Last year I started collecting photographs of co-ops I encountered whilst on holiday, to support my oft made claim that there is virtually no where in the world where you won’t find a co-op (or mutual or employee owned operation) The collection now ranges from a community co-op pub in the lake district (I was on holiday!) to a plumbers merchants co-op in Sicily (yes, sadly I was on another holiday); a small community based credit union on the West coast of Ireland to an AFL-CIO (trade union) credit union just round the corner from the White House (Obama’s place, not the derelict public house in Holytown).
I have to confess to visiting Corleone, of Godfather fame, whilst in Sicily but I didn’t manage to get any photographs of the Libera Terra agricultural co-ops, created by handing over former Mafia owned land to community co-ops. A colleague has come across their produce being sold in Palermo markets (olive oil, fruit and veg).
Conversely, there was little glorification of the Godfather connection. The Museum was an Anti-Mafia one and we parked in the Piazza to the Victims of The Mafia. The Italians seem to be better than most in using co-ops for social cohesion. In Genoa they brought warring factions from Sampdoria and Genoa football clubs together in a Type B co-op to provide the cleaning service in the communally owned stadium used by both teams.
Whilst I continue to ramble (I did get a lot of sun on my hols), I have been reminded by some recent reviews that there are co-operative champagne houses out there and that the Co-operative Food and Waitrose do stock them. I suspect that much of the other supermarket own label wines still come from “caves co-operatives” in France, Italy and Spain and I was delighted that several of the reds I enjoyed on holiday were from co-operatives. There really is nothing I won’t do to support co-ops.
Co-ops not only feature in the real world but pop up regularly in fiction. Inspired (?) by my visit to Sicily, I have started re-reading one of the first novels to tackle the Mafia concept – “The Day of the Owl: Leonardo Sciascia (1961). The opening scene is a young man being gunned down as he tries to board a bus to Palermo. It soon becomes apparent that he is targeted because he is a member of the Santa Fara Building Co-operative Society and has not been showing due respect to the men of honour i.e. refusing to get involved in bungs relating to public contracts. So even in fiction, co-ops are held up as the ethical alternative.
In the Stieg Larsson novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc) there are repeated references to Konsum (the Swedish food retail co-operative) and several characters are members of housing co-ops, reflecting the role of co-ops in Swedish culture.
Which does beg the question, if co-ops started in Fenwick and they are ubiquitous socially, culturally and literally speaking, then why don’t we have more of them in Scotland?
However, the big breakthrough for my photo album will come in October, when I am taking some students over to Mondragon. There should be co-op photo opportunities galore.
Whilst on the topic of photo opportunities, I was on my travels again at the weekend (business, not a holiday) and was snapped, at half time in An Camanachd’s Sutherland Cup Final, with the First Minister. The Co-op connection was the Co-operative Group Membership were sponsoring a shinty taster event for school kids; we were providing shinty starter packs for Aberdeen schools and Aberdeen University Camanachd were celebrating their 150th, which puts constituted co-ops a hundred years ahead of constituted shinty clubs. Not to worry, we did manage to get some interest from An Camanachd in looking at co-op structures for their member clubs, so yet another possibility of co-ops springing up in new areas.
It would seem remiss to talk about travel and not mention the future of Co-op Travel. It would appear that the deal with Thomas Cook is back on after consideration by the Competition Commission. There has been some disquiet about the co-op brand being used when the Group and Midlands Society only retain a minority stake. If the alternative was simply to exit from the travel market, making lots of people redundant then I would have to say the deal with Thomas Cook not only secures employment (maybe not for all as there will be some rationalisation) and offers the co-op partners the chance to maximise the value they realise for what was a failing business. Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Co-op Travel employees given the chance to take the business over as a worker co-operative but I’m not sure that option has permeated the senior ranks of decision makers in the movement.
Any engagement I have had with Co-op Travel staff in Scotland has been very positive and they always struck me as get up and go types. The Webbs still have a lot to answer for.
Anyway, this should be the last instalment of our Summer Special, as the schools return and the CETS nose is returned to the grindstone. At least that is what the Resident “Hiedie” tells me.