Cooperative mo(ve)ment

A message from Maurice about the cooperative movement.

The Mondragon cooperative HQ in the Basque Country

To mark Cooperatives Fortnight (22 June – 5 July 2020) we have released a podcast interview with Tiziana O’Hara of Cooperative Alternatives, and Ellie Perrin, who is writing a PhD thesis on the cooperative movement in Northern Ireland. Search for The CombOver podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or the other platforms, and subscribe to hear this and the rest of the series.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone to hear that The Combination is supportive of the cooperative movement – not least those of you who watched our short film about the history of coops, ‘The Zirimiri’. So it was a pleasure to talk to two well informed activists about workers’ cooperatives in Northern Ireland – and when lockdown ends, I intend to get out and make a film on the subject.

But recently, I came across another cooperative, this one farther from home, at least geographically speaking – though are those who make the very clothes on your back really all that remote?

Oporajeo is a worker-owned cooperative in the garment sector in Bangladesh, launched by survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster of April 24, 2013, to create good jobs in safe conditions in an otherwise precarious industry. They have continued to work ever since, ensuring the members get a decent wage and receive an equal share in any profits generated.

Their UK partners, and a key outlet for Oporajeo’s products, are No Sweat, a London-based organisation dedicated to combatting the use of sweat-shops. Visit their website here to find out more about them. And visit the page about their partners to find out more about Oporajeo, here.

It is an inspiring example of the sort of democratically owned companies we could help build if we had the political will to do so. But Oporajeo, like so many in this industry across the global south, are facing terrible headwinds in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Clean Clothes Campaign have documented cases of corporations, many of whom have their key outlets on our high streets here in Ireland and the UK, or in Europe and America, cancelling orders, in some cases even after production has commenced. The garment industry in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala and elsewhere has been hit hard, with many workers being sent home without pay – and this in countries where there is little or no support from the public purse, and where there are a growing number of Covid-29 cases, and little testing.

Oporajeo, I understand, has cautiously reopened its factory after a period of lockdown during which they managed, somehow, not only to survive, but to make PPE for local health workers, and distribute thousands of meals to families in their neighbourhood.

The No Sweat team are hoping they will be able to pick up orders again soon. What can we do? Keep an eye out for developments on their website; follow them on social media (@No_Sweat), buy some T-Shirts if you can.

And learn about, and spread the word about, these sorts of people-powered, democratic alternatives to the dominance of the crank economy. We have to keep talking about these initiatives, telling each other about them, passing on details, reminding people that coops exist, that they work – think of Mondragon, with its tens of thousands of owner-workers and decades of success. Contrary to what we’ve repeatedly been told, there is an alternative.

So tell us more. Have you any other examples like Oporajeo? Or like any of the workers’ coops listed by Cooperative Alternatives or TradeMark here closer to home? Tell us, tell me. Tell a neighbour, a friend. If we keep doing that, then it’s just possible that eventually, like the fine rain of the Basque country – the Zirimiri – we will, all of a sudden, discover the idea of the democratic economy has soaked right in.

Maurice Macartney

27 June 2020

The smallest stream

A Tweet from Matha Raddatz showing the militarised occupation at the Lincoln Memorial, 3 June 2020

It has become a cliché to talk about the unprecedented times in which we live, but even by that standard this past fortnight has been staggering.

The anger that erupted after police officers killed George Floyd swept America, and then the world. President Trump’s response has compounded the outrage.

The President, who had just finished a Memorial Day weekend filled with golfing and insulting women when Floyd was killed, seized on destructive elements of the protests to declare some of the demonstrators ‘domestic terrorists’, claiming further that he would declare Antifa (which is not an organisation) a ‘terrorist organisation’ (which he cannot legally do).

It makes a telling contrast to his attitude to the heavily armed right wing militia group who occupied Michigan’s state capitol building earlier in May. They, apparently, were ‘good people’ – presumably much like the ‘very fine people’ who marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017.

The President went on to harangue state governors, telling them to crack down and ‘dominate’ the protests or he would send in the US military. His Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, urged them to ‘dominate the battlespace’.

He used his hand-picked, willing judicial henchman, Attorney General William Barr, without legal or constitutional authority, to order armed police, using clubs, pepper balls and smoke canisters to beat hundreds of peacefully demonstrating citizens – and reporters – off the streets in Lafayette Park, violating their First Amendment rights, just so that Trump, surrounded by the unqualified family members he has elevated to positions of high authority, could lumber to a church he clearly cares nothing about (members of the church were among those cleared out), for a publicity stunt with a Bible he has clearly never read.

And the smoke had barely cleared before he was invoking the name of George Floyd in an almost unbelievably crass celebration of an uptick in the economy.

The spirit of the man who died in an act of racist police violence, Mr Trump claimed, would hopefully be “looking down and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. (It’s) a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody…This is a great, great day in terms of equality”.

This, remember, is the President of the United States.

But it is important – literally vital – not to let the crudity of Trump’s utterances distract from the dangerous substance of his actions.

While everyone outside the Republican Party is staring open mouthed at this Id with an Ego problem, he and the GOP continue to fire inconvenient inspectors, dismantle environmental protections (while the globe continues to heat – this May was the hottest on record), appoint hand-picked Judges to the courts and above all, ignore mounting evidence of systemic racism and police brutality across America, rather than quickly move to implement policies to end it.

True, the protests, though largely peaceful, have been in some places destructive, and due attention must be paid to restoring damage to local businesses; but to make this the focus of condemnation is, frankly, perverse. I suspect those shouting loudest against the destructive side of the protests (including some misusing the term ‘nonviolence’) were also among the loudest voices shouting ‘outrage!’ and calling for the firing of Colin Kaepernick for going down on one knee during the national anthem. If you tried to silence Kaepernick, you’re in no position to call for nonviolent protest now.

If you really want to live by the principle of nonviolence, dismantle the conditions and structures of violence. Instead of selectively picking violent incidents to bolster calls for a militarised approach to clearing the ‘battlespace’, join the call for reforms such as those set out by the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ campaign.

Of course, all of this is primarily for the people of the US to address, but what can we do, here, on the other side of the Atlantic? Well, educate ourselves on the issues – heed the voices of African Americans direct from source, by watching and listening to Black Lives Matter material, for example, and consider carefully what parallels there are over here.

And get involved in justice campaigns, to join the fight to eliminate racism, overt and structural. Across the UK and Ireland there are many organisations working in this area, but here in Northern Ireland you could follow the recently launched Migrant and Minority Ethnic Council, Northern Ireland on Facebook, for example, or ACSONI, to find out what is happening.

But as we have said before on this website, all the problems we have talked about – racism, inequality, massive spikes of wealth for a few amid poverty for many, violence, the destruction of the living planet – are interconnected, so we must join the dots and combine the campaigns, the red, the green and the rainbow, to bring about a transformation on all the issues.

What we at the Combination have called the Crank Economy is directly evolved out of the global system of Empire and enslavement, which worked, among other things, to keep those who did the bulk of the work from sharing in the power by dividing them by ethnicity, by gender, by sexual orientation, by denomination, and by whatever other means necessary, including brutal violence.

You may think you have little to bring to this global struggle. But let there be no mistake: the Trump Administration has turned the civic arena into ‘the battlespace’, and is furiously stoking division, precisely because, like the Empires before them, they know there is nothing people cannot achieve in combination.

The smallest stream contributes its share to the power of the river into which it flows. Find a river flowing in the right direction, and join in.

Maurice Macartney

6 June 2020