Workers’ Co-operatives 1970s-1990s

Cover page c.1947

Capturing the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement, 1970s-1990s.

The Working Together Project has identified and made accessible for the first time records from some of the major workers’ co-operatives of the 1970s-90s.
‘Workers’ co-operatives are businesses owned and controlled by the members who work in them.’

Member T-shirt, Unicorn Grocery

From the 1970s -1990s there was an increased interest in working co-operatively, with a huge wave of workers’ co-operatives set up across the UK.

Although preceeded by the co-operative productive societies of the 19th and early 20th cenuries, the workers’ co-operatives of the 1970s-1990s developed due to factors including: oppressive economic conditions, high unemployment and people looking for a fairer and more equal society.

Many workers’ co-operatives were set up in evolving industries that complemented the ideals of the movement. These included sale and distribution of wholefoods, radical bookshops, and printers.

Lithosphere printing co-operative, 1984. Photograph by Martin Stott.

Although spanning different industries, workers’ co-operatives of the 1970s-1990s often shared common elements in how they operated including: democratic decision making, fair pay, and job rotation.

Advert for Trojan Printing Services c.1981

A commitment to social change was also promoted by many workers’ co-operatives. This was promoted locally through tackling labour market problems for those who might face discrimination in other businesses, or in involvement in  wider movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

In 1984 there were around 800 workers’ co-operatives in the UK.

However due to recession and funding cuts to co-operative support agencies, the late 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a decline in the number of workers’ co-operatives.

Despite this, many workers’ co-operatives were able to adapt and survive, and continue to be thriving businesses today.

With an increasing number of people moving from secure employment into precarious work there is a growing interest in the workers’ co-operative model again. Workers’ co-operatives are increasingly set up in the digital and creative sectors, with focus on bringing together self-employed and ‘gig economy’ workers into collectives to share resources and experience.

Worker Co-op Weekend, 2016