative values or for undervaluing “democratic member control” in the organisation. Patrick Gray, president of the Midcounties Co-operative, did so in the Guardian two weeks ago. Today, former Co-op Party general secretary and the founder of the pro-mutual thinktank Mutuo , Peter Hunt, is quoted in the Guardian as doing so too, and previously criticised the threat the the Group’s £1m annual funding of the Co-op Party.

Whilst these concerns may also strike a chord with many Cooperators and Coop Party activists, it is important to remember two things.

Firstly, that many of those expressing a view have vested interests in the debate, which, however well-intentioned their contributions, means that their greatest concerns might not be seen as those of greatest strategic importance to the future well-being of the Co-operative Group.

Secondly, the most important stakeholders in the Co-operative Group in the current discussions, are not its managers, not Co-op Party members or MPs, not its members, not even its customers, who usually do have other retail opportunities and are unlikely to genuinely engage in the democratic structure of the Co-operative Group, but its workforce whose livelihood depends on the Group’s viability and success.

What the workforce need above all is a management structure which can deliver a clear coherent strategy to turn the Co-operative Group into a retail group that can challenge its private sector competition to deliver what retail customers need and want, whilst remaining true to its principles and properly valuing its workforce. In the long run, the business will succeed or fail on the basis of what it delivers to customers, and management’s task is to deliver a strategy for succeeding with its customers which has the enthusiastic backing of its workforce and members.

That will require good governance – a structure that will hold the management to account to the members, and that is seen as democratic by the members. That seems to be what Lord Myers wanted too.





  1. James Martin says:

    The real problem with the structure comes from the fact that it is a consumer and not a worker cooperative. Indeed, there is plenty of recent history to show that in many ways the main Coop group is not a particularly nice employer – the disgraceful attack and de-recognition of GMB (in favour of the completely tame right-wing dominated USDAW) in the funerals business a few years ago is a good example of this, but there are others too.

    And then look at the Coop Party itself. A bastion for Blairism (with strong support for academies and the NHS internal market), a sponsor of right-wing useless MPs (most of who do nothing to support in practice mutualism and cooperative principles), and largely undemocratic at local and national level compared even to the Labour Party in the way it selects leaders and candidates (I have for decades been a member of both). I actually couldn’t care less if the Coop Party disappeared tomorrow for all the progressive use it demonstrates.

    But back to the Coop group. The bank is already lost, and no more money should be pumped into it to maintain a meaningless 30% ‘control’. The shops are struggling, but the rest is actually doing quite well. E.g., the Midcounties group has a right to be critical of recent proposals because they are not losing money and have done a good job with things like Coop Energy. But ultimately we need to recognise that without a wider change in society we are never going to create socialism by redistributing our own spending crumbs we get from the top table – and aside from the weakness inherent in being a consumer rather than a worker coop, this is the biggest weakness that the coop model will always have.

  2. swatantra says:

    had always had the impression that the Unions were pretyy indifferent to Coops and felt in some way threatened by them. So its welcome if they have now changed their tune. It would be even more helpful if they put their money where their mouth is and supported worker coops financially. And the Cooperative Party would welcome some funding from the Unions to develop the idea of co-operatives as an alternative model. Only it can do that being the political arm of the Cooperative Movement.
    The Coop Group was not really a proper Coop; it being limited to being only a consumer coop. The Cooperative ethic did not run right through the whole business from Board to Staff to Customers as it should have done. Not everyone that used it bought into the ethics.
    And the same could be said of most of the Coop MPs and Cllrs who only paid lip service to the Coop Party, as James Martin says.

  3. Nigel Todd says:

    In a co-operative, as in a trade union, it’s not possible to disconnect the governance and influence over strategic directions from membership. The worry about the Myners proposals is that they are a variety of the New Labour tokenism towards membership that has helped strip meaningful democratic participation out of the Labour Party and voluntary organisations, with and fundamental shift of power towards managers. These shifts serve political agendas which, in the Co-operative Group’s case, raise the spectre of further bursts of asset stripping and demutualisation. The best outcome is not to be pressured or panicked into a ‘take it or leave it’ decision on Myners, but to engage members and staff in renovating co-operative democracy that retains a vibrant co-op that demonstrates that we don’t have live with the often failed plc version of economic enterprise. And anyone interested in the future of the Co-op Group should make sure the attend the upcoming round of members’ meetings.

  4. Robert says:

    It all depends now where it wants to go and how it wants to be seen, if it heads off to be a bog standard bank I suspect the members will leave, I know I will.

    So time to sort it out tell us the direction and whether we have a part in the new Coop.

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