The media vaunts tech gurus and metric driven social entrepreneurs as elevated beings with cures for all our ills but cooperatives have been answering our needs for a lot longer. Rashers Tierney sets out, dictaphone in hand, and finds a form of community led organisation that brought life to derelict parts of the city, wades in against rural isolation and keeps boozers open in Britain.
Most of us have some image of co-ops , for some that might veer from a vegan cafe in some hipster enclave abroad or just that ridiculously intolerant, male-skewering Women and Women First bookshop in Portlandia.
According to a recent Guardian article, in France, something like 30, mainly small enterprises a year from phone repair firms to ice-cream makers, have become workers’ co-operatives since 2010. While any lefty worth their salt can fart on about the turn of the century wave of factory occupations in Argentina. Growing up close to a farming community, brands like Avonmore hung heavy around me while a local coop supplied water to a couple of hundred homes across 20 kilometres of pipe. No Irish Water then. Then there was the mart in Carlow. Itself a coop with the puzzling rat-a-tat-tat jabber of the auctioneer that went with it.
The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) say on their website that over 3 million people on the island are members of some form of coop with 1 in 3 of our European cousins in one. That’s something like a crazy 163 million Europeans, employing 5.4 million.
Siobhán Mehigan works in ICOS. Their HQ is full of busts of dead men and rather stuffy. The governing legislation around coops is unchanged since around 1884. Coops have a legal distinction from a company and place democratic control and a willing transparency at their heart.
Siobhán fills me in: “We are a co-operative ourselves. We are owned by our members. I suppose our focus is always going to be rurally based co-operatives in so far as that whole pulling together and reaching scale and scaling up efficiently.”
She talks about how agriculture is still the backbone of the rural economy and wouldn’t be there without the cooperative interest and points to private meat processors as the very opposite of sustainability.
“Beef processing is held in pretty much four companies’ hands, which arent even legal entities so we can’t even see their accounts and they are making an absolute small fortune we perceive and we don’t actually know as they don’t issue public accounts and stuff. When you have processing in producer owned hands its means its a much more sustainable, democratic and all of that.”
The discussion moves on to alienation in rural areas, like Loughmore with its community run tea room.
“The post office is gone, the pub shut down and there’s no shop. The creamery has closed its branch. Things like that. So, two extremely strong and capable ladies opened it up but didn’t want it as their own shop so they brought the community in and set it up as a co-operative where the community has shares in it and it’s in the community’s interest. They go for their cup of tea there, go down for the paper and that. Even to go down and meet the neighbours, to have that interaction is extremely important in a rural community.”
If rural Ireland is the heartland of the coop movement, then what’s the state of co-operatives in our concrete jungles? Are there alternative ways of doing business such as workers co-ops bristling in Dublin?
You’ll find Square Wheel Cycleworks buried in a basement on Temple Lane South, it’s a popular bike workshop run by a legendary cycling advocate called Kieran. It’s a one man business these days, having passed out of co-operative ownership but it stands as the last remnant of the Dublin Resource Centre, a larger cooperatively run premises that hosted an array of ventures in the derelict Temple Bar of the 1980s.
It created a splash at the time and Kieran shows me newspaper cuttings, including a zine type thing with an illustration of the premises. It’s a childlike sketch of a restaurant, a bookshop, a printing works, some office spaces and a screen printing service.
“The government hadn’t defined for themselves what a workers coop was from a state organisation’s point of view a co-op was an agricultural coop which caused us some problems. But there were some advantages and loopholes we could take advantage of. So we were setting up a new type of coop that hadn’t been seen in the country before.”
With 30-40 people working in the place, there was also an internal co-op newsletter dealing with issues like rent negotiations or getting word out about events.
It all generated a sense of community beyond the space itself and in the area more generally. Down the road was the headquarters of the National Gay Federation in the Hirschfield Centre – itself a treasured city centre space.
“We had fairly close contact with them and if you remember a magazine called Out Magazine? It was a gay supporters’ magazine, that was actually based in this building for a while.”
He explains the centres origins against the drab backdrop of 1980’s Dublin.
“It was set up by people who came together, who didn’t have jobs and were creating employment for themselves. The plans were to demolish the whole of Temple Bar and build some sort of multistory bus station and office complex here with a tunnel underneath the river to bring the buses back and forth.”
The buildings on either side were more or less derelict and about to be knocked down, so rents from CIE were cheap at a time before property developers.
“When I opened the doors here first we were one of the few businesses that had a front entrance into Temple Lane.”
Ciaran Moore is an ex- Board member and one time staffer in the Dublin Food CoOp, he’s still involved in the media cooperative Dublin Community TV. It’s 1992 and after converting a student union bookshop into a cooperative, him and four others open a cafe in Ranelagh with support from Fás.
“We dealt with the Co-op Development Unit, initially to get a feasibility study grant of €3000, then to do a course in setting up a co-op and then to get a 2 year support package with wages for staff and a manager and some small capital grants. The course was strange – there had been a bit of an idea around workers co-ops being set up to replace bankrupt business in the 70s and 80s. “Setting up a co-op in 1993 was a lot easier than 2013. People knew what they were then.”
They had support from the Irish Trade Union Trust, an organisation set up by the newly formed SIPTU, to support co-ops and similar worker led initiatives.
“The restaurant lasted a couple of years – we owed tax and lost our wine license so had to shut down. ”
Moore has a realistic assessment of the ups and down of coops. Take for a minute the rather ironic fact that the more successful they become as business ventures, the more they might diverge from that core ideal of participation.
“Generally an early thing they do when they start to generate surpluses is hire a staff member to undertake administrative tasks. In the Dublin Food Co-op as with other consumer co-ops the role of paid staff expanded as the operation becomes more regular, needs to maintain standards and negotiate leases etc. But in many consumer co-ops the members become more passive while the staff do not have a formal vote so become alienated from their work in the same way anybody else is.”
Fast forward to a clubbing weekend in Manchester, there’s a copy of the Campaign For Real Ale’s lying on the table with an update about a self-managed boozer out in Salford called The Star Inn. Contact is made and Ella Gainsborough meets me off a bus, she’s on the committee for the bar and runs a regular slam poetry night there.
It’s a far cry from Diageo cowtowed pubs in Dublin. Situated in an old coach house it had been run down dramatically by the brewery before closure was announced – so regulars pulled together to bring it into community ownership.
“The thing is with here you get a real mix of people, like doctors and lawyers then taxi drivers and manual trades people. So we managed to get five people who had a lot of money and who come in regularly because they wanted to save the pub. Automatically people who donated a certain amount got shares in the pub.”
The backroom was done up, a pool table was brought in and a tablet bought for the bar so they can live tweet events. Pints are dirt cheap and there’s an amazing smoking area outside.
“When we bought the pub no one wanted to be the manager per se. Having so many people put so much in you couldn’t have it as a sort of strictly hierarchical thing. So, having the committee meant we got some help in terms of practicality, in terms of logistics and possibly some financial help. Obviously it was a major thing. Everyone that has shares has never run a pub before, so it was using that broad range to ensure the best possible thing happens for the pub. And generally it works.”
It’s problems are those that hit any voluntary organisation.
“Ya know you get in from work and you go ‘do I really want to write up the minutes from the last meeting or do I really want to try and contact 16 people to see if they’ll help me build a bench or whatever,’ but you know once you are kind of there and you are doing it, you realise that if this place closed I would be absolutely devastated and a lot of other people would be too.”
Jules, a techhead software co-op member (and formerly of Dublin’s The Exchange collective) assesses the problems with division of labour that can affect co-ops such as his own.
“I think ultimately the answer is that they are messy and you have to keep on working it out. We don’t have any definite solution especially with the fact that we are trying to do a new model that we are developing ourselves.”
Photos by Rashers Tierney