Co-operation – Part One

By Mickey Friedman
August 22, 2017

Miles Ashworth was a weaver of flannel. James Daly was a joiner. Joseph Smith, a woolsorter. James Wilkinson, a shoemaker. Of the original members of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers of Lancashire, England, some were Chartists, one a Congregationalist, many Socialists, three Unitarians and one who didn’t declare his persuasion. Ten were weavers.

While there had been previous efforts in Rochdale at Co-operation in 1844, these poor, under-employed and out-of-work British workers and artisans tried again. Contributing a few cents a week to create jobs, provide affordable food, build housing, and forge the Cooperative movement.

What prompted this? The steam engine, the power-loom that brought enormous change to their nation, to their community.

As Engel’s notes in “The Condition of the Working Classes in England,” in the 1770s, England imported 5 million pounds of raw cotton; by 1844 it was up to 600 million pounds. Close to a million and half people were working for the cotton industry, most in the mills. Lancashire’s population increased ten times in 80 years. Rochdale had 75,000 people. England, once a land of agriculture and small towns, was now a machine-driven industrial power, with two-thirds of its workers employed in trade and commerce. And because Capital relentlessly abused their labor and refused to pay a living wage, Rochdale’s workers often struck. Dealt with by troops stationed nearby.

In “Hard Times,” Charles Dickens described life in “a town of machinery:” “In the hardest working part of Coketown, in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in, at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death …”

There was no health insurance, no pensions, no protection for workers. George Jacob Holyoake wrote a contemporaneous history of the Rochdale Pioneers, describing the question they asked themselves: “What are the best means of improving the condition of the people?” Their answer: “Self-Help By The People.”

They intended: “to form arrangements for … the improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members, by raising a sufficient amount of capital in shares of one pound each to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements. The establishment of a store for the sale of provision and clothing, etc.

“The building, purchasing [of] a number of houses, in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside.
“To commence the manufacture of such articles as the society may determine upon, for the employment of such members as may be without employment, or may be suffering in consequence or repeated reductions in their wages.

“As a further benefit and security to the members of this society, the society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment, or whose labour may be badly remunerated.”

Food, housing, employment, a comprehensive interconnected series of businesses, all member-owned. The Rochdale Pioneers were committed to transparency, and their Board of Directors met in open session every Thursday evening; there were general membership meetings in January, April, July and October where the Board would offer a quarterly financial report. Should any member have a dispute the matter would go to the Board, then the membership. And the Pioneers made sure to include the following language in its bylaws “the word person to include, females as well as males …”

Profits were calculated quarterly and distributed: interest at the rate of 3 1/2 per cent per annum paid upon all shares and the remaining profits paid to each member in proportion to the amount of money they spent.

They raised twenty-eight pounds and opened their store in December 1844 in Toad Lane with small quantities of flour, butter, sugar and oatmeal. Initially, open Monday and Saturday evenings.

Undercapitalized, with limited quantity, still Holyoake tells us “a staunch section of them were true co-operators, and would come far or near to make their purchases, and, whether the price was high or low, the quality good or bad, they bought, because it was their duty to buy.  The men were determined, and the women no less enthusiastic, willing, and content.”

By 1845 there were 74 members and sales of 710 pounds. In 1854, they decided to codify the need to meet management costs and develop reserves and pledge 2.5 percent of their surplus to fund the “intellectual improvement” of their members and families. Soon they sold cloth made by members, opened a newsroom, a flour mill, a Co-operative Building Society, and Insurance Company. By 1859, they had six branch stores.

The Rochdale Pioneers. The early success of Co-operation.

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Co-operation – Part One was first published in the Berkshire Record on August 10, 2017.

Mickey Friedman’s Berkshire-based I Ching mysteries, “Danger” and “Folly”, as well as his non-fiction “A Red Family” are available on Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Mickey-Friedman/e/B00R4S2MSE/. His films can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/user/bluehillfilms

For more information:

“Self-Help By The People: The History of the Rochdale Pioneers” by George Jacob Holyoake
http://gerald-massey.org.uk/holyoake/b_rochdale_index.htm

“The Meaning of Rochdale: The Rochdale Pioneers and the Co-operative Principles,” by Brett Fairbairn, Center for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskachewan
http://usaskstudies.coop/documents/occasional-papers/Meaning of Rochdale.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Co-operative_Group

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