Social dialogue at the Phone Co-op

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Social dialogue at the Phone Co-op

The Phone Co-operative was set up in 1988 in the UK as a consumer-owned co-operative offering telecommunication services. This was a mutation from the previously established Social Economy Telecommunications Consortium (SETCO) which started by serving organisations in the social economy rather than individual customers.

The co-operative, which is based in the small town of Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, now has 25,000 customers, of whom over 10,000 are members (with an average shareholding of £403/€484). It has 63 employees, 45 of whom are full-time. It turned over £10.6 million (€12.7m) in its most recent trading year.

It has very progressive policies on corporate social and environmental responsibility. In 2012-13 it made a record profit before distributions of £555,000 (€666,000), which the board proposes (subject to AGM approval) to split evenly between two uses. The first is a 2.5% dividend to members on eligible sales and the second is a sum of £90,750 (€109,000) to its Co-operative and Social Economy Development Fund, which invests in, and makes grants to, new and growing co-operatives. The co-operative generates a considerable amount of its own solar power.

The Phone Co-operative has its own branch of NACO, the National Association of Co-operative Officials, to which about half the workforce belong. Membership of the union is well-balanced across gender, age and position within the co-operative. The branch organises discussion sessions and social events, and receives a share of members’ subscriptions from headquarters. One innovative action it has taken is to influence NACO’s national policy on the preferential issues of the use of public transport for official business.

Its main function is to represent employees in those rare instances where a dispute arises with the employer. In most cases intervention is riven by the employer in accordance with its disciplinary and grievance procedures, and conflict are predominantly among employees, rather than between employer and management.

In order to create a trade union branch, the co-operative interviewed three trade unions to select the most suitable: the Union of Communications Workers (UCW), NACO and Community. It chose NACO, as it understood the co-operative movement, offered better support from full-time officials, and was overall a good fit in terms of shared values. The national official of NACO has also been elected to the co-operative’s board, but keeps the two roles strictly separate, and distances himself from discussions where the two roles could conflict.

The co-operative and the union signed a partnership agreement in 2009. Although its history is as a union for managers in co-operatives, it does also operate in workplaces where it represents workers of all types. The Phone Co-op has its own agreement with the union, and it not part of the national agreement. In practice it probably pays over the going rate at the lower end of the scale but under the going rate for higher-paid workers – and this is something NACO can understand and work with. The agreement does not follow a pre-ordained format, but was negotiated over a period of a year. It is innovative insofar as it talks about “working together”.

In the co-operative’s view, it would be a good thing if the trade union movement broadly addressed the issue of the provision of public services through social enterprises in a more strategic and positive way.

Source: Vivian Woodell, CEO, Phone Co-operative


Source: final report of the MESMER project: