Jobs and dreams: worker co-operatives in the 1980s
The late 1970s and early 1980s 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. Worker co-ops were a practical way of putting into practice the aspirations of these other social movements in the day-to-day.
From 1981-89 I was heavily involved in promoting, facilitating, developing and working in worker co-ops. At points during that period I was commissioned to do research on this emerging movement and its support agencies, by the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB), and the Open University Co-ops Research Unit, as well as being employed from 1986 by the Oxfordshire Co-operative Development Agency. Some of the time I had the sense to carry a camera with me to record these initiatives and experiments. 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.
As part of their ongoing project to capture black and white documentary photography from that period Cafe Royal Books published a photo book of them in October 2021.
‘…fascinating images from a golden era for the movement… an instant nostalgia-fest for co-operative baby boomers..’
Andrew Bibby, Co-operative News, 14 December 2021
They and about 100 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 35 years later, it is striking how much they were products of their time, mixing idealism, desperation and experimentation. While challenging some of the cultural norms, especially in their working model, others such as the continuing gendered division of labour, are not hard to spot. They also pre-figured 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).
UK and Ireland co-ops
Leeds Co-ops Fairs 1981 and 1982