ORGANISED ANARCHY AND COOPERATIVE POLITICS: WORKER-OWNED ENTERPRISES IN ACTION

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The lack of jobs and services is forcing communities to seek alternatives, and once again thecooperative model is being explored. Two weekends ago in Belfast†, a number of organisationsmet at the Cooperate and No One Gets Hurt seminar where the Workers Cooperative Network (WCN) was established. The cross-border initiative broadly aims to improve  networking and learning opportunities among worker coops and to contribute to developing a greater understanding of the sector’s benefits and opportunities.

Worker-owned coops are unique enterprises that demand a democratic decision-makingprocess and a system of ownership that has workers at the centre. Worker-owners are not justemployees but are more typically known as members who democratically share ownership of the business. While worker-owned coops are subject to the same strains and challenges as regular businesses, when well-governed and subject to basic good business practices they candeliver top-quality goods and services at affordable prices, as shown by the dramatic success of MONDRAGON Corporation in the Basque region.

While coops in Ireland have traditionally had success in the farming and dairy sectors, in the true sense of the term “worker-owned” such organisations are extremely rare. Golden Anikweof Cooperative Support Services believes that ‘because cooperation can be organised in virtually all areas of human endeavour’, there are lots of opportunities for communities toexplore. Golden explains why he believes communities new to Ireland are particularly open tothe idea. ‘The World Bank says that Nigeria, as an instance of an African community, toes as easily to cooperation as ducks toe to water, because it is fundamental to the way of life.Due tothe peculiar experiences they have had, migrants have developed skills that enable them to help themselves and there is a stronger tendency among them to explore these ideas.’ Strengthening links between new and existing democratic organisations will be the key to developing the sector.

Cooperatives are reasonably well-developed in the UK, naturally influencing the situationin Northern Ireland. Julie Mc Nerney and Jason Branagan also attended the seminar and areboth members of worker coops. Julie describes how the model can serve flexible purposes as she has learned through working at the radical education coop Just Books. ‘We didn’t have a shop for selling books so we are getting into online sales with the help of the Creative Workers Coop. We are also setting up an education branch of Just Books called Just Learning thanks to a few people at the Ulster People’s College who have been a great resource of knowledge and experience.’ Jason is a member of the North Belfast Housing Coop and describes how the meaning and purpose of the organisation has changed over time.‘With the help of Radical Routes, the North Belfast Housing Coop was initially set up bypeople who identified as anarchists who all had a sort of ideological commitment to the idea of cooperative living. But with the attacks on welfare and housing benefit, economic reality kicked in leading people into homelessness and hostel-style accommodation. So it went beyondagreeing with an ideological idea to being – here, we actually need to do this: we need to sort out accommodation for us and people like us.’

Worker coops can fulfil purely practical purposes or can be designed to serve wider political agendas through a fundamental emphasis on democratic and egalitarian processes.Brothers Jack and Hugh Corcoran are two of the seven members that make up Na CroisBhealaí Irish language café and social centre in Belfast city. Jack describes how the coopmakes demands of members as well as providing them with benefits, and links Na CroisBhealaí with a broader struggle against the privatisation of goods and services. ‘All of our members are signed up to the Independent Workers Union which we see as one of the more progressive unions in Ireland. We also expect our members to speak Gaeilge fluently or be actively learning the language. I’ll be travelling to Cuba soon where I’ll be working on a farm. We will also have lectures from different Cuban representatives and see some examples of the revolution. I’ll be educating myself about coops because they are starting to bring that into Cubaas a way of resisting privatisation.’

Hugh describes how worker coops can be hives of resistance to neoliberal ideology by providing spaces for social engagement and critical thinking. ‘We had been visiting radical spaces in Cataluña and having conversations about being the first generation to come out of conflict and witnessing the deconstruction of a social movement. We could see our generation growing up in a very individualistic society and we knew we wanted to build towards this more collective idea by working together and pushing progressive ideas. So we started the social centre to promote the Irish language and promote workers control, directly challenging neoliberalism through language, culture and economics. We provide regular decent lunches for working people five days a week and free Irish classes once a week also. We have also juststarted political education classes aimed at creating political cadres through discussion and debate around theory and ideology.’

To find out more about the Workers Cooperative Network and to sign up for information on future events keep an eye on the WCN website (http://www.workerscooperativenetwork.org/) or contact TradeMark directly. The following worker coops were represented at the Belfast seminar and currently make up the membership of the Workers Cooperative Network: SUMA WholefoodsBelfast Cleaning Coop, Na Crois Bhealaí, Meitheal MidwestJust Books CollectiveNorth Belfast Housing CoopCooperative Support ServicesBridge Street Coop,Dublin Community Television CounterPunch/Dole TVCreative Workers Coop,TradeMark Belfast, Northern Ireland Cooperative Forum and PRAXIS.

This residential seminar was a partnership between ICTU, Trademark, the N. Ireland Cooperative Forum and SUMA Worker cooperative. It was part-financed by the EU’sRegional Development Fund through the PEACE III Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.

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