Running Your Own Show
issue 166 - December 1986
Running your own show
Conventional economics has it that the creation of work
is dependent on the expertise of 'risk-taking' investors and managers.
Martin Stott provides some powerful evidence from India that it is
possible for workers to create and control their own jobs.
Lalita Kroshnaswami's tiny office is in the basement of a large overcrowded building fronting onto a busy street in the centre of Ahmedabad in western India. Beyond her door is an open-plan reception area where mothers feed and change their babies, children play, telephones ring, people carry around cups of tea and stand to chat. Outside in the courtyard groups of weavers and basket makers gather under the shade of trees, laughing and talking as they work.
These are all women, and they are all members of worker co-ops. The organization? SEWA - the self-employed women's association. Its purpose? SEWA is the powerhouse behind a new initiative in co-operation and self-management, part of a rapidly growing movement throughout the world. Lalita Krishnaswami is director of SEWA's 'economic unit', and she and her team provide professional advice, training and a key financial support role for a network of women's co-ops in Ahmedabad. SEWA, established in 1972, was organized first as a trade union to obtain a fair deal for self-employed women. In 1974, it established the Mahila Sahakari Bank (Women's Co-operative Bank) extending credit to poor illiterate self-employed women and swiftly followed it with a training and advice agency. SEWA also realized that the struggle for higher wages is frequently impossible in a structure where women are caught between merchants supplying raw materials at high prices and middlemen trying to get the women's production at the lowest possible price. Hence the development of its network of women's co-operatives. These now number 13 and cover a variety of trades and services, including cane and bamboo products, manufacture, block printing, weaving and chindi (textile rag) and patchwork products. Membership of these co-ops range from 40 to over 100. Many of the co-ops were born out of the union's struggles for fair wages for its members. Lalita Krishnaswami's economic unit acts as a catalyst in the training of co-op members. Members are involved in 'learning by doing', taking complete responsibility for the running of their co-op over a three to five year period - not only the manufacture, but accounts, management and sales.
SEWA's trade union activities have expanded far beyond its Ahmedabad base, and with it has gone the co-operative idea. The SEWA branch in Bhopal was actively organizing women in the poorer bastis in the north of the city when on the night of 3 December 1984 a massive rupture in the gas tanks of Union Carbide's agricultural pesticides plant let loose a huge poisonous gas cloud. Over 2,500 people were killed and over 200,000 others seriously injured. The irresponsibility of foreign multinationals like Union Carbide has led to the creation of an alliance of former workers and gas victims in Bhopal - they aim to develop alternative employment based on the creation of safe and socially useful products by co-operatives.
SEWA's full-time organizers in Bhopal were well placed to assist, and they have begun to develop an ambitious employment strategy. This has led to the creation of two co-operatives employing over 120 women in each. One makes clothing, particularly school uniforms. The other manufactures bidis, poor people's cigarettes made from a rolled tobacco leaf. SEWA has also initiated several training programmes and set up an associated health centre, nursery and five nutritional food centres, in the worst affected bastis of Bhopal.
Such a response to closures or lockouts by multinational corporations is by no means unique. On 30 April 1985, 1,000 workers at the UK multinational BTR's Sarmcol plant in Howick, South Africa, walked out after the company refused to recognize their union. Within 72 hours they were all sacked, and attempts by their union to re-open negotiations were still being refused by the company 13 months later.
As the strike dragged on it became clear that in the long term the strikers would have to find new ways by which they could support themselves and their community. They too came up with an ambitious idea to create a group of co-ops that would provide a range of services for all 15 of the black townships around Howick where Sarmcol strikers live. The scheme, Sarmcol Workers Coop (SAWCO) includes five projects providing both work and cheap consumer goods and services to the workers and their communities. Nobody pretends that SAWCO can provide all the strikers with jobs nor that all the co-ops will be financial success stories. But, as one union organizer commented, 'People are exploring alternatives and looking at different ways of organizing production. Even if we didn't make any money this would still be worthwhile as an educational undertaking'.
The desire to own and control your own business, to control your working environment and to acquire management skills to be used for your own benefit - all these are fundamental to the co-operative principles of self-management and industrial democracy that have taken root around the world.
Worker co-ops have a long history. But it is only relatively recently that the idea of 'workers hiring capital rather than capital hiring workers' has really begun to take root. In Western Europe there are now over 14,000 co-ops, employing over 540,000 workers, many in co-ops with several hundred members.
In the mid 1950s in Yugoslavia workers' self-management became official economic policy. At the same time on the other side of Europe a young Spanish priest living in the Basque region of Franco's Spain identified co-operation as the key to a revival of Basque cultural identity and economic power. Jose Maria Arizmendi's idea has gone from strength to strength, and the town of Mondragon where it all began is now world famous. Today the Mondragon co-ops employ almost 20,000 people, and have a comprehensive economic system as well as consumer and housing co-ops. Critics sometimes argue that co-ops are all very well if you're running wholefood stores or bookshops or making T-shirts but are irrelevant to major industry. Could a co-op for instance build a motorway? Run a car-plant? Actually they can and they do. In Italy building co-ops control about 25 per cent of the national construction trade and helped build the country's motorway network. Projects that are too big for one co-op are handled by federations and consortia of several. Workers have recently become major shareholders in the bus and truck division of the UK-based BL car company.
In the US the co-op movement has recently gained the strength to create a national marketing organization, Co-op America, which by its second year had a turnover of almost four million dollars.
The intellectual upheavals of the late 1960s have combined with the economic upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s to produce a radical critique of conventional capitalism - whether of the unaccountability of multinational corporations or the sweatshops of small business. The new critique has little use for the static, wasteful and bureaucratic structures of state ownership and control. But worker democracy is not just about co-ops. It means a reconnection between the workplace and the community, as both SEWA and SAWCO so graphically illustrate.
The end result could be a pluralist public sector that is accountable to local communities through municipal initiatives and regional or sector-based enterprise boards - bodies whose aims are broader than just maximizing profit. They would recognize the need for social criteria that take account of what is produced, ('socially-useful production'), how it is produced, ('human centred technology'), for whom - and with what external effects, for instance on the environment.
Co-ops are sometimes called a 'Third Sector'. It's a sector that at its best is flexible, innovative, decentralized and democratic. As such it is the most effective challenge to existing economic structures and patterns of work, north and south, east and west.
Martin Stott works for a Co-operative Development Agency and is the author of Spilling the Beans: a style guide to the New Age.
'YES ma'am, will that be everything?' The queue in front of the cash desk is 20 people deep and the mood is ugly.
'What a lovely bathrobe,' I say obsequiously, 'will that be on your Simpson's account? I ring in the transaction on the computerized register and it seems to take forever. Punch in the five-digit employee number, ring in the transaction type, punch in the three-digit department codes and seven-digit stock numbers for each item, ring in the price, total the prices, punch in the credit card number. Wait. The central computer takes its time checking each card and account. 'Oh I'm sorry, could you please step over here, there seems to be some problem with your account .'
The crowd is definitely worked up - their lunch hours are almost over and there are only five days to Christmas. They're probably wondering who the incompetent is on the cash desk. All I can think about is that I'm going to be laid off in a few days and there is no one to relieve me so that I can go and have my lunch. Merry Christmas from the frontlines at Simpson's department store.
I suppose it was desperation that drove me to temporary Christmas work at Simpson's, one of Canada's largest department stores.
Two days of 'training' on the complex computerized cash registers and we were on the 'floor, with a smile on our lips and the seven 'customer courtesy rules' etched in our minds.
Most of the rules had to do with being polite and courteous to the customers - a not inconsiderable feat given the frantic working conditions. Other rules were of course concerned with selling merchandise - and encouraging customers to keep on buying. Another was WEAR YOUR BADGE - and given the amount of surveillance in the store it wasn't clear if our badges were for the convenience of the customers or the management. My favourite rule was the absolute requirement that we never, never mention cash, cheques or credit cards. At the completion of a sale all we were to say was, 'will that be on your Simpson's account?'
Another rule - which was almost laughable - was the requirement that we mention the person's name after completing the transaction; the name presumably taken from their credit card. I found this artificial personalism to be one of the most offensive aspects of the whole job.
Nothing was left to our own discretion in following these rules. In fact, it was made clear that any 'sales associate' who failed to follow these guidelines would be fired. To back this up, they actually sent managers around posing as shoppers and the employees were graded on their 'performance'. Those who failed were usually given a dressing down, right there in front of the other employees and customers.
Being on the frontlines at Simpson's meant taking an incredible amount of abuse and complaints about things we could no more affect than the weather outside. The more I heard about inflated prices, slow service, weird products, the more I laboured on a little soliloquy which went like this:
'I'm sorry that you are angry about the service you have received, but you need to understand that we have nothing to do with the policies of this company. Most of us are temporary workers who are being paid $4.65 an hour - just .65 cents above the minimum wage. We are over worked, and most of us know nothing about menswear. A number of years ago Thomson International bought out the Hudson's Bay Company which had bought out Simpson's. It was those companies which decided to fire hundreds of full-time employees and replace them with part-time and temporary staff to save money on wages and pensions. Also remember that it is those same companies which have decided that the best market for them is the youth market - people between the ages of 20 and 40. It is they who decided to change the available merchandise and abandon their loyal older customers, If these are your complaints, remember that we are just the frontline workers. We have no control over the decisions of this company.'
That was the speech I wanted to make to each and every customer I met. But I never had the time to make it. On my last day of employment, the department manager congratulated us all on a job well done. 'Sales in the menswear department for this Christmas were $1.5 million above last year. We never could have done it without your hard work at the cash desks and on the sales floor. Thank you very much,' he said.
That day the 'cut lists' were passed around and I was unceremoniously dumped as a frontline worker. 'Happy New Year' I thought as I left the floor for the last time.