Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Workers during the Industrial Revolution in an unknown city. Taken from blogspot.com. No credits or copyright information given.

My mission: to research and write a history piece on Worker Cooperatives. To complete this task, I was hoping to find juicy stories of worker strikes, political upheaval, or something flashy enough to interest my drama-starved mind. What I found was the English town of Rochdale, England.

Rochdale of Lancashire, England holds the title of the birthplace of the modern cooperative structure. The Rochdale Principles, a group of rules written in Rochdale in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society have served as the moral and structural basis for the cooperative movement ever since.

The Rochdale Principles, as they have since become known, were a compilation of principles tested since the cooperatives movement’s birth in the mid 19th century. The birth of the movement was a direct result of pressures imposed on society by the Industrial Revolution.

A “spinning mule.” Taken from boltonmuseums.org.uk. No credits or copyright information given.

Two main contributors led to these imposed pressures: the invention of the “spinning mule” and the steam engine. These technologies created a huge boom in textile production in cities across England. Increased production coupled with a reduced need for skilled labor led to population increases in cities and a reduced standard of living. As a means to increase their standard of living, the concentrated populations of laborers working in the factories began to organize. This led to the development of cooperative societies, which would turn into what is known today as the cooperative movement.

What the Rochdale Pioneers formed, though, would not be easily recogniz­able in today’s cooperative movement. What they formed was called a Cooperative Society. Their overall goal was “as soon as practicable, this society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words, to establish a self-supporting home colony of limited interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.”

James Watts’ steam engine, from 1769. Taken from deutsches-museum.de. No credits or copyright information given.

The Rochdale Pioneers were never successful in their attempt to create a self-sustaining colony, although their initial retail store was a great success. Since Rochdale, the movement has seen similar achievements; cooperatives serving many segments of society have found great success in many forms — consumer, housing, producer and worker cooperatives. But has the move­ment yet succeeded in producing a Cooperative Society? What role do I play in this process? What do I add or take away from the gains achieved since 1844? What can I do to create unity?

It seems my homework to research and write about Worker Cooperative history has created more questions than I started with. I will leave now to ponder them.

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