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Women in workers’ co-ops

Finding common threads in different lives, different organisations

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Caroline Kempster (left, behind vegetables) and two fellow members of Trinity Wholefoods in the shop. Photo: Trinity Wholefoods

In the summer of 2005, Rebecca Dale had three young children, Nik (3), Ben (2) and Katherine (six months old). She had been working as a research fellow at Warwick University, increasing co-operation between industry and the academy, especially within the automation industry.

Now she needed a new job that could fit in with her commitment to her young family. She’d decided that maybe accountancy could fit the bill, and applied for an Open University course, but she hadn’t yet started.

In 1994, Caroline Kempster realised she could not carry on living in Hastings and travelling to London all the time for her antique carpet restoration business and her stall in Portobello Road’s Saturday market. She had bought a dream flat near Alexandra Park in Hastings, and she needed to find a job in Hastings – preferably one that was in line with her values.

She’d gone into carpet restoration after growing sick of the extravagance, wealth and extreme inequality she’d seen as an interior design student and a croupier on Caribbean cruise ships. (‘So I ran off with a barman. You probably won’t want to put this in.’)

Both women, for completely different reasons and by very different routes, chose to work in workers’ co-operatives. (Majority-women workers’ co-ops – we’ll come on to the gender aspects later.)

Rebecca was living at Coventry Peace House, a housing co-op that was, and still is, part of the Radical Routes network of co-ops: ‘There was one of those happy conversations you have where I was talking to Emma [Jackson] and saying that because of being committed to being at home with the children I was about to enrol on a course to do accountancy, because I thought that was something I could do in a straightforward manner from home.’

Emma, who at that time was the only worker at Catalyst workers’ co-operative, said she had been thinking of applying to do the finance work for the Radical Routes network: ‘So we agreed that I would join Catalyst and we would put a bid in to start managing the finances for Radical Routes.’

Rebecca confesses: ‘At that point I hadn’t actually started the [accountancy] course, I had enrolled on it but I hadn’t done the first session, and I hadn’t ever done any bookkeeping, so it was a little bit previous.’

She had never worked at a workers’ co-op before.

Caroline had also never worked at a workers’ co-op, but she was an enthusiastic customer of Trinity Wholefoods in Trinity Street near the centre of Hastings.

In 1995, she was finally rewarded after a long campaign of asking every time she went shopping in Trinity: ‘I kept saying to them, “Have you got a job?”’

For about a year, I pestered them every time I went in and eventually I got a part-time temporary casual bagging job for about 15 hours a week – and I was so happy. You’ve never seen someone so happy. Singing as I went to work, I was so pleased.’

Rebecca explains how working at Catalyst suited her: ‘Catalyst had been set up to provide some amount of income for people who were home-educating, and at the time I was home-educating. It wasn’t doing that well, it was pootling along, registering a co-op every now and again.’

While she hadn’t worked in a co-operative before, Rebecca had lived in a housing co-op, she’d been part of big co-operative events like Earth First! Summer Gathering, and she had experience of ‘organising various different things using co-operative methods’.

Over to you

What do workers’ co-ops look for in a new recruit? After 11 years at Catalyst, Rebecca says: ‘Skills can be learned, and you expect everyone to make mistakes, but it’s the attitude of taking responsibility, and also listening and taking direction’ that is most important. Catalyst at different times had people come in for six months, thinking about becoming members: ‘Actually they found they were preferring the assistant role rather than actually wanting to take ownership of the project. We’ve found that people often wanted that kind of wage-slave job where “I turn up, I do what I’m told, and I leave”. You can’t have a co-operative member who has that attitude.’

Caroline adds, after 22 years at Trinity Wholefoods: ‘You have to trust yourself and you have to trust your colleagues. To do that, you have to work with them. You don’t just phone in sick. You have an actual commitment to putting yourself out.’

According to Rebecca: ‘The “taking responsibility” attitude is the hardest thing to recruit for.’ She has also seen people in workers’ co-ops ‘who’ve been more used to working independently and who’ve really struggled with the idea that things needed to be passed through other members of the co-op before you sent them out.’

Caroline points out: ‘you can’t just steam in and take over, in a co-operative. You have to be very understanding of what everyone else is doing and where they’re coming from... and not being judgemental, which is really hard’.

If she was giving advice to her younger self, Caroline would say: ‘be more relaxed, and more easy on the “what you think is right” and “what you think is wrong”. Wait for other people to speak, and listen to what they say. That would be my main thing: “Shut it.” “Shut up and listen,” that’s all I would say. You can quote that because everyone will laugh their heads off!’ (She laughs.)

Later in the interview, Caroline says of her time at Trinity: ‘What I found was that my weakness was my strength. And my strength was my weakness. Because my confidence was overwhelming. And my stubbornness was really useful. I would put myself right out because I was stubborn.’

Caroline spent most of her childhood abroad: ‘I came to England in 1966 at the age of 13 with this rather wild Australian background and accent.’ She’d spent over 10 years in Australia living with no running water, no mains electricity, and no roads, going to school (and going home) by boat. She sees the roots of her co-operative work in her schooling in Australia: ‘we were trained to be very egalitarian and caring – even though we had the whites-only policy in school at the time, incredible when I think about it now’.

Rebecca is uncertain where her willingness to take responsibility comes from: ‘I don’t know how I have that attitude. I notice that in all work environments, I gravitate towards working with people who have that kind of attitude, and I find it very difficult working with people who don’t. I guess I have a fear of being the least useful person in the room. [She laughs.] I guess I’ve always been relatively self-motivated. When I was 16, I was living on the streets, and I still went to school and passed my A-levels. I was sofa-surfing, squatting, not sleeping rough that much, for about a year. And carried on going to school. A relatively good example of being self-motivated!’

At this point, I’m stunned.

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Rebecca Dale inspecting a possible site for Peace News Summer Camp, 2013. Photo: Peace News summer camp

Different strokes

Catalyst and Trinity are very different kinds of co-op. Catalyst provides back-office services to other organisations: it deals with finances and paperwork for housing and worker co-ops and other small businesses all over the UK, and for the Radical Routes network of co-ops. For most of the last 11 years it’s been a two-person outfit – by chance a two-woman outfit.

Trinity Wholefoods, which was started in 1984 by local Quakers and peace activists, is a shop that sells foodstuffs to people in a seaside town. Over Caroline’s time as a member of the co-op, staff numbers have doubled to eight (currently five women and three men).

“The ‘taking responsibility’ attitude is the hardest thing to recruit for.”

So Catalyst is a business-to-business operation mainly relating to other co-operatives and to regulatory bodies of different kinds. Meanwhile, Trinity is a retail outlet dealing directly with the public six days a week – managing stocks and supplies, with a window display and a constant stream of customers coming and going. The Trinity notice board is an important community resource.

Catalyst has never employed anyone full-time, whereas Trinity has almost always had full-timers as well as part-time members.

Despite all these differences, there is a unifying feature. For people who might be considering working in a worker’s co-op, Rebecca advises: ‘Definitely do it! It’s also, like all work experiences, really frustrating, really annoying and there will be times when you get really cross with it.

‘The advantage is that you have some amount of power to be able to change the things that you’re finding frustrating. Just make sure you use your voice rather than holding onto any frustrations. Discuss things with your fellow co-op members and make things better if they’re not working for you.’

Equality

Rebecca says: ‘I think the different thing about a workers’ co-op is the equality.’

Soon after Rebecca joined Catalyst, Emma, the person who had hired her, resigned. After a short period with someone in Wales, Rebecca hired Hayley as the other worker in the co-op – Hayley is still with Catalyst.

Rebecca explains how equality comes into it: ‘I’d been working there for nine months and had seniority by the fact that I’d been the person who’d been there the longest, and also at that point I’d nearly finished an Open University course, and so I was about to become qualified in doing accountancy.

‘I think there would have been a different power dynamic if we hadn’t been a co-op: I think it would have been me employing somebody to do specific tasks rather than collaboration.’

Instead: ‘Everything was discussed. If I’d been hiring an assistant, I’d have told them what to do, whereas everything was up for discussion – “Should we do this work? How do we want to do it?” We were a partnership of equals rather than someone with an assistant.’

Rebecca goes on: ‘If you’re working as an assistant, you have that “It’s not my job to think. I don’t have to think, I can just do what I’m told.”’ Whereas in a co-op of two ‘there is an expectation that both people would be properly engaging and thinking through the right way to do things – even if one of them has more experience.’

On equality, Caroline says: ‘It’s really nice, there’s no hierarchy, there’s no status. Experience would be the only one, really. So the longer you’re there, like me, the more you actually learn about the nature of the business.’

Caroline adds: ‘I think a lot of co-operative people, when they come, thinking of the word “co-operative”, think it’s all equal and it is, but it’s equal in the effect. What I’ve discovered is that you have to deal with the things that you don’t really want to do, sometimes. That you don’t have the experience in, or that you feel scared of. And actually you step up to the mark, because you’ve got the support of the other co-operative members. And you find you have all these skills that you didn’t even know that you had!’

For Caroline, ‘It’s all on an equal playing field.’ This requires patience with each other: ‘We did have someone who came and she couldn’t bear the fact that when she went in the kitchen things could have moved because people haven’t put them back in the right place, because when you’re in a rush.... So you have to be very tolerant. And very understanding, if you can be, of other people.’

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Caroline Kempster in front of Trinity Wholefoods after redecoration (including wrought iron gate). Photo: Trinity Wholefoods

Skilling up

There is another thing the two co-ops have in common, mentioned by Caroline there. Rebecca says: ‘I know that I got such a lot out of having done this work in a co-operative environment and particularly a small co-op. You end up having to learn so many different skills that maybe it can be quite useful, if you want to go on and get a different job, you’ve got this really broad base of skills.

‘Whatever it is that you’re doing, whether it’s baking bread or delivering food or running a shop, or doing back-office finance stuff, you’ve got all of those management and negotiating skills, and the ability to read legal documents. Which is really handy for progressing in any career.

‘So it can be a really good springboard even if being in a co-op isn’t what you want for the whole of your life. I’d like to go back to working in a co-op at some point but right now I’m really enjoying public sector work.’

Rebecca, like Caroline, left her co-op last November. Rebecca now works at the county council. Caroline, while still helping out at Trinity, is concentrating on caring for her mother, which has been a big part of her life for the last three years.

Caroline says about the skills side of things: ‘Each day [in the shop] has its own allocated duties. It wasn’t really to do with the individual who would take on responsibilities, they were always shared so that people learned everything.... What I love is that anyone can come into the co-operative and when they leave, they know how to run a business, because you understand the structures, the accounting, the ordering, the customer service, the presentation, the linking up of your ideas with what’s going on in the outside world.’

Rebecca says: ‘Being in a workers’ co-op has definitely, definitely increased my confidence and really broadened my skillset. In any small business, there’s so many things to do. I think particularly in the co-operative sector you tend to have more of an attitude of “Hey, let’s learn this ourselves”, rather than a “Let’s just outsource it, pay somebody else to do it because it’s not in our skillset”. That’s increased my confidence because I generally have the attitude of “If a thing needs doing, I can just learn how to do it. And then do it.” That’s naturally how I work anyway, but I’ve become more confident that I can actually do those things, rather than just thinking that I should.’

Gender agenda

On the subject of confidence, I ask Rebecca about being a woman in an (accidentally) women-only co-operative for many years, and she says: ‘The main thing about being a woman in a women’s workers’ co-operative is that it has nullified the gender difference for me. I don’t think that I would be as confident to talk over men in a meeting if I hadn’t been in an all-female environment where we had more natural female collaborative communication patterns. So now if I go into a meeting and there’s somebody being quite alpha male, it annoys me because I notice it. Whereas before having been in all-female environments, I probably would have just been used to it. Now I don’t let them get away with it, I take equal space to them because I don’t appreciate men talking over women all the time. But that might also just be naturally what happens when you become a woman in your forties!’ (She laughs at this point.)

Rebecca is reluctant to make too much of the fact that Catalyst was women-only for so many years: ‘To be honest, it was more relevant that we were primary care-givers than necessarily being female, though obviously those two things often coincide.... Catalyst was always designed to fit in around children, that was how it was sold to me.’

“What I found was that my weakness was my strength. And my strength was my weakness. Because my confidence was overwhelming. And my stubbornness was really useful.”

She points out that ‘some of our private businesses that we helped were also women who were single parents who were trying to run businesses while being primary care-givers.’ Catalyst were good at supporting such women ‘because we understood how you have to work if you’re in that position’, unlike many mainstream bookkeepers. It’s partly because all three of her children are now in secondary school that Rebecca left Catalyst: ‘it started to feel like not only was Catalyst not the right thing for me, but actually it was time to pass it on to other people who’d get out of it what I’d got out of it, which was employment and a sense of purpose – at a period of time where full-time work wasn’t accessible.’

If Rebecca was reluctant to make too much of gender in relation to her co-op, Caroline is extremely resistant: ‘I really am against any kind of discussion about gender in a lot of ways. We’ve got to evolve as a human race and discussing the gender of people is not discussing their attributes and you can get feminine men and masculine women. I think I might be ahead of the curve here.’ At another point in our conversation, she says: ‘I’m not sure that the gender politics is a good idea even to discuss, from the point of view of men and women, because it actually doesn’t matter who it is.’

Having stated this position strongly, Caroline does admit some gender differences, in line with some things Rebecca notices about ‘natural female collaborative communication patterns’ (mentioned above in terms of dealing with men dominating meetings). Rebecca expands: ‘Obviously it’s being a bit gender-stereotypical but if you look at communication patterns generally, women are expecting to take turns in a conversation and are more happy to defer to somebody else because they suddenly have a viewpoint that they want to express. I think that does work much better in a co-op. I think generally it just works better! I think it’s a more effective communication style than “I’m the biggest gorilla so I get to talk the most.”’

Rebecca also says: ‘The other thing that women tend to be better at is noticing if there is somebody who is accessing nonverbal communication. “Oh, you look unhappy. You look like you disagree with that point. Do you want to explain?” Drawing people into the conversation. Things that are really, really useful in any situation. If somebody feels that people are making the wrong decision but doesn’t feel like they have the position of power to be able to say it, then quite often they’re a really useful person to listen to.’

I put some of this to Caroline and she observes that there have always been more women than men in her co-op: ‘the women seem to present better at the interviews, shall we say’. ‘The reason we’ve always had more women than men in the co-operative is because they can communicate better in a shorter space of time. It might be a time limit! Because you’re passing on the stairs: “Has this been done? What’s happening here?”

‘Whereas a bloke will just go up and down the stairs. He won’t bother to say anything, bless him!’ (She laughs.)

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Caroline Kempster in her garden, 2017. Photo: Peace News

Flakey fails

Another reason why Rebecca is leaving Catalyst is to do with a kind of compassion fatigue. Catalyst’s primary purpose has always been to help new co-ops start up – it also registers them with the authorities for a small fee.

Rebecca says: ‘At the start of helping new co-ops to start, you are very, very positive about every single idea that comes through. Then you start thinking: “I know that your project isn’t going to go anywhere because you’re a bunch of flakey people.”

‘The point at which you want to not bother with the people who you think are statistically not likely to get very far with their project is the right time to move on.’

Caroline says that one of the most-needed qualities for someone in a wholefoods co-op is ‘stability’: ‘I know it sounds a bit strange, because the energy you need is quite a lot, you need to be physically strong, and if you have a stable life, you don’t bring [instability] into work with you, and distress other workers.’

She adds: ‘You do become friends with everybody, actually, because you know their family lives, what they’re interested in, whether they listen to The Archers or not. [She laughs.] Really delicate details of life!’

Last words

Caroline would say to new co-op members: ‘First of all, I would expect the unexpected.’

Rebecca warns: ‘The great thing about a workers’ co-op is that instead of being exploited by an evil capitalist boss, you just exploit yourself instead. Be careful that you don’t put your own needs to one side for the needs of the co-op. That can lead to people being quite resentful.

‘The sacrifices that you put into a business yourself – if someone comes along and they don’t want to put that in, people can feel very resentful. But, actually, you should have been looking out for yourself as well. And then you don’t end up feeling resentful.’

Caroline says: ‘To support the co-operative has been a real honour. It’s been my pride and joy. I’ve just absolutely loved it. You think about it all the time. It’s just there and everyone talks about it all the time.

‘When you talk to previous members who’ve left, they say: “Oh yes, we could do this and we could do that!” So you never lose the effect of working in a co-operative in your life. It’s in how you deal with everybody.’

After so many years in their co-ops, both Caroline and Rebecca keep referring to Trinity and Catalyst as ‘we’, several months after ending their memberships. ‘You never lose the effect of working in a co-operative in your life. It’s in how you deal with everybody.’



Milan Rai is PN editor. Catalyst Collective: www.catalystcollective.org. Trinity Wholefoods: www.trinitywholefoods.co.uk.