In private enterprise 58% of those in full time work believe they have no influence in the workplace, increasing to 70% for part-timers. (Source: YouGov polling, commissioned by Co-operatives UK May 2015). So it’s only if your employer offers good terms and conditions of employment, including flexible hours, that you will be able to benefit from good work life balance. And of course in private enterprise, employers need to prioritise return on investment for owners and shareholders.
Co-operatives on the other hand are run for the benefit of their members. So in worker co-operatives, where employees are the members, we might assume that one of the benefits on offer would be working hours flexible enough to ensure that members can meet family, education, leisure and social commitments – in other words, a good work life balance.
But there are different types of co-operatives – offering membership to tenants, savers or consumers – and it’s useful to distinguish between them. Consumer retail co-operatives (the familiar high street ‘Co-op’) are run for the benefit of the consumer – or shopper. They are managed like any other supermarket, except that profits are shared with members rather than external shareholders, and members can be elected to the Members’ Council and have a say on business issues. Although employees can be members, the co-operative is not run primarily for their benefit. Issues like work life balance will be covered in a contract of employment and dealt with through the HR department.
In a worker co-op however, the members are the employees and the co-operative is run primarily for their benefit. Members will have influence in the workplace, and will be able to contribute to discussions on the products or services that are sold, on the way work is carried out and on terms and conditions of employment, including work life balance.
“If only …”
But does it happen? Frustratingly, it can be challenging for worker co-op members to be able to achieve good work life balance, for several reasons, for example:
- In the start-up period, founder members will often work for very low or no pay, in order to get the co-operative off the ground, so any talk of work life balance will be accompanied by a rueful smile …
- Members have a responsibility to contribute to management decision making, leaving less time for other commitments
- the co-op may decide to support the local community or people on low incomes and keep their own wages to a minimum, so members may need to work long hours
- there may be a limited understanding of the enterprising nature of co-operatives, with a lack of research into potential markets which could provide the financial sustainability to permit members to achieve better work life balance
- the co-op may be going through a period of change, cutting back on costs in certain areas to spend on new premises, additional equipment or raw materials
How easy is it for members of a large worker co-op to achieve good work life balance? Bristol’s Essential Trading is a worker co-op with over 80 members and is one of the UK’s ‘top 100 Co-ops’ according to Co-operatives UK.
Richard Crook from Essential says:
“… the realities of running a democratic business mean there are increased time demands over and above operational needs that might ordinarily be expected from an employee. Things like reading minutes, attending meetings, writing proposals, reading proposals, dealing with ‘people management’ issues, etc. all seem to add to the ‘work’ side of the see-saw – but at the same time because they can occupy the cerebral side of work rather than the physical, they do have an annoying habit of popping into one’s head during what should be ‘life’ time. Hence it often feels like the line is blurred between ‘work’ and ‘life’ in a worker co-op. People do really commit to the worker co-op they are members of, arguably sometimes too much for their own health and well-being, but this is done I think because they feel they are genuinely contributing to something alternative and often life-changing.”
What we can do to help co-ops be more sustainable?
Join them! Co-ops make an important contribution to the solidarity economy, they have an important part to play in that they (especially worker co-ops) offer an alternative form of business to the capitalist model. Business doesn’t have to be like Dragons Den or The Apprentice!
Buy goods and services from them! Co-operantics has (home) offices in Southampton & Bristol and in Bristol that means saving with Bristol Credit Union, buying organic vegetables from Sims Hill Shared Harvest, , eating in Café Kino! Showing international solidarity at Kebele, enjoying music & workshops at The Folk House, reading news and views via The Bristol Cable, getting open source ICT from Bristol Wireless, going to the movies with Cube Cinema, reading about Re-enchanting the Forest with Vala Publishing, taking a trip round the harbour on a Bristol Ferry Boat, buying wood from Bristol Recycled Wood Co-op, and wooden gifts, logs and charcoal from Forest of Avon Products. We also get electricity from Co-operative Energy and phone & internet through the Phone Co-op (also the only UK supplier of the Fairphone – the first mobile phone made with materials from non-conflict zones). And too many more to mention – check out the CUK Directory for more UK co-ops.
So let’s do it! Let’s make 2016 the most ‘co-opy’ year yet!
Seasons Greetings and all the best in 2016 from Co-operantics.