Working democracy : analysis and prospects of British worker co-operatives
Worker co-operatives, meaning firms producing goods or services that are owned and managed by their workers, have been a marginal and problematic form of production in Britain since their first period of substantial growth in the 19th century. They have recurrent difficulties attracting capital, developing business expertise among their members, sustaining long-term commitment and growing to the size required to compete efficiently in many industries. Yet there has been a remarkable upsurge of interest in co-operatives during the past decade, and their many successes in diverse industries demonstrate that co-operatives can offer their members a powerful combination of strong business performance and a highly satisfying work life. This thesis asks whether the weaknesses apparent in co-operatives historically, and present in many still today, are inherent in the co-operative form. Is the co-operative sector bound to remain basically marginal, or could it, with the aid of some practical reforms, come to play a significant role in the British economy? Recognising that any answer to this question is speculative, the thesis concludes that co-operatives are not inherently flawed indeed they fail at about the same rate as traditionally organised small businesses but that they do place an unusual range of demands on members which, in a legal, financial and political climate not yet geared to co-operatives, mean that democratic firms are likely to remain a small portion of the economy. The plan of the thesis is as follows: After a brief introductory chapter, Chapter Two surveys the present state of British co-operatives and examines the external economic and legal environment in which co-operatives function. Chapter Three surveys recent research in organisational behaviour, especially about small group behaviour in traditional businesses, to assess whether the high productivity frequently asserted for co-operatives has theoretical foundation, whether co-operatives commonly violate any established principles of good organisational design and whether large co-operatives can be run efficiently and democratically. Chapter Four presents the economic status of women in the British workforce and looks at whether the attributes of co-operatives are congruent with women's needs. Two mini-case studies are presented, of a bookselling and a cleaning co-operative, each composed entirely of women. Chapters Five, Six and Seven present the results of the field research conducted for this thesis. Each is a case study of a functioning co-operative based on extensive interviews with its members, reviews of the co-operative's files, and a brief analysis of its financial performance. The goal was to understand as much as possible about the consequences of choosing the co-operative form: for the members' job satisfaction and for the firm's productivity, market sensitivity, ability to grow, ability to employ women, and internal dynamics. Chapter Eight sets out the conclusions suggested by comparing the case studies in light of the literature examined in Chapters Two through Four.