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 c2017

In the Beginning

Roger Sawtell was born in Sheffield, and won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge to study mechanical sciences. After graduating in 1948 he progressed early in his career, working as an engineer at Sheffield based steel company Spear & Jackson. After 16 years of climbing the ranks, he was offered the role of managing director. However, due to differences in opinions in how the business should be run, he turned this role down. Roger wanted the company to be more egalitarian and participative, guided both by his personal beliefs of progressive Christian faith and an impactful meeting with renowned economist EF Schumacher. In the following years, Roger went on to do a commissioned survey for the Industrial Society in 1967, focusing on companies that were working in unusual 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).

ICOM + The Creation of The Model Rules

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 what he was attempting to create was in a way trying to reinvent the wheel, as he discovered the history of the co-operative movement, with an emphasis on the Christian Socialists. Despite the established traditions he found, he found himself in a time where the co-operative movement had less impact. In the 1970s, employee ownership was becoming a little more known and growing, and needed something centralized to formally support the co-operative movement outside of traditional consumer retail and to create a recognisable lobbying identity. Thus, from this need, ICOM (Industrial Common Ownership Movement) was born, with Roger Sawtell as a central figure in its inception.

Upon becoming more familiar with the history and foundations of the co-operative movement, 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. This inspired him to write the model rules, which described a formula and structure of starting and maintaining a worker co-op organization. These Model Rules are what he modestly cited as his most useful contribution to the movement, while many would say that it is one of the most significant contributions in the history of the worker co-op movement. These model rules had an unimaginable impact, with over a thousand worker co-ops registering over the 1970's and 80's. 

Roger found his skills in desperate demand, as the worker co-op movement was brimming with idealists, himself included, but with few of them coming from industrial or economic experience. Thus, his expertise in the practicalities of communication,  business and commerce were necessary in the foundation of supporting the growth of modern co-operative working.

Daily Bread

Daily Bread Flyer, RSP, Co-operative Heritage Trust

Immediately following this venture, Roger was keen to try out the ICOM Model Rules within a real life context to see if they were fit for purpose. Through discussion with his close progressive church group, they formed Daily Bread Co-operative, selling wholefoods and vegetarian products. This early co-operative allowed for revisions to the model rules to be made and guidebooks to these rules to be formulated.

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

While being a commercial business, it was important to the members that Daily Bread pursued social objectives as well as financial ones, as a part of Christian duty, which focused around their work with mental illness. Daily Bread was set up in the old laundry of one of the psychiatry hospitals in Northampton, as they were offered a very low rent for the start of their business so they could establish themselves, in return for taking on 1 or 2 people who were out of hospital but needed some rehabilitation in order to get back to their ordinary working habits. Daily Bread have now been doing that for the best part of 40 years.

While only intended as a test of sorts, Roger stayed at Daily Bread, full time until 1987, then for a few more years part time and finally served as a Trustee. In 1997 he fully retired from the business but continued to do development work up and down the country with co-operatives. Daily Bread continues to thrive and survive today, owned and run entirely by their workforce.

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 material was deposited in response to this call out. Other Worker Co-op collections can be found on our catalogue.