What’s it Like to be Part of a Portsmouth Worker Co-operative?

Wild Thyme Wholefoods are well known across Portsmouth as Southsea’s go-to place for vegan, natural and organic food, but less well known is that it’s a worker co-operative. Co-operative member Stuart Mills reports.

Note: This article was originally published on the Wild Thyme blog and has been reprinted with permission.

Stu Mills from Wild Thyme Wholefoods. Image used with permission of author.

Have you ever had that sinking feeling when you get near to your workplace? I used to work in hotels, and the first thing I often heard (and smelt) as I arrived at work was the kitchen – it triggered that horrible heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. By my early twenties, I had accepted that this is how work would be: doing things I didn’t really want to do, being supervised by people who didn’t really care about me, and having little or no say in what happened there.

And then I became part of a worker co-op, and discovered that work didn’t have to be like that. I was working with a group of people on an equal basis, who were all paid the same hourly wage, and who all made decisions together. If I wanted to change something, I could – I just had to convince the rest of the group that it was a good idea. I could have genuine relationships with my workmates, instead of having to present a false image of myself to a manager who had the power to sack me.

That was back in the 1990’s. I stayed there 10 years, and then moved on. Now I’m back in another worker co-op – Wild Thyme. Like most worker co-ops, we have a completely flat hierarchy – everyone is on the same level, no-one has individual managerial power over anyone else, and we are all paid the same hourly wage. We self-manage, and we also manage each other collectively; we are both the employee and the employer. This sounds a lot like self employment, but it’s very different. Because Wild Thyme is also a non-profit social enterprise.

We pay ourselves a wage from the surplus we make, and if we make more, then we can pay ourselves an extra bonus (not happened yet – we’re all still on minimum wage). But what we can never do is sell Wild Thyme and make a profit on its value.  The legal structure of Wild Thyme is set up so that each worker owns an equal share of the business, but this share is only valued at £1. That £1 share can never be traded or sold, and it never increases in value. Which means that, effectively, Wild Thyme will only ever be worth about £10. So we’ll never do a Ben & Jerry’s and sell to Unilever, or an Innocent Drinks and sell to Coca Cola.

And what that means for us, the workers, is that we can experience the benefits of running our own business/enterprise but without having to have access to large amounts of capital. Usually, if you want to set up a business, you will need to invest a fair bit of your own cash in order to convince anyone else to lend you any money. This is part of how capitalism works: you don’t get to do that unless you have some capital yourself already. Luckily for Wild Thyme, we were able to finance our start up mainly with a loan from the Co-operative Loan Fund (set up in 1973, lending only to co-ops) and with a grant from Solent LEP (open to all businesses in the area).

Worker co-ops are big on job rotation, that is, not just doing the same task everyday. I love the variety that comes with that, and it gives everyone a chance to understand all areas of how the business works. This also means that when we come to make decisions about Wild Thyme, we’re informed by our own experience.  One day I might be paying some bills, the next day I could be cleaning the toilet. We learn the true value of all the different tasks, not just the financial value that a free market job economy places on them, where a book keeper can be paid two or three times as much as a toilet cleaner.

Learning to work without a boss can be more challenging than you might expect. Most of us have been told what to do both at school and at work for most of our lives, and we can end up very conditioned by that. I still remember my first moment of real understanding, about 6 months in at the first co-op. I was thinking ‘why doesn’t somebody sort that out’ about something irritating and then I realised, if I wanted that thing changed, it was up to me to sort it out, not anyone else. I think that’s one of the most important aspects of a worker co-op: we’re providing a place where people can learn to take full responsibility for what’s going on around them, and for each other. On a global level, that’s the only way that I can see true change will ever come about. On a personal level, the challenge is to do a job well because you want to, not because you’ve got a boss breathing down your neck who’s going to give you a hard time if you don’t.

At Wild Thyme, in common with many co-ops, we make our decisions by consensus instead of by majority. This can be a slower process than just voting, but it means we don’t end up with a disaffected minority who have lost the vote. Consensus can be quite a technical process, but essentially it means taking everyone’s views into account when making a decision, and trying to find an outcome that everyone can at least go along with. With our flat hierarchical structure, it’s really important that we all sing from the same songbook. If we don’t have consistent ways of doing things, it’s easy to end up working against each other, which can be a recipe for disaster.  And if we all have the chance to have our voices heard when we make decisions, that’s much less likely to happen.

There’s loads of great worker co-ops around the country, and the world – but there needs to be more. If you like the idea of working in a co-op, why don’t you think about starting one up yourself? Find a group of people who you’d like to do it with, and have a browse through the links below. And if you’re local, come into the shop for a chat.  As the saying goes: don’t moan, organise!

Useful Links