This blog is by MA student Benjamin Walker

A 'Worker' co-op is a different model to a consumer retail society which has open membership - worker co-ops are run directly by the employees, which means joining one is subject to limits.

Co-operating values the collective over the single, but the history of co-operatives is littered with the indispensable contributions of vital individuals. Over the course of my placement I had the opportunity through the archive, to become more familiar with one of the most incredible recent co-operators, Roger Sawtell, who was awarded the Co-operative UK inaugural lifetime award in 2019.

Roger Sawtell Material before re-housing and cataloguing c. 2017

Roger Sawtell was born in Sheffield and won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study mechanical sciences. After graduating in 1948, he progressed in his career, working as an engineer at the Sheffield steel company, Spear and Jackson. After 16 years of climbing the ranks, he was offered the role of managing director. However, due to differences in opinion about how the business should be run, he turned the role down. Roger wanted the company to be more egalitarian and participative, guided by his personal beliefs of progressive Christian faith and an impactful meeting with renowned economist E.F Schumacher. In the following years, Roger went on to do a commissioned survey for the Industrial Society in 1967, focusing on companies which were working in participative ways, thus starting his life's work of dedication to co-operatives and worker-owned industries. 

During this time Roger was also a central player in the foundation of crucial, centralized co-operative administrative and financial support organizations called ICOM (Industrial Common Ownership Movement) and ICOF (Industrial Common Ownership Finance).

Cover of the Guide to Model Rules, RSP, Co-operative Heritage Trust

As Roger looked for a more participatory state of work, he found himself in touch with co-operative people, at which point he realized that what he was trying to achieve in a way, in a way re-inventing the wheel, as he discovered the history of the co-op movement, with an emphasis on the Christian Socialists. Despite the established traditions, he found himself in a time where this was having less impact. In the 1970's employee ownership was growing and needed something to centralize and formally support them outside of traditional consumer retail with a lobbying identity.

Thus, from this need, I.C.O.M (Industrial Common Ownership Movement) was born, with Roger Sawtell as a central figure in its inception. Upon becoming more familiar with the history, he was keen to find some guidance on the structure of worker-owned industrial practice. The rules he found were complex and long winded, upon investigation, he found that they had been constantly added to but never subtracted from. It inspired him to write the model rules for starting and maintaining a 'worker co-op'.

These rules, he modestly cited as his most successful contribution to the movement, with over 1000 new co-ops registering between the 70's and 80's. Roger found his skills in constant demand as the worker co-op movement was brimming with idealists, but few had economic or industrial experience. Thus, his expertise in the practicalities of communications, business and commerce were necessary as a foundation of support for modern co-operative working.

Daily Bread Flyer, RSP, Co-operative Heritage Trust
Immediately following this venture - Roger was keen to try out the ICOM rules in a real life context to see if they were fit for purpose. Through discussions with a progressive church group, they formed 'Daily Bread' to sell wholefoods and vegetarian products. It allowed revisions to be made and guidebooks to be developed.

Cover of Daily Bread 25th anniversary pamphlet, 2005, RSP, Co-operative Heritage Trust

While a commercial business, it was important to the members that 'Daily Bread' had social objectives as well as financial ones. It was set up in the old laundry of a psychiatric hospital in Northampton, offered at very low rent to establish themselves, in return for taking on people coming out of hospital after treatment for mental health conditions - they have been doing this for 40 years. While only intended as a test, Roger himself worked at Daily Bread full time until 1987 and then part time, later as a Trustee and fully retired in 1997 to work developing co-ops around the country.

In October 2017, the National Co-operative Archive published a call-out for historic materials within the wider workers' co-operative community for 'Working Together', a Heritage Lottery Funded project seeking to record and preserve the heritage of the workers' co-operative movement. This is an important area of collection for the future.