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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Taking Joint Control: Trade Union and Co-operative Solutions for Decent Work

by Pat Conaty – Research Associate, Co-operatives UK

March 21, 2018

Read the full report, Working Together: Trade Union and Co-operative Innovations for Precarious Work

The labour market in the UK has changed dramatically since 2006. Employment and social protection today for most new jobs is either thin or absent and as a result a new in-work poverty trap is burgeoning. 7.1 million workers (more than 20 percent of the workforce) are in precarious forms of work and 30 percent of UK households report they are in a precarious financial state and not managing to get by. The reasons are not hard to find.

Both off-line and online ‘on demand’ work is escalating – including a 10-fold increase in zero-hours contract work since 2006. There are 4.8 million self-employed (15 per cent of the workforce). Self-employment is also a pre-condition for gig economy jobs. Not surprisingly the growth of freelancing has expanded in a decade by over 1 million and two in three new jobs in the UK are being created by the self-employed. Jobs with limited rights are becoming the new normal.

The brave new world of on-demand work operates with no guaranteed hours, workplace or rates of pay and with risks and costs shifted from capital to labour. The median income for freelance workers and those on zero-hour contracts is 40 percent below the median of those in traditional employment. 77 per cent of the self-employed are in poverty with 1.7 million earning less than the national minimum wage.

As an expanding army of labour the self-employed will surpass the number of public sector workers during 2018. Crowd-sourced labour corporations are spreading to all services sectors, including: Deliveroo, Hermes and CitySprint for deliveries; MyBuilder and Handy for repairs, cleaning and gardening; TaskRabbit for odd jobs; Clickworker for office work; TeacherIn for supply teachers; SuperCarers for social care; and UpWork for higher skilled freelancers.

The profitability of the gig economy model is intrinsic to a design that saves 30% on labour cost overheads plus further savings on equipment, debt collection and insurance. Double standards are evident. Deliveroo in Germany and the Netherlands employs its riders and provides tools of the trade while UK riders have no such protection, provide their own bikes and are charged £150 for the company kit. Legal cases by UK trade unions challenging false self-employment by Uber, Deliveroo, CitySprint and others have secured ‘worker rights’ (including the minimum wage, holiday pay and sickness benefits) but the court decisions are subject to appeal.

Disruptive technology is ‘hollowing out’ corporations by eradicating conventional jobs and substituting casualised ones. Consequently the squeeze on real wages is greater today than any time since 1850. Between 2009 and 2015 the labour share of national income fell from 57 to 53 percent with a corresponding 4 percent increase to capital.

The mutual aid pushback historically by trade unions and co-ops against the unrestrained free market in the 1840s led to social justice solutions. A similar push back is kicking off today. The Working Together report highlights a diversity of emerging best practice by trade unions and co-operatives to secure decent work through creative forms of worker control. Key innovations profiled include:

  1. Freelance co-operatives have emerged in Europe in trades where self-employment is the norm. A good example is the network of 30 local actors co-ops in England and Wales. They collectively negotiate, manage and renew work contracts. Moreover they provide services complementary to the trade union bargaining services of Equity for the same ambienbuy members. Similarly there are 9 local Musicians co-ops in England and Wales that work collaboratively with the Musicians Union. A new co-op for educational psychologists has been set up backed by their trade union. There is enormous scope for more joint trade union and co-op partnerships like these and especially with the current growth in new freelance co-ops in the UK for tech workers, filmmakers, translators, interpreters, bakers and in many creative industries.

  2. Business and employment co-operatives developed in France and Belgium during the 1990s. They provide a wide range of services that secure ‘worker rights’. Smart in Belgium with over 70,000 members is a good example. It handles for freelance members their invoicing and debt collection in ways that smooths out cash flow through guaranteed payment within seven days. Smart secures decent work by providing workspace, ongoing vocational education, equipment rentals and by managing social security arrangements to access benefit entitlements. Indycube a co-operative provider of workspace with more than 30 locations in England and Wales has formed a partnership with Community Union to develop a Smart solution for the UK. Smart co-ops have already been developed in seven other EU countries.

  3. Social co-operatives developed first in Italy from the 1970s and operate in the fields of social care, community and public health, education and in the creation of employment for disadvantaged groups. In Italy they are supported by a national trade union agreement and provide services for over 5 million people with an annual turnover of more than €9 billion. The model has been developed in Canada, Japan, France, Spain, Portugal and other EU countries. There are a growing number of social co-operatives in England and Wales including Cartrefi Cymru Co-operative, Community Lives Consortium, the Foster Care Co-operative and CASA.

  4. Union Co-op platforms are an emerging strategy aimed at advancing worker ownership and control in service industries. For example, the SEIU public services union in the USA is developing apps and a platform for community nurses and childminders. The CWA union in the USA, for example, has assisted taxi drivers in Denver to set up Union Taxi and Green Taxi co-ops and to become highly successful with their own apps. There is trade union support in the UK for developing apps with the highly successful Taxi co-ops (City Cabs and Central Taxis) in Edinburgh being a good example of partnership with Unite to negotiate rates and license conditions.

Supportive public policy and legislation is crucial for a transformative difference. The USA and the UK have weakly developed workplace co-operatives with less than 500 in each country. Italy by contrast has more than 24,000 worker co-ops and social co-ops that have created more than 827,000 jobs. This transformation was propelled both by legislation in 1985 (for worker co-ops) and 1991 (for social co-ops) and by public-co-op partnerships with local authorities. Italy has also pioneered innovations in co-operative capital funds and mutual guarantee societies that together make low-cost development equity and working capital readily accessible for workplace co-op development.

For a democratic sharing economy that is equitable for both workers and service users, a similar public policy framework is needed in the UK as well as an eco-system of local support including technical assistance, advice and co-operative finance tools. Our report shows how to connect these ways and means and highlights examples of emerging local authority strategic support for economic democracy solutions from New York to Bologna that should be pursued here.