Reassessing the early productive co-operatives: worker democracy then and now.
Britain’s early cooperative movement didn’t just intend to run grocery stores. Even before the Rochdale Pioneers launched their society in 1844 there had been several attempts to develop co-operatively run mills and factories. What was called productive co-operation was to be a significant, if often controversial, idea for the whole of the rest of the nineteenth century.
The story of these co-operatives, direct ancestors of what today we would call workers’ co-operatives, has been forgotten – or perhaps, as Andrew Bibby will suggest in his lecture, conveniently written out of the official account of British co-operation. The issue of whether co-operatively run factories should offer employees a share in the fruits of their labour through what was called ‘bonus to labour’ was to become an acrimonious dispute in the movement for many years, pitching independent worker-led co-ops and pioneers such as George Jacob Holyoake and Edward Vansittart Neale against the leadership of the mighty CWS.
An associated debate as the nineteenth century ended was whether the practical experiences of those working in productive co-ops had lessons for a labour movement looking to move towards business being run for public good – or whether the way forward was through top-down state ownership of key industries.
The lecture is part of a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding in the summer of 1870 of the Fustian Manufacturing society in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, viewed by contemporaries as the exemplar of a well-run productive co-op.
Andrew Bibby is a writer and journalist who has written widely on the co-operative business model for the national press and for national and international co-operative organisations. His book All Our Own Work (Merlin, 2015) on the co-operative pioneers at the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing society is the first significant study of early productive co-ops for over a century. His website offers access to a range of his articles and reports: www.andrewbibby.com/coops.html.