Employee ownerships are usually keen to amplify what they see as their natural ownership advantage with a range of management initiatives aimed at getting buy-in from employees on a deeper level, using systems theory, business school ideas, and Maslovian notions of needs hierarchy to wring out the extra juice. All this management is, of course, costly. Worker co-operatives by contrast are more likely to be able to assume loyalty, and dispense with the hoodoo; their disadvantages mostly stem from problems around capital – a lack of which defined their members as workers in the first place.
The conclusion might be that both forms get a business advantage by being able to build their base of skills and expertise by retaining and upskilling workers – resulting in higher productivity – but that they do this in radically different ways. In worker co-ops, which have developed some of the most advanced practical applications of democracy anywhere, collective self-determination reaches into the everyday process of production, not just the traditional realm of ‘corporate governance’.
Employee ownerships and worker co-ops also have a different take on information and transparency. To work well, co-ops have to practice true ‘open book’ management, with almost all information available to members, on the basis that ‘if you don’t have the information – or can’t use it – you can’t be in control’. By contrast, information culture in many employee ownerships amounts to giving members an annual update of their financial ‘pot’, running quality circles – the old Suggestion Box, with bells on – or implementing ‘nudge’ measures to improve worker performance. At the launch of the ‘1 Million Owners’ campaign, Co-operatives UK’s joint initiative with the Employee Ownership Association, the boss of a London PR company spoke with pride about how her employee-owned business has become more transparent. “Everyone has access to all the information. Except of course sensitive things, such as how much each of us earns.”
None of this might matter much, except that mistaking worker co-operation for employee ownership, or conflating them, leads to wasted effort on the part of New Economy activists – boosting business narratives that have no real meaning for us, or exhausting with misguided policy initiatives. The future of worker co-operation lies in the hands of workers, to whom, wherever they are, the tools and experience of the present movement need to be made available. That’s a hard task, which can’t be achieved with top-down short cuts or new legal frameworks.