In this episode, Laura and Doug talk to John Atherton, cooperative expert and the Project Organiser for workers.coop. We talk about the cooperative economy, setting up a worker co-op, the mission John is on (as well as his backstory), and some examples of co-op successes around the world!
- Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky
- ICA structure (like the UN for co-ops)
- The Italian region where 30% of GDP comes from cooperatives
- John Atherton: LinkedIn / Co-ops UK profile
Laura Hilliger: [00:00:22] Hello and welcome to the Tao of WAO, a podcast about the intersection of technology, society and internet culture with a dash of philosophy and art for good measure. I’m Laura Hilliger.
Doug Belshaw: [00:00:33] And I’m Doug Belshaw. This podcast season is currently partially unfunded, so you can support this podcast and other. We Are Open projects and products at open collective.com/open.
Laura Hilliger: [00:00:45] Today we are talking to John Atherton, the project organiser for workers.coop. After spending 14 years working for Co-operatives UK membership, he’s now heading up a new initiative which We Are Open Co-op is also involved with and we thought we would get him on the podcast to talk about plans and how others can get involved. Welcome, John.
John Atherton: [00:01:09] Welcome. And I’m glad to be here.
Doug Belshaw: [00:01:12] Excellent. So you know what the first question is going to be? Our first question is always, what is your favourite book and why?
John Atherton: [00:01:21] And I could have chose any number of trashy fantasy or sci fi books. But I’ve gone for ‘Rules for Radicals’ by Saul Alinsky because it was probably one of the books I read that changed the way I thought. And so that’s why I’ve kind of gone for that. It’s all about basically how you challenge power and challenging power in very different ways than I thought about before I read it.
Doug Belshaw: [00:01:49] And did you read this at like a pivotal moment in your life, or was it just one of those books where it doesn’t matter when you read it? Like it’s just so powerful.
John Atherton: [00:01:59] And I read it very, very early on in my cooperative journey, so at least 15 years ago. But yeah, no, I wasn’t a teenager.
Doug Belshaw: [00:02:11] So why don’t we dig into that then? So like you’ve your current with kind of workers comp and you’ve spent a long time with co-operatives. Uk How do you come to to that juncture? How, what’s your career history? What’s led you here?
John Atherton: [00:02:27] So similar to lots of other co-op people. I didn’t really know about co-ops until until I did. If that makes sense. So my background was economics. Business studies wanted to do international development, went all the way through my academic life, not once ever coming across co-ops. And that’s despite living in North Manchester, literally, right, the town next door to Rochdale. So I didn’t know anything about co-ops. I started out doing an internship at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which was the first organisation to properly do microcredit, and it was there. I came across co-ops in the form of credit unions in, you know, consumer…
Doug Belshaw: [00:03:11] Can we just step back a moment? You can’t just casually say, “I did an internship in a bank in Bangladesh” without maybe just explaining how that came about!
John Atherton: [00:03:24] So yeah, So I was did economics, geography, all that I wanted. I want to work. I wanted to work at Oxfam, I wanted to do international development. And so when I was looking around to how to get into that whole world, I basically wrote I basically wrote a letter to the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. And in that massively naive way young young people do said, Hey, I got an economics degree. I could help you out. And and then as soon as I got there, I realised I literally knew nothing about international development and economic regeneration compared to these people who obviously do it really, really well. And I think the guy won a Nobel Prize for it. So that that puts me in my place. Yeah, so that that was my first introduction, I suppose, to economic development and and poverty alleviation. And that’s where I came across co-ops. And I remember thinking, wow, this is a great idea. Why don’t we have co-ops in the UK? And, and yeah, and no joke, this is how naive I was. Came back to the UK, did the research. It was like, Oh, we invented them in that town, literally just down the road in Rochdale. And that was really my introduction to co-ops. And so I didn’t end up getting a career in international development because it’s really hard. And so I ended up going into basically doing local economic development, you know, locally social enterprise charities and and a little bit of co-ops. And that’s really where I started pivoting from charity and charitable forms of economic development and all the rest of it to co-ops. Because, you know, as we probably get onto co-ops, I believe are a fundamentally better way of giving people power and control over their lives.
Doug Belshaw: [00:05:15] Mm. Okay.
Laura Hilliger: [00:05:18] Well, it sounds like you wrote a really good introductory letter to this bank that you went to. Um, do you want to talk a little bit about some of the differences that you see amongst co-ops, like the difference, because there’s a lot of different kinds of co-ops now, and I think a lot of people they’ve heard of platform co-ops or worker co-ops or agri co-ops. And maybe you can just talk a little bit about the first kinds of co-ops that you got involved with. So that was in the financial industry and credit unions. And then how you kind of expanded your knowledge of the cooperative landscape from there.
John Atherton: [00:05:56] Yeah. So. Well, I suppose as I found out fairly quickly on my journeys, there weren’t just the consumer co-ops, the traditional credit unions and, and, and retail retail co-ops. You see on the high street there, the probably the most well known or I suppose the most global. And and I rapidly realised, although they are great and they have done great things they. Worker ownership or cooperatives where it’s the producers who who own and control and benefit from the cooperatives are, I would say, even better. So, you know, credit unions and consumer courts are great. They do great things for people. But isn’t it a shame that the people who work in those sorts of cooperatives are basically employees like in any other business? And I and so I suppose that’s that’s the big difference between co-ops. They’re all cooperatives are owned or controlled. And for member benefit, that’s what they, you know, they’re all democratic organisations, they’ve all got social purpose. They all have those seven principles. The difference is who owns them and who benefits. And and so, yeah, I you know, it’s just personal preference. I think the workers should own it and should benefit the most. You know, obviously my colleagues who are very heavily involved in credit unions or consumer co-ops would disagree and say, no, no, no, it’s the customer that that should should be the should be in charge. And so really that’s the difference is who owns the co-op?
Doug Belshaw: [00:07:28] And is it is it usually always a matter of scale? Are worker co-ops usually always smaller than other types of co-ops?
John Atherton: [00:07:38] Uh, no. So Mondragon, which is the largest worker co-op in the world in the Basque country, is, you know, I think it’s the seventh largest corporate group in Spain. So that means it’s pretty massive. And it, you know, has I can’t remember, you know, tens of thousands of employees. And so you can have worker co-ops that operate at scale as you can have consumer crops that operate at scale. And it we could get into a very long conversation around about, you know, ecosystems for developing worker co-ops and how they’ve got something worked in the Basque country in Spain that clearly hasn’t worked in the UK. But you no, there’s nothing to stop you having super large worker co-ops. It’s just that’s just not the way the UK movement went.
Doug Belshaw: [00:08:31] Okay.
Laura Hilliger: [00:08:36] Do you want to talk a little bit about what so you’re currently you’re working with workers co-op, which spun out of Co-operatives UK. And maybe you want to talk a little bit about why the the spin happened. What is this called? The. What is it called when something spins out? There’s a word for this.
Doug Belshaw: [00:08:59] In German or in English?
Laura Hilliger: [00:09:00] Yes, in German. That’s what I’m looking for.
Doug Belshaw: [00:09:03] Well, I’m not sure that German was going to be so useful for this conversation, but, um. Yes. So it planted. Is that the word in English? Planted? No. Maybe not. Yeah, it was a bit of this.
Laura Hilliger: [00:09:19] It’s fine. I’ll find it. You know, 20 minutes from now, and then I’ll just shout it into the microphone and everybody will be very entertained. But why should you? Maybe you could tell us a little bit about why workers co op spun out from cooperatives. Okay.
John Atherton: [00:09:36] So the the slight back history, because I love my history is back in the 1970s there were there was that was when really worker co-ops in their modern form kind of came out and it was the first organisation that tried to do it was an organisation called Scott Barlow, which was a manufacturing organisation, and it was playing a bit like nowadays people are messing around and playing with structures and ways of working and back in the 70s because of the economic crisis and and all the rest of it, people were playing with new ways of, of running businesses. And so the modern form of a worker co-op came out of that 1970s. As always happens with this sort of thing, they form their own federation called the industrial Common ownership movement because their their focus was this concept of the Commonwealth and owning, owning things in common rather than as individuals. And they had their own organisation and it was massively successful for the time. I think the number of worker co-ops grew through the 70s and 80s up to around 1500 businesses. And then Tony Blair came along and basically he didn’t… New Labour were not interested in co-ops. They saw co-ops as Old Labour and so they basically crushed all the infrastructure around funding. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? And so the organisation struggled and eventually merged with the Consumer Co-op Federation to form Co-ops UK.
John Atherton: [00:11:14] And so they used… In short, there used to be one, there used to be a worker co-op federation. It merged to form an overall, you know, organisation for all co-ops and was massively successful. And that was fine for, you know, 20 years, 20, 25 years. And really it was a couple of years ago now where people started to say, Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we had our own thing? And I think part of that was because of an organisation called Kotek. So I know in the worker co-op sector and those tech businesses thought there was a better way of doing things and, and created CoTech specifically for, for tech co-ops. And I think a lot of the other worker co-ops saw that, saw what they were doing and thought, why can’t we do that? Why can’t we have a organisation that is is specific to to all worker co-ops? And really that’s. What germinated the idea. And so essentially the work of co-op members of Co-op UK. Approached Co-op UK and said, you know like lots of other parts of the co-operative economy, we would like to have a specialist federal body specifically for worker co-ops. And so working with Co-op UK, that’s what we did. And so it was created in November last year and has essentially been going for, what, nine months now, I think. And so that’s kind of where we’re up to.
Laura Hilliger: [00:12:42] And how many… Do you know how many members are there in Workers Co-op today?
John Atherton: [00:12:49] So to date, we are membership opened in January and we’re up to, I think, 47 last time I checked. Worker co-ops. And that’s out of 400 worker co-ops in the whole of the UK, which is not getting 10% within the first three four months. That’s not bad going. And and crucially, most of the really large worker co-ops, they’re the ones we targeted. So a lot of the really big ones have joined and and really as as with lots of things, it’s the massive long tail of really small co-ops that we now have to target and get on board like us.
Doug Belshaw: [00:13:27] Yes. So that’s interesting, isn’t it? How? Because I didn’t know that history that there used to be two separate movements, which then joined together because of pragmatic reasons, and then it makes sense to separate them again. And what I find interesting about that is the historical angle, which you’ve kind of explained when people don’t know the history of the movement. Then they don’t know what’s possible, how large things were before, what we can learn from the history of other countries, what we can learn from the present time in other countries. And I think you’re going to talk about some of that later on. But um, yeah, otherwise you just take, you know, when I say I’m part of a co op to the people, the two touch points are obviously for the people in the UK, the Co-op Foodstore and the Co-op Bank. And the Co-op Bank isn’t even a co-op, is it? So it’s a very bizarre situation. Um, and yeah, we do need kind of an industry body collective, a foundation to, to be the voice and to, to kind of grow the movement a little bit.
Laura Hilliger: [00:14:38] Do you find that “co-op washing” is a thing? Actually? In the UK? You just mentioned that Co-op Bank isn’t actually a co-op and there’s a lot of like I have a background in open source. There’s a lot of what we call open washing. Open AI is the most modern example of open washing. Do you find that there’s a lot of co op washing? Is that even a term? There is now!
John Atherton: [00:15:03] Yeah. So the Co-op bank example is a, I’d say more of an aberration than a than a than a pattern. So it used to be. So in the UK you can’t actually set up a bank as a co op legally they have to be PLCs. And so it technically was a subsidiary of the largest consumer co-op. And so it used to be part of a co-op and essentially due to one of the financial crises we went through, I think it was 2008 basically when lots of other banks got bailed out by the government, the Co-operative Bank wasn’t. And so essentially the co-op group had to divest itself and it was taken over by by basically venture capitalists. So that was its journey from being a co-op to a non co-op, which was massively unfortunate. And there’s ever since been a challenge around the branding and the identity. And normally most people we don’t get a lot of people pretending they’re co ops that are not co ops, partly because co-operative and being a co-operative isn’t necessarily a fashionable thing. There are no tax benefits.
John Atherton: [00:16:21] There aren’t any. And again, particularly through the 90s into the noughties social, you know, in that sort of alternative world of business, social enterprise was the fashionable thing. Now most co-ops are social enterprises and lots of co-ops did brand themselves and and and use that identity as a social enterprise. And now the trend is this thing called community business. So there’s loads of money and interest in the concept of community wealth building and community businesses. And so, again, lots of cooperatives may frame themselves as as part of that, that that movement. But underlying thing is, is they are cooperatives. I think it’s something a little bit more particular to worker co-ops where they people who consciously create their businesses as worker co-ops are more proud of or use that identity more in their their branding as opposed to some of the other industries. So, so long, long response. But not many people would say they are a co-op if unless they truly mean it and they truly are. And it will be interesting to see how that continues as fashions and trends change.
Doug Belshaw: [00:17:33] Well, we’ve definitely come across an example in the last year where an organisation which was being set up. Kind of claimed it was a co op, but definitely leaned heavily on co operative language and we kind of, you know, challenged them in a friendly way and say if you’re a co op. Be a cop. If you’re not. Then maybe change some of the language. And I wonder if it is different in in different sectors. Like if, you know, like we do actually get people telling us that they want to work with us because we’re we’re a co op, you know, and and maybe it’s different in different sectors and but in the tech sector, it might be that because you’ve got venture capital, because venture capitalism is almost a norm, because, you know, stripping user data like all of the abuses of Big Tech over the years, maybe. Maybe there’s particular sectors which are ripe for pushback by cooperatives. Maybe that’s it. I don’t know.
John Atherton: [00:18:33] Yeah, I didn’t mention before, but ‘cooperative’ is a sensitive term, so you can’t register a company as a cooperative without being a cooperative and Co-ops UK kind of acts as the guardian of of that. So one of the jobs I had at UK was sending nasty letters to organisations saying we don’t think you’re a co op and if you if you are passing off as a co operative, we may well have to take you to court. That usually change people’s branding, but it didn’t happen that often because the truth was it’s not. Many people passed off as a co-op if they weren’t. And I and I do agree with you, I think, again, we see it particularly more in the agency work tech work, where where all the skill and value in the business is knowledge based or creative based. And and the relationship is through an account manager and is a personal relationship. So those sorts of sectors where you can say, I am your account manager or I am your developer or, or your creative lead and I own this business. I get the sense, you know, again, it’s all subjective that, as you say, people quite like that. They quite like the fact that the the the person they’re talking to is an owner in that business. They’re not just a freelancer. They’re not just massively exploited employee with a founder creaming off all the profits. And and we find that. That’s a reason to trade with worker co-ops.
Laura Hilliger: [00:20:06] You mentioned. You know, I was just going to I was just going to ask you, you mentioned a few minutes ago that that cooperatives were in their history and the history of cooperation cooperatives. People were forming around collective ownership of what you mentioned as the commons. And I’m thinking that what you meant was like common land, common areas. And I was wondering if you might talk a little bit about the digital commons and cooperatives and whether or not you’re seeing in this landscape cooperatives sort of pop up to try to, um, to, to shepherd the ownership around some of the digital commons that we have or if it’s still pretty heavily non-profit run. The comments that we understand it’s digital commons.
John Atherton: [00:20:59] Yeah. So the original common ownership movement was very much about we’re when we’re building businesses and building wealth, we’re not building wealth just for ourselves and our own individual benefit. We’re building a commonwealth of of wealth for the future generations and the future employees. And so there was a very big movement that that we’re not going to sell this business if we make a load of money. We’re going to. Be stewards so that, you know, future people can can benefit from this this source of work. So that’s where it came from. And, and yeah, as you kind of say, it kind of they’re very parallel and and aligned values. So there are lots of tech co ops that are very interested in open source and very interested in the commons and, and the digital commons because they’re very similar values and similar ways of thinking. And you know, in a similar vein, lots of worker co ops operate in agile, flat, non-hierarchical, you know, hi, what would you, what would you call it? High challenge, high feedback, open and honest communication environments. And so again, there’s a lot of crossover with those sorts of ways of working in worker co ops and the sorts of things people in, you know, say modern tech businesses are kind of used to or expect and hopefully demand the sorts of workers in those sorts of businesses should demand those sorts of ecosystems and structures for how they work because they’re better, I think I’m sure all three of us believe those sorts of work environments are better than very hierarchical, very controlled work environments. And so, yeah. There are obvious overlaps between co-operative values and and methodologies and those sorts of values and methodologies.
Doug Belshaw: [00:22:48] And you mentioned. So for for those who don’t know, because we’ve just been doing some work around this and reading long reports and all that kind of stuff from the ICA, the International Co-operative Association. So my understanding is that Co-ops UK is the national body for the UK. And then there’s ones in every other country in the world, is it or how does it work?
John Atherton: [00:23:14] Yeah, this would really benefit from a very nifty diagram and illustration, but maybe we can. The way I try and explain it is it’s a bit like the UN, so the ICA is like the UN for co-ops. And so it’s the, it’s the global body that tries to bring together these very disparate sectors and countries and approaches and legal forms and, and, and all lots of different countries have lots of different co-op movements at lots of different levels of development. And so the, the ICA essentially tries to bring all those different places together and build a movement. You know, this is a global, a global movement and. And and that’s its role. So yes, not I wouldn’t I couldn’t tell you if there is a country that doesn’t have a co-op movement, there must be. But the vast majority of countries do have a co-op movement. Some, like the the UK. Obviously we’re, you could say, invented it. Um, but like, like football, some countries are much, much better at it than we are, despite the fact we invented it. And so, yeah, places like France, Spain, Italy particularly, their economies are massive in comparison to to the UK’s India, China, etcetera also have huge co-operative economies that are way bigger than ours. Just as a little bit of context, um, in the UK, the total number of members of co-ops is about 11 to 12 million people. In India. There is one co-op out of the many hundreds of however many that has 50 million members in it just on its own. So they have one co-op that’s what, 3 or 4 times the size of the entirety of the members involved in the UK co-op movement. And that just gives you a sense of the scale elsewhere.
Laura Hilliger: [00:25:16] Given given the scale of the cooperative economy and the co-op movement globally. Given that scale, why do I continue to feel like this is like a little niche industry? Why why is it why is it so hard for why do we so often meet people who are like, What co-op? What are you talking like? What What’s the deal there? Can you can you help me understand why why I feel that way? Or am I just, like, massively misinformed? And, um, it’s not niche at all. It doesn’t feel mainstream, is my point.
John Atherton: [00:25:51] Yeah. So in the in the US and the UK, it’s absolutely not, not mainstream. Um, because we went down a very different economic development path. Um, so yeah, so, so for example, I couldn’t give you the whole figures. It’s worth people googling if they’re interested, but there’s about 7000 co-ops in the UK, there’s about 40,000 in Italy, for example, you know, so there’s just a different level of scale. Um, in the UK we would really stretch to say we are like 0.5% of GDP, you know, whereas in lots of countries you’re talking one, two, three, up to five, 6% of GDP. Um, and so it’s more that, you know, the Anglo-Saxon way of doing business didn’t go down this line, you know, So again, similar in the states as the UK, the legal structures, the tax ecosystem, the development funds, the government infrastructure just isn’t there for co-op. So there’s there’s no there’s not many co-ops. Whereas in some countries like Nepal, for example, co-ops and co-ops are written into the constitution of the country. And that’s how important it is to to the Nepalese. And, you know, that’s just one example. Um, so yeah, there’s about 3 million-ish co-ops worldwide with about a billion members worldwide. And so, yeah, in some countries, you know, it is much, much greater than it is in the UK. So yeah, basically it’s because we’re just capitalists in the UK that’s, you know, and have that history. And so it’s.
Laura Hilliger: [00:27:33] It sounds like it’s like it’s sort of a Western understanding of co ops because I live in Germany and there is a business form for cooperatives, but it’s not that common like there. It’s not a I would have to look up what the percentages are, but if you are organising a business in Germany, you have to talk to the very special experts to get to the point where you’re actually going to form a co-op, even though it is a legalised form. Like people just don’t, you know, it’s just not a common.
Doug Belshaw: [00:28:03] It’s like when we set up our co-op. So John Bevan and I talked to Sean Whellens and he was like, Well, there’s about 80 different ways you can set up a co-op. There’s no actual co-op form, you know, the yada yada yada. Whereas, you know, as I, I’m learning and explain to other people as John, as John Atherton said, in lots of countries and as you can find in Germany, there’s there’s places where you can press a button to set up a co-op, which is an enabler, I guess, of the cooperative movement in a way that not being able to press that button isn’t.
John Atherton: [00:28:37] And yeah Germany’s a really good example where so in the UK there isn’t really any specific legislation for worker co-ops, so you can pretty much do it however you like. And there are some countries like, like I say, Italy, Spain, France, where there’s very specific legal structures for worker cults with very specific tax exemptions and and development funds, a national level to support the growth of them and that sort of thing. Whereas Germany, you’ve got the opposite problem where the legal structure for co-ops in Germany basically makes it impossible to set them up as worker co-ops. So that’s the reason why there’s not many in Germany, because the history is again, there’s a whole other conversation about the history of the Eastern Bloc and that sort of thing in relation to co-ops. But in Germany, basically the legal structures make it really hard to set up worker co-ops. And so most worker co-ops in as we would see them in the UK, do not use the co-operative legal structures in Germany. So yeah, it is a good example of there’s not many.
Doug Belshaw: [00:29:43] Wow. So that was a detailed conversation and…
John Atherton: [00:29:47] Sorry!
Doug Belshaw: [00:29:47] No, no zooming into. No, it was fascinating for me like to go into that level of detail and for people who’ve listened to this podcast and have heard us talk about co-ops before, that level of knowledge about why different areas are different from others, just as a Segway into kind of organising and collective action and stuff. You put in the notes about Emilia Romagna and just how different that is, you know, as a particular region of Italy. And just maybe you could explain about how, you know, why they’re different, the GDP or that kind of stuff, and maybe we can use that as a Segway into, well, is that just a quirk of history or can you actually organise around specific things to get that level of of impact?
John Atherton: [00:30:37] Yes, I was thinking of that in the context of where we want to be. And so obviously we’ve created this, this new federation and there are 400 worker co-ops in the UK, which is not, not a lot, you know, to be to be if you’ve mystic about it. And so the goal of the federation, the federation is to grow a lot more worker co-ops, both in quantity, quality and scale. So that’s our ultimate goal is, yes, we’ve got 400, but, you know, we want ten times that, 100 times that in scale. And so I look to places like Emilia Romagna in Italy as an inspiration. And so where do we want to be? Well, in Emilia Romagna, 30% of the GDP in that region is cooperatively owned. And so so they basically have 30% of the economy. And so what’s my ambition? Well, we’re never going to turn the entirety of the UK economy into co-operative ownership. But 30%, that would be a nice ambition to get to eventually. Um, and so it is possible elsewhere. It does happen. And so I suppose why should we not think big in the UK? Articles that link in.
John Atherton: [00:32:00] So just. So I suppose a bit more detailed. How did they do that? So they have really strong infrastructure organisations. So to your point, if someone wanted to set up a co op, it’s dead. Well, setting up a business isn’t easy, but setting up a business with advisors, support development funds, lots of other critical mass of similar businesses nearby and all of that ecosystem makes it slightly easier than if you are, you know, alone. And so so some of this is about having the ecosystem to support worker development. And then by the nature of having a really good ecosystem, then people want to do it because it is easier, it is more well known, they can see success and they want to follow success. And so that’s how it’s been successful in in Emilia-Romagna and in Italy more generally because both the government have supported it. There’s been some really good strong infrastructure organisations and that critical mass means that more people do it who would wouldn’t otherwise even consider it. And in a way we have we’re starting from a very, very low base in the UK.
Doug Belshaw: [00:33:16] You have some interesting things in that article about cooperative crowdfunding and capitalisation and about it says undistributed profits that were set aside indivisible reserves would no longer be subject to corporate tax. And again, without getting into too much nitty gritty, although, hey, it’s our podcast, we can do what we want. Um, it’s interesting to talk to people and as I say to Laura, I often talk to, you know, parents on the side of football pitchers watching my kids play football and stuff. And when inevitably gets around to it and what do you do, um, once they get beyond the, the first few questions and you’re getting into like so co ops, how are they different, the indivisibility of, of profit surplus or whatever you want to call it, is fascinating to them the fact that it’s not just a big boss sitting on top of a pyramid, extracting all the wealth, like you said before, like blows people’s minds. And it sounds like it was important in this particular Italian region as well.
John Atherton: [00:34:22] Yeah. So I suppose just to give a some practical things they do, they, they lobbied the government to change the law. So if you are made unemployed, you can roll up your unemployment benefit with loads of other people and use that rolled up unemployment benefit to set up a new business together. Great. That’s a great way to get some capital into your business. And yeah, they have another bit of lore that says what? I think it was 1% of corporate tax, you know? So if you’re paying corporation tax, 1% of it is top sliced away. And rather than going to the tax man, it goes into a development fund for corp development. So it means they’re not getting any better tax treatment than than private sector businesses. But it does mean, you know, a huge amount of over the whole country of cash is going into specific development funds to specifically support co ops. And so there’s just some really practical things. So when people say, well, why aren’t there more worker cops in the UK, it’s quite easy. We don’t have very good laws, we don’t have any government development support. So it’s no wonder it’s a surprise. We’ve got as many as we’ve got to some extent.
Doug Belshaw: [00:35:34] Yeah. And it’s funny, isn’t it? Like this morning you read the news, so we’re recording this in, what, the middle of May another rail franchise has gone has been renationalised because, you know, the private the private industry hasn’t hasn’t worked. And a lot of what we consider to be simple market forces. So the oil and gas industry supported by I think it was worked out this week, $1 trillion of government subsidies. So it’s not like businesses exist outside of a vacuum of government investment and encouragement and policy like. And so I wondered to what extent I know you’ve talked about this in conversations that we’ve been in elsewhere, but to what extent it’s early days for workers, but to what extent there’s a political pressure policy arm of all this.
John Atherton: [00:36:30] Yeah. I think when I’m thinking about how we build our federation, I think we have to build it with our people in mind. So the whole, the whole concept of what we’re trying to do is to. Empower the people already within worker co-ops to be better worker co-operators, to run more effective worker co-ops that are more successful, that make more profit, that show the success, but equally allow those worker co-ops to grow and succeed and give back to the movement. And by starting there, then you can propagate out. And so once we have more success stories, more competent and successful worker cooperatives and worker co-ops, then then we, I believe, and the other kind of founders believe that is how we get change. And we and you grow and succeed by showing success because people will go, wow, we are open. They’re a fantastic business. Why are they fantastic? Oh, they’re fantastic because in part due to the fact that their workers are empowered and blah, blah, blah, and I want to be like that too. And so our kind of idea is, is that classic grassroots momentum building and not based on shallow. A shallow basis based on the fact that these are really, really well run, well organised businesses really making a difference to the people within them. And so I would say once we get that right and that could take a very long time, that’s when you start to then think, well, how are we going to play into the kind of zeitgeist at the moment? And so yeah, I think where you’re going with it I suppose is we know there’s lots of exploited workers.
John Atherton: [00:38:12] We know particularly in the tech sector and creative sector, there’s lots of gig economy jobs and freelancer jobs and the sorts of people doing those sorts of roles are absolutely ripe for conversion, really for want of a better term, into worker co-operators and. And that And, you know, I believe that sort of approach to business will only get worse. I think we’re only going to be even more leaning into where larger businesses are outsourcing to freelancers and gig economy workers. And so I don’t think that trend is going away. I think at the moment, and you alluded to this before, at the moment, someone who’s really annoyed with their boss or feeling really exploited as a freelancer or gig economy worker at the moment, we know there are, you know, potentially millions of people like that in the UK, but at the moment there’s no route to get that person from. You know, I’m really annoyed to there is an alternative and I think that’s where the Federation needs to work out how to make that gap and fix that gap and say there is an alternative. It’s called worker cooperation. Come join us.
Laura Hilliger: [00:39:25] Okay. I’m in. I’m convinced! Do you have any you know, for people who are feeling that frustration and you know, that that they’re exploited? Do you have any, like first step tips on getting involved in the co-op movement, something that, you know, the freelancer who happens to be working right now, listening to this podcast and saying, I am so annoyed with my boss. What what do they do first?
John Atherton: [00:40:00] What do they do first? And I suppose they need to think about like any business potential. Business is what do you do? What value have you got? Can you can you convert your your labour into a valuable business, into a business idea? Can you do it with the colleagues you already work with, or are there other people nearby in the industry that you get on with? You share a share values with and that that spark because worker co-ops are all about personal relationships and you know, building that that that team of people that you you align with for for whatever reason. So that’s absolutely the start. You know, it’s unfortunately you can’t set up a worker co-op as an individual. That’s pretty pretty hard. You have to be you have to be a group. Once you’ve got that. What I would say is you get in touch with our Federation Workers co-op and we’re about to launch whether we have launched by the time the podcast goes out. But we are about to launch something called co-op Conversations, which is essentially an opportunity for anybody who’s thinking of setting up a worker co-op to have a conversation about it with an existing person from a worker co-op who’s kind of been there and done that. And really that that conversation could be exactly that, that starter, you know, what do I do first? Where do I go? What even is a worker co-op? And so we’re hoping to launch that soon because yeah, we recognise it can be scary. And really that first conversation just needs to be encouraging and say, You can do this, I did it sort of thing. So yeah. Yeah, obviously. Check out our website.
Laura Hilliger: [00:41:42] Yeah, that’s one of the, you know, one of the principles that cooperatives follow. Dear listener is this idea that it’s part of our responsibility to educate other people about cooperatives, about the cooperative movement and cooperative conversations. Coming soon is a good opportunity to get involved with people who have been members of co-ops, who are thinking around how do we push the movement further, How do we get more people involved and how do we show solidarity to workers rights?
Doug Belshaw: [00:42:18] Okay, So we can talk about co-ops all day, I think.
Laura Hilliger: [00:42:21] But we have a whole season about them, so…
Doug Belshaw: [00:42:25] We do. It’ll be good to get you back on, actually, John, maybe in like six months or a year’s time to see see where we’re at. You know, once all these things that we’re working on have been launched, what’s a bit more buzz once it’s been the first event, that kind of stuff, Because he used to forget how early in the journey all of this is really um but where can if people want to find out more about you want to connect with you, We’ve already talked about workers.coop, which people can type into their favourite browser and find out more about that. But if people want to find out more about you and your journey, maybe ask your specific advice as a co-op advisor, how can people connect with you?
John Atherton: [00:43:02] Uh, probably best on LinkedIn, I suppose if you can put if you have notes for the podcast. Yep, yep, yep. Um, yeah. Or my email address is John at Workers Co-op. So by all means get in touch. Awesome.
Doug Belshaw: [00:43:19] Okay. Is there anything else that we haven’t touched upon in this kind of introductory conversation with you, introducing you to to the audience that we’ve got? Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to mention before we finish?
John Atherton: [00:43:39] Probably, but nothing comes to mind. I think that was a very varied conversation about co-ops.
Doug Belshaw: [00:43:46] Yeah, we got into got into the weeds in places. We talked about things where, you know, where people, if they haven’t come across this before, we didn’t really talk very much about your your book recommendation Rules for Radicals. But like all the other books that are recommended by guests on this podcast, Laura curates this on a wonderful website, which is a bit like Goodreads called Literal Club. Um, and so there’s a book club on there which people can find out more about that and maybe and maybe have a read. So that would be great. But John, thank you very much for your time and keep on fighting the good fight.
John Atherton: [00:44:22] Thank you very much.
Laura Hilliger: [00:44:23] Thanks a lot.