25. June 2013 · Comments Off on Equal Pay · Categories: About Co-operatives

In this series we aim to debunk some of the commoner myths about co-operatives – the stereotypical beliefs that people hold about what a co-operative is, which can lead to misunderstanding and can prevent people from recognising the very real value of the co-operative business model.

EQUAL PAY

The second topic is equal pay – in a co-op everyone gets paid the same, don’t they? No, not always, some co-operatives do have an ‘equal pay for all’ policy, for example worker co-operatives in the wholefood sector, but this is by no means common. Of course equity is one of our co-operative values, so all co-operatives would subscribe to equal pay for equal work. However many co-operatives do have pay scales and pay differentials, some following the example of the famous spanish co-operative Mondragon, and limiting differentials between managerial staff and shop floor workers pay.

A recent article in Co-operative News described how salaries in worker cooperatives tend to foster gender equality, even though in Europe, inequality in pay between men and women is high. According to the survey: European Project – Active Women in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), in 93.8 per cent of cases in worker co-operatives in Spain, France and Italy, gender based salary discrimination does not exist. The survey interviewed 133 women who said that they receive an equal salary to men for an equal workload.

So when people do get the same pay, how does it work?
At Essential Trading Co-operative, the pay system is based on principles of equality and equity, with a pay scale based on length of service, and is possibly unique among worker co-ops within the wholefood sector in the way in which work responsibilities are allocated. Individuals who wish to join the co-op are recruited into specific roles (e.g. Personnel Worker, Retail Worker, Food Processing Worker). However Essential do not conduct job role evaluations in order to place roles into distinct pay brackets. This is because they do not believe that more value should be placed on some forms of work as opposed to others. Nor are there additional monetary benefits for individuals elected by the co-op membership to sit on committees (such as the Management Committee or Strategy Committee) or elected by their team members to act as Team Coordinators.

However, unlike Suma and Unicorn Grocery, Essential does not simply have one rate of pay. The co-operative operates a pay scale that is based on length of service. All probationary members begin on the same rate of pay. They progress through different pay grades, linked only to duration of employment. It is expected that members will come to take on a greater level of responsibility for the management of the co-op and their own area of the business with time, and it is this that Essential seeks to reward through their graded pay structure.

Similarly, the co-operative calculates members’ entitlement to dividends based on the number of hours that they are contracted to work per week, their length of service and their democratic contribution to the co-op’s decision making processes (e.g. how many General Meetings they have attended and how many ballots they have cast a vote in during the last quarter). Also, all members can access the co-operative’s generous health care scheme.

At Calverts Design & Print co-op, Sion Whellens says “the notion of a ‘market rate’ for different skills and job functions is a myth based on social and workplace hierarchy”. Calverts’ equal hourly pay system has been in place without challenge since 1977.

All workers (whether members or non members) are hourly paid, and the hourly rate is the same for all job functions. The rationale for this is that all job roles are equally necessary to the good performance of the business, and should therefore be equally remunerated – Calverts have never found that their pay system makes it difficult to recruit or retain workers. Staff turnover is less than half the industry average, so they have retained a high and increasing level of skills over the years. All workers are simultaneously members, directors and employees of the co-op. The co-op has never made compulsory redundancies on account of recessions or trading downturns. They have occasionally shared the pain of deferred wages and wage cuts, in order to maintain employment levels in the co-op.

Calverts’ current hourly rate is £16.50 per hour (down from around £17.75 before the current crisis), higher than London industry average. Full time hours are 35 per week, lower than the industry average of 39. All overtime (again irrespective of job function) is paid at x 1.5, serving not only as an incentive to work extra hours when needed, but also for the co-op to maximise working hours and minimise routine overtime.

Thanks to Essential and Calverts members for sharing this useful information.

04. June 2013 · Comments Off on De-bunking co-op myths · Categories: About Co-operatives, Tools, tips & techniques

In this series we aim to debunk some of the commoner myths about co-operatives – the stereotypical beliefs that people hold about what a co-operative is, which can lead to misunderstanding and can prevent people from recognising the very real value of the co-operative business model.

JOB ROTATION – OR MULTI-SKILLING

The first topic is job rotation – all co-ops rotate jobs, don’t they?

Well no, some do and some don’t – it’s not a necessary condition for a co-operative. Co-ops organise in many different ways, ranging from full multi-skilling (mostly found in worker co-ops, owned and controlled by employees) to those which have specific roles and job titles.

However co-operatives that do organise around multi-skilling enjoy a variety of benefits – as long as it is implemented thoughtfully and as long as the costs are recognised, anticipated and accounted for.

Job rotation as practised in worker co-ops can be more usefully described as multi-skilling, meaning that all co-operative members must be ready to perform a range of tasks, so when extra hands are required (at certain times of the week for example, or seasonally, or if someone is off sick or on holiday) they are readily available.

Advantages
Apart from the obvious advantage of having those extra hands available, co-operatives that have successfully implemented multi-skilling report improved communications between departments, leading to fewer demands on the personnel department, more variety in the working environment, enabling the co-operative to cope more effectively with high workloads, so members are fresher and enthusiastic for longer; it allows recuperation from stress and enables the co-operative to use labour and skills more efficiently to cope with the troughs and peaks of business.

Pitfalls
If you are learning a new job, you will not be up to speed for some time, and nor will the person teaching you. This is a cost which needs to be built into budgets and projections. If it is not, the lower productivity implied by people ‘learning on the job’ can quickly become a drain on the co-operative’s resources. Another disadvantage is the resentment that can be caused when a trained and qualified worker is recruited for a specific task only to find that he or she is expected to perform tasks they are not experienced in while people who do not have their skills and experience step into their shoes in the job they were recruited for. I am remembering a new-start co-op veggie restaurant that rotated all their members around all jobs including the kitchen, with the unfortunate result that they lost the two qualified chefs they’d recruited! A major pitfall is to assume that all jobs can be rotated and to undervalue the specialist skills that qualified and trained staff bring to the co-operative.

Suma Wholefoods, based at Elland, near Halifax, have been practising multi-skilling for over 30 years and their 150 employees perform more than one role in the co-operative. They say that this broadens their skills base and gives every member an invaluable insight into the bigger picture. It also helps to play to each member’s different strengths, enabling them to ‘think outside the box’ when it comes to creativity and problem solving. Suma workers multi-skill, usually between desk and manual work and contribute to collective management. Drivers often drive for part of the week and work in the warehouse or offices for the remainder. Desk workers are encouraged to do manual work for at least one day per week.

At Unicorn Grocery, in south Manchester, members learn a range of core tasks – working the till, packing, cleaning – and then two or sometimes three people are trained up in specialist roles, so there is back-up when needed.

Suma says: “to avoid the chimps tea party approach of everyone trying to grab the best job, it must be agreed democratically and organised co-operatively. You can use regular HR practice such as job analysis to identify what needs to be done, then share the jobs according to skills and desires. That way you won’t be held to ransom by people with rare skills.”

Summary

What are the key benefits of multi-skilling?

  • improved communications
  • improved awareness of the business ‘big picture’
  • more efficient use of labour and skills
  • more variety, less boredom, less stress
  • more opportunities for individual continuing professional development

And the main pitfalls?

  • assumption that all jobs can be rotated
  • failure to identify those jobs that most need back-up
  • failure to include learning on the job into production costs
  • lack of planning

Co-operantics provides lots of free downloadable resources that will help you with democratic decision-making, the essential foundation for implementation of an effective multi-skilling approach.

24. April 2013 · Comments Off on Co-operative skills and motivation · Categories: About Co-operatives, Team Working, Tools, tips & techniques, Uncategorized

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a workforce, team or any other group of people will perform better when it is motivated. But how do you go about motivating people? In the world of motivation there is a theory that unpicks how to get the most from your workers, volunteers or members called the “Hygiene-Motivation Theory” developed by Fredrick Herzberg and published in “The Motivation to Work” in 1959.

The crux of this theory is that there are the factors which satisfy people in the work place and others that dissatisfy them. Motivation occurs where there is satisfaction and demotivation occurs where dissatisfaction prevails. However, contrary to what you might expect, what motivates people at work is not just the opposite of what causes dissatisfaction.

Hygiene factors must be met in order for people to stop being dissatisfied, but halting dissatisfaction does not itself provide satisfaction. This involves extra activity. If you like, the hygiene factors are the foundations upon which motivation can be built. Meeting basic hygiene needs provides only momentary satisfaction – in much the same way that finding a deserted building as shelter on a rainswept moor would provide momentary relief: you would not want to live there! Satisfaction, and sustained motivation, comes from meeting separate motivation factors. But, failure to address hygiene factors makes any work on motivation factors a waste of time and energy.

Herzberg identified typical examples of these factors which we can take as a starting point, but it may be possible to identify specific factors in your organisation which have either a motivational or demotivational effect on members:

Hygiene and motivation factors

Hygiene & motivation factors diagram

There is a useful introduction to Herzberg’s theory on the BusinessBalls website: http://www.businessballs.com/herzberg.htm

How can we apply this theory in our co-operatives?

A first step would be to get members talking so the co-operative can establish how they feel about these issues. One person’s idea of status may not be the same as another’s, and what is for one person an adequate salary (or total pay if you include profit share) may not be enough for another. Desirable terms and conditions can vary between people with different circumstances e.g. the parent might rather be able to work flexibly around school start & finish times whereas the hardened festival goer may want to take the bulk of their holiday in the summer. What does achievement mean to your members? At what point for individuals does responsibility provide motivation and at what point does it constitute unnecessary pressure? Do they want individual responsibility or shared responsibility?

What does this have to do with co-operative skills?

To benefit from this motivational theory, your co-operative might look at management decisions and organisational changes. However improving co-operative skills will address some of these motivational factors at a fundamental level:

  • Developing good communication skills and learning how to deal with conflict helps people to maintain relationships for longer (a hygiene factor).
  • Improved efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation through better meetings can generate better conditions, remuneration and job security – each of them an acknowledged hygiene factor.
  • Recognition of status as an equal in the business is an important hygiene factor in co-operatives. Poor co-operative skills such as bad communication can undermine the status of a member. If some members feel their views are not heard or taken on board they may feel they do not have equal status – despite what the governing document says about one member one vote. Behaviours that have developed over years and some policies, procedures or systems can also contribute to this .
  • Direct influence on company policies (a hygiene factor) and the way work itself is organised (a motivation factor) are more likely if your organisation adopts good decision making processes that take into account all members – not just the majority or the most vocal.
  • Well organised meetings encourage individuals to share responsibility (motivation) giving all members opportunities to gain recognition as important joint players in the organisation (motivation)
  • Training in co-operative skills is motivational as it provides advancement and personal growth.
  • A co-operative that functions well is a less stressful, more supportive place to work.

It is worth looking at the free resources on the Co-operantics website to develop the co-operative skills in your organisation, or you can bring us in to help.

We can also assist you to identify factors that can assist motivation or advise on improvements to your governance structure, policies and procedures.

Email us at nathan@cooperantics.coop

19. April 2013 · Comments Off on Co-operantics blog on the Guardian Co-operatives & Mutuals Hub · Categories: Uncategorized

We have had a blog introducing the need for Co-operative Skills published on the Guardian Social Enterprise Network’s Co-operatives and Mutuals Hub. If you are interested you can read it here:
http://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2013/apr/19/cooperative-skills-what-are-they (Link updated 19 June 2014)

When I’m web surfing – looking for interesting insights and new approaches to dealing with conflict, I often come across articles or workshops claiming to tell you ‘How to deal with Difficult People’ – and I’ve always had a bit of a worry in my mind about how useful such approaches are – I’m not convinced that to pin the blame for conflict in the workplace on one ‘Difficult Person’ will solve the problem.

A few years ago, I worked with a now large and successful co-op, who asked me to come in and facilitate what they expected to be a ‘difficult meeting’. Two founder members who had conflicting views about the way the co-op was being run were expected to come head to head. The issue was being identified as a personality conflict – i.e. one member was being ‘difficult’. In fact it didn’t come to that – the members were too thoughtful to permit a head to head situation developing. What it threw up was that the difference between the two members was a typical challenge for any co-op growing up from three or four members to ten or twelve – one member wanted things to continue in a laid back ‘everyone decides everything’ style, whilst the other member saw the need for structure and a division of labour.

After much discussion the co-op agreed to adopt a more structured approach, recognising that especially regards HR (in co-op speak Human Relations) the personnel team needed the authority to implement policies agreed by all the members, and that the General Meeting was not the place to deal with issues such as members consistently arriving late. The co-op subsequently asked me to facilitate a strategy meeting called to look at the whole structure of the business, developing an organisational structure based on teams and team representatives, which as far as I know has served them well since.

We have also worked with co-ops in situations where a co-operative board member – again characterised as ‘difficult’ – had exploded with frustration in public, much to the board’s embarrassment and dismay. On investigation however, this ‘difficult’ behaviour seemed to be the result of a whole cat’s cradle of behavioural and governance issues.

In similar situations, we would recommend improving practice in areas such as:

 1. Communicationsears have walls

2. Meetings skills

  • An important role of the chair is to summarise debate as it goes along and especially to summarise any decisions taken in clear language so the minute taker can write it down
  • Minutes should be a record of decisions taken, not a blow by blow account of the meeting
  • There should be an agreed approach for taking decisions, consensus is best for important long term strategic decisions which will impact on lots of people or involve large sums of money, for less critical decisions it’s ok to vote (unless your co-op has 6 or fewer members, when voting is not recommended)

3. Dealing with conflict

You need a tried and tested recipe for dealing with the inevitable tensions as they arise. There’s also a comprehensive and helpful leaflet published by ACAS

If your co-op is facing such difficultiesyou need to make sure you have a clear vision of what the co-op is for – what does it deliver to its members, agreed by members – without that good communication can be just an efficient way to disagree. The lack of such an agreed ‘vision’ could be the root cause of the problemsTwo people might be pulling in different directions, but they might be in a minority, with the majority wanting a third option and disengaging, which could lead to the co-op crumbling away. 

All of which leads me to think that there’s no such thing as a ‘Difficult Person’ – although of course we can all exhibit Difficult Behaviour! Instead, developing a co-op ‘vision’, thinking about how we communicate, how we take decisions in meetings, and how we deal with the inevitable tensions when they arise – in other words, brushing up our co-operative skills – will make it less likely that such behaviour will occur and will help minimise its impact when it does. It will make us better co-operators and make our co-operatives better places to work.

23. January 2013 · Comments Off on Supporting Housing Co-operatives in Wales · Categories: About Co-operantics

Co-operantics are pleased to announce that we were successful in being accepted onto the Wales Co-operative Centre‘s provider list to deliver support to Housing Co-operatives in Wales.  We hope that with our focus on co-operative skills in addition to governance processes and operational issues, the groups we work with will be in stronger position to thrive.

Both Kate and Nathan have worked with a variety of Housing Co-operatives in the past, and Co-operantics are already engaged in another piece of work with a long established Housing Co-op.  In fact, Nathan’s first paid development worker role was as a Housing Co-operative specialist!

31. December 2012 · Comments Off on A Happy and Co-operative New Year from Co-operantics! · Categories: About Co-operantics

2012 was a good year for Co-operantics!  We became a co-op, with Nathan Brown joining as the first of (we hope) many new members. 2012 highlights included CUK’s Co-operative Skills Masterclass in London, Richard Sennett was a thoughtful key speaker, and we ran the jigsaw game, always a rich source for reflections on communications in co-operatives. We were proud to be commissioned to work with Jim Brown and Mick Taylor on a CEH-funded national training and CPD programme for co-operative development practitioners – delivering and assessing the Understanding Co-operative Enterprise (UCE) Unit.

We were very excited to attend Co-ops United in Manchester in October, it was a great honour to meet co-operators from all over the world – and we were especially thrilled to meet co-op developers from the United States and Canada and hear their views on the training of co-operative business advisers. Co-ops United Manchester 2012Presenting the Co-opoly game was the cherry on the cake!  Our ‘pod’ attracted huge interest, with lots of people popping in to see what was going on and hear about this great new game. The players clearly enjoyed it and the Guardian interview helped to promote the game here in the UK – we were proud and happy to hear that sales from this side of the Atlantic increased as a result.

However, perhaps the most heartening development for us in 2012 was the growing and continuing interest in ‘co-operative skills’. We attended ‘Co-operative Working Skills – the heart and muscles of co-operative management’ at the CEH Conference, where Bob Cannell talked about:

  • collectively agreed authority
  • members participating in decision-making and implementation
  • where the power of many is used:
    • to get more done
    • to support each other
    • to develop new ideas
    • to interact better with customers and suppliers
  • and where management resources are used to develop the business, not to fire-fight conflict

and much more. In the short space of time available, we could only touch on some of these important issues. However you can get more insights drawn from Bob’s 25+ years’ experience as a worker owner at SUMA at his blog

Bob, along with Britta Werner from Unicorn Wholefood Grocery and others will be delivering ‘Governance and participation in co-operatives’ – a workshop for co-operative development advisers on 22nd January. The workshop aims to explore how we, as co-operative development practitioners, assess support needs in this area, how we work with client groups to promote good governance and participation, and whether the recently revised Worker Co-operative Code of Governance provides a starting point for co-operatives to diagnose, develop and improve their practices. Cooperantics will be there, keen to learn from others and share our experience.

Finally, we were very pleased to read in the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade:

“Participation: The aim is to elevate participation within membership and governance to a new level, and to do this by focussing on the practical aspects of participation…”

And we hope to be able to contribute to the ongoing debates – not least by building our collection of hints, tips, tools & techniques for improving co-operative working.

 We’d be interested to hear your thoughts:

  • How do you ensure good co-operative skills in your co-operative?
  • What are the dangers of not paying attention to these essential skills?
  • How do you welcome new co-op members and help them to contribute?

You can leave comments here for the next fortnight – alternatively, email us at

kate[at]cooperantics.coop

 

 

 

06. November 2012 · Comments Off on Playing Co-opoly at Co-ops United Manchester · Categories: About Co-operatives, Games
Britta Werner

Britta Werner, Unicorn Co-operative Grocery & one of our promoters

We were delighted to have the opportunity to play and promote the game of Co-opoly at the Co-ops United event in Manchester on Thursday 1st November. We managed to set up four games running concurrently and came away totally vindicated in our belief that Co-opoly is an excellent tool for learning about co-operatives and especially what it’s like to work in one.

‘we take this seriously, you know!’

There was much interest in our ‘Pod’ – with people coming in to watch, asking us about the game, and asking where they could get hold of one.We asked players for feedback about the game – here are some of their comments:

  • the game cleverly illustrates a real-life problematic in co-ops, which is trying to find out what’s going on in colleague’s heads …
  • realistic but fun game, similar to working in a workers coop
  • one of the players immediately adopted the role of “Treasurer” to keep tabs on how many points the co-op owned in real time. This was used by the group along with some forward planning in case the points were needed to cover losses to weigh up spending decisions (e.g. “wage” rises for members).  This demonstrated an awareness that the co-op needs enough working capital to survive to trigger member benefit in the longer term and it also needs up to the minute financial information – something not all new-start co-ops understand!
  • die needs round corners, doesn’t roll well
  • black text on red cards is hard to read
  • good for children to learn an alternative to competition (especially siblings)
  • lastly a small child made the clever observation that for countries that don’t use Roman numerals – 1,2 3 etc. – the die would not work, so we agreed that the traditional dots would work better!
Fun for Kids & Bigs!

Fun for Kids & Bigs!

 

We were privileged to have the participation of Donna Balkan, from the Canadian Co-operative Association, who has played Co-opoly “at least 12 times” and who is a great fan of the game. See her blog about Co-ops United & thanks for the photos Donna!

playing Co-opoly

players debate their next move

There was a lot of interest in the new version of Co-opoly, which Toolbox for Education are currently fundraising for, which will be cheaper overseas, because easier to pack and post. Check their website & contribute if you can.

19. October 2012 · Comments Off on Come & play Co-opoly with us at Co-ops United! · Categories: Uncategorized

Co-ops rock flyerCo-operantics, together with Unicorn Co-operative Grocery, Calverts & Cornerstone Housing Co-op are proud to present the first mass Co-opoly game playing experience in the UK! In Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives, players collaborate to found and run a democratic business. In order to survive as individuals and to strive for the success of their co-op, players make tough choices regarding big and small challenges while putting their teamwork abilities to the test. This is an exciting game of skill and solidarity, where everyone wins – or everybody loses. By playing Co-opoly, players discover the unique benefits, challenges, and operations of the co-operative world – as well as the skills needed to participate in a co-op!

Remember to arrive on time at 12.30  – it’s a board game and it takes at least an hour to play – see you there!

27. September 2012 · Comments Off on The Sweet Shop Co-op · Categories: About Co-operatives, Coping with conflict

a fascinating example from childhood by Cooperantics member Nathan Brown:

Co-operation is a human instinct, or “how a bunch of children set up a consumer co-op”

Through the filter of hindsight, childhood in the 1970s seemed to involve the sun always shining and the school holidays lasting forever.  We lived on a small estate of about 12 streets which was full of kids haring around on bikes or skateboards, and it also had a parade of shops.  This is the story of how a few of those kids set up an enterprising little buying group on the street we lived on.

 Being the last street before the wilderness that had once been farmland, our street was not quite the “fleabag” but being on the outskirts of the estate made us something of outsiders and it would be a lie to pretend there wasn’t an element of tribalism over which part of the estate you came from.  This led to a form of solidarity – regardless of age or gender, we would generally play together because we lived on the same street. We all had pocket money in varying amounts and to the chagrin of our parents we all liked sweets.  Whilst the local shop sold various sweets in an array of huge jars the minimum purchase was a quarter of a pound.  You couldn’t buy just one or two of a particular sweet.  They did have some “penny sweets” that could be bought individually but as nice as Mojos, Black Jacks, Fruit Salad and Flying Saucers were they didn’t offer the value that buying “proper sweets” by the quarter did.

flying saucers sweets

So, without prompting from any adults we developed a “brand new idea”.  Well, it was new to us!  We would pool our resources and buy a range of sweets which we could all share.  It’s quite possible that the inspiration came from a colouring book telling the story of the Rochdale Pioneers that my younger sister had been given by the Co-op at some point.  We all contributed money and sent a delegation (a girl my age and me as we were the oldest and therefore allowed by our parents to walk to the shops) armed with a list.

When we returned, we set up the “shop”.  Up went a garage door and out came a paste table.  Bowls were “borrowed” from kitchens with or without parents’ knowledge.  And then we set out our stock.  Each member of the group counted out a variety of sweets into a bowl and we set about working out a price.  For most, our pricing strategy (we didn’t call it that!) we divided the cost of the bag by the number of sweets in it and rounded up to the nearest half penny.

sherbet lemons sweets

First we discussed if we should split the sweets equally, but then after some discussion we realised that this form of “socialism” wasn’t totally fair.  Everyone had credit based on what they had contributed and this was written down.  As we consumed sweets our credit was reduced accordingly.  Once everyone had received sweets to the value of the money they had contributed there were some left over!  We had magically created more sweets.  We grouped together and discussed what to do.  Our final decision was to divide these up equally, after all we had all “worked” all day long buying and selling to ourselves.  The “shop” was a resounding success but only lasted a day.  We resolved to repeat the process as soon as anyone had any pocket money to go back to the sweet shop.  More than just a means to access a wider range of confectionery it had been fun!  It kept us busy all day and we enjoyed pitching in and working together for mutual gain.  The social aspect was as important as the transactions that took place.  While we didn’t have any “stock” we set about improving our retail area, devising systems for how people should be served and generally planning.

What we didn’t recognise was that while we had enough money to buy in the stock (capital) there wasn’t any extra to spend as income – which would be a barrier to growth.  And if we retained money to spend as income we wouldn’t have the capital.  Our solution was simple – a loan from the bank of mum and dad.  We would each ask for 2 weeks pocket money and explain why.  1 week for “investing” and 1 week for spending.  And if it worked out as it had the previous week, we would still have money to spend for week 2.  Our backers (parents) agreed.  The cost to us was no pocket money the following week.  A risk we were all prepared to take.

Other kids liked the idea and became “customers”.  We gave them the option of contributing to the pot but some wanted sweets in return for cash right there and then.  We didn’t mind that they hadn’t contributed in the first place as the money they spent still enabled us to buy in more stocks.  We had liquidity!  Two or three times a day there would be a bike run to buy in fresh supplies.  The choice of what to buy was based on what we had left (stock), what sold well (demand) and what we wanted (member need).  And if there were kids who didn’t have enough pocket money we would hold a meeting and decide whether or not to give away freebies.  More often than not they “earnt” some sweets by working a shift on the shop front.

With our success came the capitalist attempt to take over.  There was one family in our street who had money.  They had a new car, the son of the family boasted about his pocket money and he always had the latest toys.  They lived next door to where our “shop” was set up in the garage.  The dad – who smoked cigars, as all good capitalists do, just to make sure we can recognise them – went to the cash and carry and bought whole jars of sweets.  This competing venture had access to capital of a scale that we could only dream of.  Up went their garage door.   Out came their paste table.  And they set out to compete with us.  They failed.  Yes, they sold some sweets, but we sold more than they did.  Quite simply, kids enjoyed hanging round in a shared space.  They liked the opportunity to play “shop keeper” and we had a core of customers who had a shared interest in making our venture a success.

The “shop” came to an end when it was subject to an attempted coup.  The person whose garage it was decided they should be “in charge” and make the decisions as it was their garage.  We didn’t like the thought of subjecting ourselves to a dictator – we were democratic and thrived on equality.  First we tried to convince parents to let us use a different garage – no go, as everyone else’s was full of junk, dangerous chemicals or being used to fix a car. So, rather than work through the issues and resist this internal threat, we resorted to childish behaviour (we were children y’know): we wound the little enterprise up.  All the remaining “stock” was distributed according to how much people still had credited to what was effectively their account.  And what was left was divided up among everyone who had been buying.

A nice little tale and on reading it you may recognise most of the Co-operative Principles in action, but what does it prove?  I like to think it shows that co-operating is more of a natural instinct than competing.  A group of children, some of whom were as young as five, developed a way of working together pretty much in the spirit of the Co-operative Principles.  Transfer this “childs play” example to a real business and the undoing of our sweetshop co-op also shows that maintaining the integrity of the co-op requires more than agreed ways of operating, it requires skills in how to work together to overcome problems. Co-operative skills!