Co-operatives, collaborations, partnerships – antidote to the default setting of corporate greed?

Pic credit: Master Isolated, images/view_photog.php? photogid=1962

I’ve always liked the concept of co-operatives, the idea of ordinary people joining together and sharing the labour and the profits of their labour, as opposed to fat-cat directors skimming off the cream and leaving a few drops of sour milk for the people who make their wealth possible, in the form of pathetic little bonuses and below-inflation pay rises.

Somehow, in our loony capitalist world, it’s become accepted that one particular group of workers, those that sit in offices and administrate, should be an elite who earn disproportionately way more than the rest. “But we bring in the money!” they cry in justification for enormous salaries. Yes, and we accept we couldn’t do without you. But we clean the toilets, or serve the lunches, or treat the sick, or produce the staff newspaper, or handle customer complaints, or deliver the post, or mend the computers…. And you couldn’t do without us! Everyone, every function, in a business is interdependent. No business can succeed without everyone performing their own role to the best of their ability. Where did this idea come from, and how has it taken root, this idea that those who perform one function should be so much better recompensed than others?

Directors of big companies; premier league footballers; and top bankers are the obvious examples. They’d argue “but we’re the best at what we do!”. That’s as maybe. Isn’t everybody in a company the best at what they do? They wouldn’t have been recruited in the first place if they weren’t. Who’s to say who brings more real value to a business – or especially to society? Why the huge disparity in remuneration? There are only 24 hours in a day and even those who need little sleep can scarcely work more than 16 hours a day, even if they wanted to. Even then, even working twice the hours of the “normal” worker, that’s no reason to be paid more than twice the rate of that normal worker.

Let’s face it – if we were living in an egalitarian society where everyone earned the same salary, the footballers would still choose to be footballers, the company directors would still choose to be company directors, the cleaners and porters and postal workers would probably still choose their jobs. We’d choose our jobs according to our own abilities and tastes. No one job is intrinsically more worthy of reward than others.

You might find, of course, that some would opt for what is currently considered to be a lesser role, knowing in their hearts that their current position exceeds their abilities. That would be fine – by all means, weed out those who have been promoted beyond their abilities though over-confidence, or through knowing “the right people”. Others would choose a job that suited their natural inclinations, that they couldn’t do under the old system because it wouldn’t pay the bills – like helping with literacy classes or looking after sick people, or rescuing abandoned animals or helping the homeless and dispossessed. Useful jobs.

Ultimately things would all even out and everyone would be doing the job that best suited their personalities and aptitudes and interests – and society would be all the better for it.

There is an alternative to the default setting of corporate greed, and it’s not new. The co-operative movement began in Europe in the 19th century, spurred on by the exploitation brought about by the industrial revolution, the idea being that workers should be self-governing, reaping all the benefits from their own work. No one person would be in the position of being able to command an income far bigger than the rest. Everyone would do the job to which they were best suited, everyone would work equally hard, and everyone would share in the rewards.

Probably the best-known today in the UK is The Co-operative Group, the UK’s largest consumer co-operative, which comprises the supermarket chain and insurance, travel, banking, legal and funeral businesses. The core idea is to sell products in a fair and honest way, support communities and make a reasonable financial return to the member-owners.

Then there’s the likes of the John Lewis Partnership, another major retailer, not strictly a co-operative but still with the aim of divvying up the profits among the people who create them. It works – the staff like getting a share of the dibs and the customers like getting the good service that is a result of that incentive.

Here’s another example of collaborative working. This week, I did an interview with office and meeting space provider Regus, whose UK regional director told me about a growing trend for co-working – where unrelated businesses choose to share an office for the opportunities that provides for company and networking. This has been particularly noticeable at Regus’s sister brand B.hive, which is targeted at women – and headed by well-known businesswoman Lynne Franks

Regus UK regional director Celia Donne told me: “We have many examples of women who met at B.hive and who are now working together or finding ways to help each other. It’s like a private members’ club but with business facilities. Women, especially those in smaller organisations, tend to seek a slightly less corporate approach.”

Then there are the quirky little local examples, like the Spring Garden pub and live music venue in Hotwells, Bristol, which is run as a CIC (Community Interest Company). It operates as a non-profit organisation, putting all surplus money back in to music and drama and local interest groups. I’d provide a link except its website doesn’t seem to work, so maybe it’s gone out of business, which would be a bit shit considering I’m singing the praises of co-operatives. Anyway, it’s a nice little place and when I went in there the other day to ask if they had live music on Saturday the bloke behind the bar said “no, but you can come in and play if you like” which, considering he’d never heard my singing, makes him a very brave man.

And finally, in my list of examples of lovely collaborative enterprises, is the newly formed Golden Mustard Media The idea is that a load of creative types – writers, designers, marketing bods etc – club together to offer the same services that a larger marketing agency could do. Golden Mustard offers the whole gamut of creative services, such as design, marketing, copywriting and PR – and I’m going to be part of it, which is fab. The brains behind the idea is an entrepreneurial journo called Graham Garnett, who will bring in the business, sub individual projects out to whoever is best suited to handle them, taking his percentage in much the same way as any agency does. I’ll let you know if it works!

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