Footprints for change

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Feature by Elise Desiderio

The credit crunch exposed many of the failures of the capitalist system and made us question where to go from here to be rid of the free market’s stranglehold: it seems as if the “invisible hand” of the free market has broken a few fingers. So what other options are being explored? The co-operative movement is one means by which, some argue, workers may find labour equality: being one’s own boss and having equal ownership of an organisation.

To explore the co-operative option, Peace News interviewed Cath Muller from Footprint, a small workers’ co-operative in Leeds. Footprint is a green printing collective whose customers include independent magazines as well as activist newspapers and materials.

It is also a member of Radical Routes, a co-op whose membership is made up of smaller co-ops. Their objective is to spread the philosophy of co-operation as a viable working alternative. “The mission of Radical Routes is to promote the idea and practice of co-ops as bases from which to challenge the current social order,” Cath said. “Radical Routes promotes the structure of these things rather than campaigning on any particular issue.”

Footprint is based in the cellar of Cornerstone Housing Co-op and pays no rent. The lack of overheads allows its members to work fewer hours, giving ample free time to devote to activism and other social endeavours. “We only work part-time and we understand that we’re doing something more useful with the rest of our time,” Cath said. “Often we would give discounts to other activists.”

What credit crisis?

The credit crisis has not had a profound negative effect Footprint, but other workers co-ops may not be so lucky .
“All small businesses are exceptions to the rule in one way or another, but we’re exceptional because we don’t rent premises. So we’re insulated a little from some of the credit crunch stuff because we don’t have to make huge overheads anyway.” But because co-ops have thus far survived the market downturn, Cath says it is difficult to be single-minded in opposition to the free market.

“It’s really difficult to try and remember to be anti-capitalist. It’s funny, when you talk about co-ops in the ’70s and ’80s, and even now a lot of the stories are about how they didn’t survive because they didn’t focus on the business enough. But it’s a business, that’s the point: you have to focus on the business, otherwise it collapses.”

Embracing money earning, even as a kind of necessary evil, is a part of running any small business. But Cath says that cash flow does not distract from Footprint’s mission: “The point of a business is not just to make money and be self-perpetuating. The point is to support those movements, to be active.”

The pursuit of anti-capitalism is, for Muller, a secondary one. Because Footprint is a small co-operative, it does not generate the kind of capital that should cause a crisis of faith regarding what to do with extra money. Even so, Footprint has a 50p per hour fund that it uses to donate money to causes promoting social change.

Though there are several options on the table as alternatives to capitalism, they do not always have close links to one another. Being a workers co-op without any committee of management can, in Cath’s experience, make it more difficult to form ties with unions.

The labour movement is one that is particularly difficult for small co-operatives to connect to. “We have done one or two jobs for trade unions, not many at all, maybe one or two in eight years,” Cath said. She argued that the difficulty arose because small co-ops and unions are structured on very different scales. “We’re not unionised because we don’t have a boss or any managers - why pay union membership you don't need when you’re low-waged by choice?”

The co-op movement’s separation from the labour unions affects Footprint’s business. “Because we’re not unionised,” she said, “it probably means that unions wouldn’t want to use us.”

For now, it seems, the movements develop more or less independently of one another. In the future, alternative movements like these may converge, perhaps fostering the growth of each. “If we were in a co-op that was big enough to have a management committee, it might be a different story.”

Topics: Economics