As 2012 is being recognized as the International Year of Co-operatives, ILSTV sat down with John Restakis, Executive Director of the British Columbia Co-operatives Association, and discussed the history of the co-operative movement in Canada and what it meant to workers.
John Restakis: The beginnings of the co-operative movement were really part of that response to the rise of the factory system in the U.K. during the industrial revolution. And the impacts of this new way of organizing the economy around the concentration of capital, and around the centralization of work in factories, and the enormous disruption that entailed for traditional ways of working. The crafts system, that was basically located in local homes and villages, was completely undermined and disrupted. The concentration of workers in large centralized factory systems in the urban centres entailed a massive migration of people from the country side to over-crowded cities.
And all of this served to undermine and dislocate people’s traditional ways of work. But it also dis-empowered people. The kind of power that a craftsman might have over his work and how it was sold and the price he got for it was, overnight, undermined by a weight system that really impoverished a huge number of people. It also created an enormous amount of unemployment. All the small tenant farmers that were working on the land for so many years were all of a sudden thrown off the land; ended up landless and jobless. So a huge growth in unemployment.
So if you put these factors together you had a response and a reaction to that, and part of that was the co-operative movement. Which was a highly developed model where people actually controlled their work, had a say in what they get paid and the working conditions they are working in, and get some power in the marketplace. That was part of a broader social movement that included the rise of the trade union movement, the rise of the women’s movement, the rise of the chartis movement, which was an attempt to actually make voting universal for everybody, not just land owners. So the rise of the whole build up for a democratic, economic, and political system was going on at that time, and co-ops were at the heart of that.
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