What my co-operative journey taught me about work

In the late 1970s and 80s, I worked as a telephonist for the General Post Office, a public corporation which became British Telecom. It was considered a good gig, especially for a young working class girl from a social housing estate.

Photo of Dorothy Francis
Photograph: Dorothy Francis

People thought you had fallen on your feet if you landed a job at GPO – especially for me as the only black telephonist in a team of 100.

My parents, who worked as labourers, were delighted that I had a white-collar job and I went to work in high heels and pencil skirts, rather than overalls and work boots. They saw it as a return to the leap of faith they took when they left Jamaica to help rebuild the UK economy and provide their children with the education that they had missed out on.

The job at GPO was good, with opportunities to climb the ranks, but as time went by I realised that I needed something else.

What that “something” was I did not quite know. All I knew was that I wanted to change the way I worked.

I felt there had to be a way to work that offered ownership, control, a sense of worth, and fair return on labour. I wanted a voice. I wanted to know that I was making a change, that I was leaving a legacy: not just working for the sake of it.

Little did I know at the time, these “wants” were at the heart of the co-operative movement. I did not even know what a co-op was back then! I had shopped in 'The Co-op' all my life but knew nothing about the breadth of co-ops or that I could forge a career in them.

I eventually left the GPO, horrifying my manager, who was aghast that I would leave a “job for life” in exchange for three years of a student grant and an uncertain future. Three years later, on graduating, I was about to embark on a social work MA when a group of friends asked me to join them in setting up a co-op bookshop called Radix.

Radix: a black co-op bookshop based in Coventry

Radix means “the root”. We were a black bookshop – selling books for African, African Caribbean, Indian, Chinese, Asian and other people of colour – and wanted to take people back to the roots of their existence as people of colour are often denied our heritage and knowledge of our contribution to the world.

Radix was also a play on “radical” as political, feminist and black bookshops were all defined as “radical” at the time. The mere act of selling books that showed gay, black, working-class or political issues was considered off the wall and “radical,” so we thought we would tap into this and use it as a positive.

This was the first time I asked “what is a co-op”? They explained, and it was truly a lightbulb moment. I realised that co-ops crystallised everything I had been seeking for many years. I deferred my university place to join them and within a short time, I knew that I had found my spiritual, moral, ethical, and working home. I never took up my place at university. That was 40 years ago, and I have worked with co-ops ever since.

What is it about co-ops that has fascinated me for so long? I have actively promoted co-ops for 40 years and have advised hundreds of people, helped to set up dozens of co-ops, chaired national co-op bodies and spoken on platforms across Europe and in the Caribbean talking about how co-ops change lives, communities, and societies.

I’m drawn to the fact that co-ops are people-centred enterprises that exist to elevate and support their members to meet common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations.

Co-ops trade for the benefit of their members and the wider community, be they farmers, housing residents, shoppers, or workers. Co-op principles allow 1.2 billion people to have a voice in what concerns them – food, housing, energy, childcare, jobs and more. The “one member, one vote” principle ensures equality of participation and gives ownership to those involved.

Co-ops are based on values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. These are underpinned by ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. A commitment to community, education, and provision of information are also key elements.

These values and principles put fairness and equality at their heart, empowering people to create sustainable enterprises that generate long-term jobs and prosperity. Co-ops allow people to take control of their economic future and – because they are not owned by shareholders – the economic and social benefits stay in the communities where they are generated. Profits are either reinvested in the enterprise or returned to the members.

The turnover for the UK’s 7,237 co-ops is £40bn. The Labour Party manifesto commits to doubling the UK co-op sector. This is laudable, but perhaps it aims too low? What if we were to increase the co-op sector ten-fold? Imagine the impact that would have on community ownership, business ethics, democratic control and social ownership. How might this contribute to addressing problems of inequality, reducing ravages wreaked on the planet, solving climate change, reducing radicalism and more?

Co-ops establish and grow better if offered support, guidance, and training. I would like to see a manifesto that promotes co-op activity, provides legislation and allows people access to free high-quality advice to help them take control of their work, savings and loans, housing, transport, food and other aspects of life.

Here’s to a future of lightbulb moments that lead to societal change!

  • The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of The Gazette or its members.

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