July 4 is the United Nation’s International Day of Cooperatives
One of the results of the isolation imposed by Coronavirus has been the disruption of work. Many people lost their jobs, others worked from home, others worked reduced hours. The disruption also led many of us to think about work and how it should be organised in a society built around people and not about profits. The lack of security for workers became apparent when casual workers were laid off, often with no income and with no guarantee of future work.
At the same time, the extent of underpayment of their employees by business large and small had become evident. In some areas of work that are vital in a flourishing society, such as the arts, the future of institutions such as orchestras and theatres became precarious, and the capacity of people to work creatively, was in doubt.
In such times such as these, we naturally look for alternative ways of working that are more conducive to human flourishing. We want to see workers have a say in the running of the workplace, humane and secure working conditions, and all involved to be able to feel pride in the contribution that they make to their enterprise and to society.
It would be easy to look back nostalgically at pre-industrial ways of work, when builders and carpenters belonged to guilds where their skills were highly praised. But when machines have taken over so much that previously would have demanded skilled workers, the workforce is much larger and the population has higher expectations, high ideals alone will not suffice.
People have felt the force of this challenge since the Industrial Revolution, which made profit by dehumanising work. One of the most promising proposals and experiments in Australia and throughout the world have been in cooperatives. They have been established in manufacturing, housing, retail shopping, banking, agriculture and many other fields of endeavour. Catholics have been strongly involved in them because they respect the dignity of work and of workers in a way that profit based enterprises often don’t.
One of the most interesting cooperative ventures in Australia was in Lalor, Melbourne, named after the hero of the Eureka Stockade. Faced by the massive housing shortage after the end of the war in 1945, some returned servicemen founded a cooperative to build and supply the materials for houses. People who contributed to the scheme shared in its working and management, and eventually had a house. The cooperative faced many difficulties with building on the land it had bought and in finding materials, but was successful in its immediate aims. It faced the difficulty inherent in such enterprises that people contributed to it generously initially, but when they had their house and a family to feed, they became less involved.
In some overseas cooperatives, most notably Mondgragon in Spain, these difficulties have been overcome by a consistent focus on the mutual responsibility of all involved, whether in management or in work, cooperative decision making, and by the readiness of all to make sacrifices in hard times.
The cooperatives remain a challenge to find better ways of conceiving work than that based on large corporations, government patronage, large corporate and personal debt, growing inequality and a business model based on selling an increasing number of goods to people increasingly unable to afford them.
Certainly the experiments in communal enterprises by artists and musicians during COVID-19 show the energy that such initiatives can give, and the important part that cooperative organisation can have in society.
At Jesuit Social Services, we have seen this power in small ways in our Artful Dodger Program, where young people who have been isolated come together to make music and to paint, and find a way to connect with society. The joy and grounding they find in this lies at the heart of all work.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.