Jobs and dreams: worker co-operatives in the 1980s

The late 1970’s and early 1980’s saw the emergence of a number of ‘new social movements’ including feminism, LGBT+, race equality and the green movement. One that was less prominent and less remarked upon was the rise of the worker co-op movement. Worker co-ops were a product of the idealism of the counter-culture fused with a political response to the de-industrialisation and attacks on trade union rights of the Thatcher era. Their practice was a practical way of actualising the experiences of these other  social movements on a day-to-day basis.

From 1981-89 I was heavily involved in promoting, facilitating, developing and working in  worker owned co-ops. At points during that period I had the good fortune to be commissioned to do some research work on this emerging movement and its support agencies, by amongst others, the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB), the Open University Co-ops Research Unit, and the University of Bremen, as part of a Europe-wide project, as well as being employed from 1986-89 by the Oxfordshire co-operative development agency. Some of the time I had the sense to carry a camera with me to record some of these initiatives and experiments, and most of the pictures have a ‘snatched’ journalistic quality to them rather than something posed and composed; the pressures of the ‘day job’. But the photographs  give a sense of  the dedication, commitment and fun that these experiments in new ways of organizing working relations and re-framing the nature of work provided. About half a dozen of the photographs here were published at the time in OU/GLEB educational publications, and all of them and about 130 others, are on the National Co-operative Archive  Flikr account here.  As a  collection of photographs this is a personal reflection on the movement that I knew, not an attempt to provide anything like a comprehensive portrait.

Looking back at them more than 30 years later it is striking how few of these businesses survived the harsh economic circumstances of the time. Suma in Leeds, still thriving, is a notable exception. They are certainly products of their time, mixing idealism, desperation and  experimentation. While challenging some of the  cultural norms  of the time, especially in their working model,  others such the continuing  gendered division of labour, are not hard to spot. They also pre-figure and indeed contributed to, the early debates around sustainable economic models that focus on well-being rather than  just profit, the fulfillment of local needs, and the sustainable use of resources; what is referred to these days as circular economies and ‘doughnut economics’.

The co-ops featured in the three galleries below range across a wide variety of sectors, from small scale engineering to a  language school,  printing to wholefoods,  pubs/cafes, and retail outlets to bookshops; all ones which require relatively little capital to start up. They include Brenco Engineering, Mosquito Bikes, East End News, The Leveller, Lithosphere and Typing Pool (London) Uhuru, Lake School of English, Earth’n’Wear,  Ploughshare, Pedlars, Worldwise and the Political Ecology Research Group (Oxford), Blackwell Engineering, (Smethwick, Birmingham), Arjuna Wholefoods (Cambridge), Suma (Leeds), Louise Argyle (Hebburn, Newcastle) the New Inn (Gwynedd, N Wales)  and Bewley’s Cafe (Dublin). There is also a final gallery of photos from the 1981 and 1982 annual gatherings of worker and housing co-ops the time, the Leeds Co-ops Fair.

All the photos were shot in black and white using Tri-X (400 ASA)  35 mm Kodak film and a Nikon FM camera with a 28-70mm Nikon lens. They are all full frame, uncropped (click on each photograph to see the full picture).

London co-ops

Oxford co-ops

 UK and Ireland co-ops

 Leeds Co-ops Fairs 1981 and 1982