‘Labor and Want’ – this was the slogan adopted by the Co-operative movement, shortly after its formation in 1863, to promote the equality, unity and strength the group’s founders, the Rochdale Pioneers, aspired to formulate. There is no error in the spelling: the Americanism adopted as a statement of support for abolitionists during the Civil War. Despite the conflict’s continuation preventing cotton from reaching British mills, and the movement being in its embryonic form, the Co-operative became a staunch advocate of the crusade against slavery. The Rochdale Principleswould continuously transcend Lancashire, an intense focus on democracy and unity bearing influence upon foreign shores, and ultimately changing the course of world history.
The People’s Business – 150 Years of the Co-operative, currently running at the People’s History Museum in Manchester illustrates a revolutionary idea which evolved from the Co-operative Wholesale Society, with just three employees, to an internationally renowned organisation, today boasting seven million members. Tales and feats of its membership are an overwhelming theme in the Co-op’s story– a narrative of emancipatory ideas and initiatives which continually broke new ground.
This exhibition underlines the radical nature of an essentially socialist movement, harnessing the most basic of human instincts: for people to feed and clothe their families. From the conception of the dividend scheme, known as the ‘divi’, leading to financial rewards for members, to caring and sharing initiatives where profits were used to change communities for the better.
Showcased are illustrations of this commitment in practice: from convalescent homes created for the elderly and ailing in the early twentieth century, to its guarantee of better wages, improved working conditions and job security to its employees. More recently the group’s backing of FC United – a breakaway club started by rebel Manchester United supporters following a seizure of the club by its American owners – has demonstrated the movement’s enduring commitment to its roots, ‘Giving Football Back to the Community’, as they put it.
The most striking section of the presentation is that focused upon the role of women in the Co-op. It is jolting to discover that womankind had an equal vote in Co-operative societies, a staggering eighty years before universal suffrage was passed in the British parliament. By making no distinction between the sexes the Rochdale Pioneers proved themselves to be visionaries of colossal stature.
In 2011, the Co-operative’s Women’s Challenge 2020 was created, its aim: to bring women’s voices together to challenge the lack of feminine representation in British business. The Co-operative’s role in the emancipation of women in Britain is not one that can be taken lightly. A quote, mounted upon a display celebrating woman’s progress and success, from the History of the Stalybridge Co-op, in 1909, nine years before any women were given the parliamentary vote, reads: ‘Let the husband be the Prime Minister, but the wife should be the Chancellor of the Exchequer.’
An overriding sense of loyalty to the people fills this exhibition. From the Cradle to the Grave: an adage instantly identifiable with the Co-operative. A family of businesses, dedicated to providing unrivalled service. Conveyed in this section is the Co-op’s unwavering commitment to its core values: the Defiant radio offering a powerful example. In 1933, when a group of radio manufacturers and suppliers refused to sell their products to Co-op stores offering dividends on their products, the firm created its own. Profit for profit’s sake not the company’s defining factor – instead a loyalty to its members – the quest for equality and progress unshakable.
What the People’s History Museum has encapsulated so well here is the ability, of a fundamental set of principles, to alter long standing conditions. The Co-op gave local working-class people a chance to work and prosper – I can vouch for this from a personal perspective: my Dad became the youngest ever departmental manager at the Co-op in Bury at just twenty-one.
Moreover, mentions of the group’s backing of local hospitals prior to the NHS’s formation includes the aid given to India during the 1897 famine, the sending of relief ships to strikers during the Dublin Lockout and a 1992 pledge regarding fair trade products, are just some instances provided of the movement’s astonishing efforts around the globe. Above all, what is exhibited here is a notion which presented hope and support to people – and by doing so, offered an example to the world.
The People’s Business – 150 Years of the Co-operative will run at the People’s History Museum until 11th May 2014. Free admission.