Robert Oakeshott, Champion of Worker Co-operatives, 1933-2011

Robert Oakeshott, English organizer of cooperatives and author of The Case for Workers' Co-ops, passed away June 21st.  Obituaries in the Guardian, the Economist, and the Telegraph.

"For most of the 1970s he ran his own building co-op, Sunderlandia, in the north-east of England. The region was in steep decline, but he liked it, dropping his Balliol accent to say “New-cassle” like a local, and finding it fertile ground for his schemes. As he ate with his fellow-workers in the greasy spoon, enjoying their competitive talk of growing leeks and selling scrap, he realised that under the industrial overalls lurked canny capitalist peasants. Sunderlandia bowled along for some time; but then a downturn came, and the worker-members would not agree to cut their own pay. In 1978 it went into liquidation.

 

Others might have been set back, but not Mr Oakeshott. He adjusted his glasses, usually held together with Sellotape and rubber bands, hitched up his trousers, usually belted with string, and forged on. He could point to co-operative successes: the worker-owned John Lewis department store, current turnover around £8 billion a year, and in particular the cluster of machine-making co-ops at Mondragon in Spain, founded by five defecting engineers in 1956, now with 85,000 workers and an annual turnover of €15 billion. A key element in Mondragon, it seemed to him, was the inspirational leadership of a priest, José Maria Arizmendi, who surprised him by producing Mao’s “Little Red Book” out of his bottom drawer.

 

Mr Oakeshott became an inspiration himself, drawing up business plans for fledgling co-ops, securing capital and founding the Employee Ownership Association in 1979 to speak for them. As communism fell he eagerly took his ideas to eastern Europe, in the hope of installing co-ops there before the oligarchs arrived. His own politics were briefly Labour and more often Liberal, though he admitted, when he ran unsuccessfully for Darlington as a Liberal in 1966, that he had joined the party on his way north on the train."

 

Buy Robert Oakeshott's books from Bookfinder 

Review of Jobs and Fairness from Jacquelyn Yates of the Ohio Employee Ownership Center