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A different model

In Michael Green’s latest Overland essay, ‘The Cooperation’, he introduces us to Ruth and Ken Covington, two of the 144 factory workers who lost their jobs at Heinz last May. The Heinz lay-offs were just the latest incident in the long series of mass job cutting in the manufacturing sector in Australia.

After they received the news of their lay-offs, rather than just licking their wounds, Heinz workers instead began to imagine an alternative reality to that which they were experiencing, one in which they were not vulnerable to the reckless actions of multinationals. What would it mean, they wondered, if they took control of the factory themselves, perhaps to create a cooperative?

This is where Green’s story begins. We catch up with him to chat about how he became involved in the project and to talk about this radical, subversive C word.

1) Your article introduces us to ex-workers from the Goulburn Valley Heinz Factory and their project to begin the Goulburn Valley Food Cooperative.  Tell us a little bit about the project, where it’s at now, and how you first became interested in it.

The cooperative formed last year in the months after Heinz announced it would close its tomato sauce factory in Girgarre. Some of the workers, along with locals and interested outsiders, started a committee and began to sift through their options. They’ve now bought some industrial land in Kyabram nearby and they’re planning to build a factory on that site. They’re aiming to start production, using local fruit and veggies from farmers (who’ll also be part of the co-op), in the first half of next year.

I’d read about Argentine workers taking over abandoned factories after the economic collapse in the early 2000s. When I heard the Heinz factory was closing and the workers were interested in buying the site from the leaving multinational, I wanted to know more.

2) Could you give readers a little bit of context to understand the latest Heinz factory lay-offs? What is going on in today’s political/economic climate that’s causing lay-offs right now?

In recent years several food-processing businesses have closed or merged their Australian operations. At the time Heinz announced the Girgarre closure, they also cut jobs at two other Australian plants. They’re expanding their operations in New Zealand instead. The changes happening in Australian food manufacturing are part of a long-term trend in many different manufacturing industries – increased competition from imports, made cheaper and more accessible by lower trade barriers, and lately, a particularly high Aussie dollar.

Food manufacturers are under extra pressure because of the dominance of the two supermarket chains, which set very low prices for their house brand goods, many of which are imported. The Age recently published a great series of articles covering many of these issues, called The Future of Food.

Many of the people I spoke to in the Goulburn Valley feel like both farming and local manufacturing – the two industries for which the region was renowned – are in serious decline. That being said, official unemployment figures in haven’t risen significantly, so I hope that those who’ve been laid-off have found enough work elsewhere. Those figures don’t account for underemployment, though.

3) Why is it important for Australian food security to have its own strong manufacturing sector?

 Food security is a complex issue – it’s a whole different story, and it’s not one I cover in this piece. The idea of food security is used to justify the full range of progressive and conservative views, from small-scale regenerative agriculture and social justice, to industrial monoculture and xenophobia.

 Nevertheless, the idea of food sovereignty – that a nation, or perhaps a community, should make sure it’s got the capacity to feed itself, if need be – seems prudent to explore. Given that Australia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and that we’re entering a world of energy, water and resource scarcity, we can’t assume that our current patterns of food production and consumption will be possible as the years go on.

 As for manufacturing, I’m not persuaded that having a tomato sauce factory is crucial for food sovereignty. But the ability to preserve fresh produce is. And if those factories are owned by local communities and workers, then more of the dollars spent will circulate through the local economy. There’s certainly evidence that cooperatives are more resilient in economic downturns, because unlike corporations they’re not obliged to only follow the bottom line. The Mondragon Cooperatives seem to be coping well with the Spanish recession.

4) Many young activists are familiar with the idea of cooperatives but it seems they are most often associated with the radical politics of Latin America not the politics of farmers in country Australia.  I was surprised to read in your article about the unique history of functioning cooperatives right here in Australia. Could you tell us a little bit about that history.

 Australia’s first consumer cooperative – the Brisbane Cooperative Society – formed in 1859, before Queensland separated from New South Wales. The earliest agricultural cooperatives formed a couple of decades later, and many of this kind are still around today. After the Second World War there was a boom in credit unions and building societies, as householders looked for sources of consumer credit. These cooperatives don’t necessarily involve any radical politics, but by their nature, they do represent a more egalitarian approach, in which the ownership and decision-making can’t become concentrated in the hands of the few.

 If anyone’s interested in the story of coops and credit unions in Australia, they should track down the work of historian Gary Lewis. He’s the person who’s done the most research on the subject, including a big book called The Democracy Principle: Farmer Cooperatives in Twentieth Century Australia.

5) In your research for the piece, you discover that the idea of cooperatives has almost vanished from public debate. The peak of interest in them was from 1930-33 in the great depression.  Since the Global Financial Crisis, there is clearly a desire by people for an alternative to conventional business, but it’s hard for many to know what that alternative might look like. Could the cooperative be a part of that solution?

I think one of the problems after the financial crisis has been that the debate hasn’t moved on from the critique to the alternatives. Politicians and commentators observed that the system was broken, and then supported policies aimed to prop it up a little longer.

 Although some radicals argue that worker cooperatives in a capitalist system are a kind of self-exploitation, it seems to me that they’re a creative and worthwhile response to the situation we’re in. Whether through economic decline or environmental pressures, we’re facing a time of greater scarcity. And that means we’re going to have to learn to work together, in lots of different ways.

 Cooperatives are powerful because – as is the case in the Goulburn Valley – they can unite unlikely people and establish trust between them. They’re a different model for creating and distributing wealth and work, and they already exist, here and now.

 The Earthworker Cooperative is one to follow. They’re aiming to start worker coops to manufacture renewable energy systems, such as solar hot water and wind turbines. Their first project is called Eureka’s Future Workers Cooperative, and once it gets going, it’ll operate from Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley – the buckle of the brown coal belt. That’s inspiring. It’s radical and sustainable, and demonstrates an alternative in the place that needs it most.

6) What are the biggest challenges to starting cooperatives? You talk about a recent Australian legislative reform that will make it easier for cooperatives to register, trade and report. What’s the story behind that?

 You can register a corporation in a day, but it takes months to start a cooperative. That’s a serious disincentive. Also, the reporting obligations for small cooperatives are very onerous, and larger ones have to register separately in every state, if they want to trade across borders.

 All these things will become much easier by next May, when the states and territories bring in the standardised Cooperatives National Law, which includes simplified model rules. The reform has been led by New South Wales, and it’s been underway since 2007.

7) There are a lot of Australians interested in economic justice and food security, but it seems that often that energy is channeled into international causes. This is a great project that is extremely local. What can people do who want to learn more and support the project?

 The Goulburn Valley Food Cooperative is open for membership. It costs $50 – and they’re aiming for up to one million members. They’re also looking for people who’ll buy their products, and I’m sure they’re open to volunteers, especially among people who live in the region.

 If you’re interested in co-ops in general, look up the International Year of the Co-operative website, or the Australian version.

 If you want to support local farmers, then buy from your local food co-operative. They’re all around. You can find lots of food sources outside the supermarkets at the Local Harvest website.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Bec Zajac is Overland’s publicity officer. She is also a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at 3CR community radio. She has published in Overland, New Matilda, Brooklyn Rail and The Age.

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