The Rise of Co-Operation in England.
CHARLES EDWARD RUSSELL, IN EVERYBODY'S MAGAZINE.
Co-operative selling has come to be a strong influence in British commercial life. It has gained a tremendous hold among the working classes. In this article Mr. Russell tells how the idea originated among the flannel-weavers of Rochdale and was the one good result of an otherwise unsuccessful strike.
THE greatest idea in modern English life was evolved by a handful of starving men caught like rats in one of the forlornest spots on earth.
There was a strike in the flannelmills of Rochdale. The English flannel-weaver was, and is, wretchedly underpaid; on what he earns in a month an average family might exist normally perhaps three days. Moreover, he lives under conditions the merest glance at which crushes the most resolute optimism. The long rows of dreary caves, the dirt and squalor, the gloom without and the damp within strike chill to one’s very heart. Even now, after all that has been done for it, even when work is plentiful and the mills buzz, or even in summer when occasionally the sun comes pallidly through the everlasting mists, Rochdale is a red scar across the face of civilization. In 1843, when the great strike sent idle and despairing men drifting through the frightful streets, and darkened the gloom of the November days and the incessant rains, Rochdale must have been perdition. The inhabitants will tell you now that the place is one hundred times better than it was in 1843. Hearing: this and seeing
what it is now, you will marvel much at the persistence of men that stayed to fight their fight in such appalling surroundings, instead of running away.
The strike was for an increase of wages. Flannel-mill owmers were doing prodigiously well in 1843. A great boom was on in flannels; prices soared before the wind of a worldwide demand; the mill owners got rich in a year, sometimes in a month. The weavers, living on scraps, thought the owners ought to share a part of this golden harvest. The owners, not living on scraps, regarded the suggestion as highly unreasonable and calculated to upset the foundations of society and commerce. The weavers were therefore confronted with the universal problem, and in its baldest terms. The mill owners were plainly deriving a share disproportionately large of the returns of the enterprise; the weavers were getting a share disproportionately small. Some men were getting too much of the fruits of the earth and some men too little ; the same old story. To equalize the allotment — that was, as it is, the question. As the weavers’ experience included both ends of advocated remedy—
Force and Self-improvement —it may seem worth noting. Being, like the rest of us, blind, groping creatures late come from the jungle, their first impulse was toward Force. They said they would strike. At this one or two owners relented and said they would consent to a small wage increase if the other owners would do as much. I suppose the complaints must haAAe continued to be acute and the distress severe and not pleasant to see. Anyway, nothing coming of their former overture, the same few owners again proposed that in their establishments a small advance should be made, on the condition that it should be folloAved in all the other mills in the district; otherwise it should be rescinded.
Something about this proposition struck the Lancashire intelligence as intolerable. It was like showing a bone to a starving dog and keeping it out of reach. Of course the wage advance was scorned in the mills where increased wages were regarded as attacks upon the social order, and at last the strike began.
These men had nothing but large families, empty larders, empty pockets, and the grim prospect of defeat. They had entered upon the movement for higher Avages with a compact that those that had work should contribute each twopence a week to a fund for those that should strike. But the slow, dogged resentment of the Aveavers had been aroused ; the strikers were many, the Avorkers were feAV, and the twopenny contributions netted but a paltry sum. MeanAvhile empty stomachs and crying children in the cheerless hovels were the strong battalions on the employers’ side; these rubbed their hands and knew they had but to wait.
Just before the end, a little knot
of the strikers came together one November afternoon, knowing very well that they were beaten, that the owners had triumphed, to talk over a hopeless situation. In this world every idea that amounts to anything has its roots in democracy. Almost every man at that meeting was a Chartist. Now Chartism was the first stirring in England of the democratic spirit. It was, in substance, a demand that the whole people should share in a government up to that time conducted solely by and for the landed classes and nobles.' Vested interests had been properly shocked by Chartism and had put it down Avith becoming severity, partly by representing it as disorderly, anarchistic, revolutionary, vulgar, bad form, un-English, and not countenanced by the better classes; and partly by instigating it to riot, when an efficient police force did the rest. But while Chartism as a movement failed to reform the Government, the spirit of Chartism survived among thousands of its followers, and of the ideas inspired one Avas some notion of regard for the common welfare, one Avas a definite conception of equality, and one Avas the advantages of work for the common good instead of work for selfish advantage. This meeting I am telling you about was soaked with Chartism.
The men sat down seriously to see what they could do. Force had failed, the employers had Avon, strikes helped nothing, solved nothing, gained nothing; so much Avas plain. They had struck because they were getting little, and now they were getting nothing; and meantime they had taken on a weary load of debt. The net result of their effort to better their condition Avas to make it infinitely worse. What then?
“There is no remedy for these
things,” said the Chartists, uuntil you get a Constitution. What working men must do is to agitate for the Charter.7 7 ,
Some teetotalers were in the group, and they brought out their hobby, perennial and groomed for all seasons. What workmen needed was to sign the pledge and lay aside tbe part of their wages they had formerly expended in drink. Inasmuch as none of them was getting any wages, this did not promise much. The prevalent idea was that it seemed impossible for working men to increase their income ; their only chance was to diminish their outgo, and as most of them, with their families, had long been accustomed to live on just enough to keep the breath in their bodies the prospect of their living on any less was not inspiriting. And then someone began to complain about the grasping storekeepers. The storekeepers! That was something—the corner grocery and the mill owner seemed the weaver’s upper and nether millstones; he was crushed between them. How if the weaver could get his supplies without paying the storekeeper’s profit, eh? How if he combined with other weavers and got his supplies at the prices the storekeeper paid, eh?
Thus tfie Chartists were filled with their Idea of the common good, the idea of democracy. The notion of penniless and debt-ridden strikers combining for anything that required capital would have appealed to a race with a sense of humor as merely comic. In the whole meeting that afternoon was not enough money to buy a pound of tea. But some advantages pertain to the temperament without humor. Their enterprise might seem of colossal difficulty: it did not strike the weavers as funny. Hence it was not removed at once
from the range of the possible. Besides, the Chartists, it seems, never laughed at anything, but merely roared day and night for a Constitution. The twopenny strike contribution occurred to some one as a feasible basis of funds. If men could give twopence a week to help a stiike, they could give twopence a week to better their condition. Twopence a week would amount to something—if you went on piling them up long enough. So twenty-eight weavers, most of them Chartists or Teetotalers, formed a body with the resounding title of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, and undertook, in a groping way, to see what could be done with twopence a week from each. A treasurer was appointed to collect and care for all this capital, and when enough had accumulated they were to see if they could not buy a little tea and salt fish and jam—on which national dainties they were nourished—at wholesale prices, and thus save money.
They went back to work, the twenty-eight with the rest of the beaten army of Force, and took the small wage and the hard defeat and turned in their twopence a week and waited. In December, 1844, they found they were in possession of the magnificent sum of £28 ($140), and were embarrassed to know what to do with it. In a Rochdale street that bore the inauspicious name of Toad Lane they found what was described as the most dismal barracks in the dismal town, an ancient warehouse of ill-favored aspect. Therein they rented a ground floor room at the rate of $50 a year, and when this I ad been fitted up with some rude shelving, they had £14 ($70) left to buy stock.
A little flour, a little butter, some sugar and some oatmeal, that was all
they had to do business with, the beg-
gars. Â scornful tradesman in their own line subsequently announced, Avithout much exaggeration, that he could go down there Avitii a wheelbarrow and carry off their entire stock. They Avere to open the shop on the night of December 21st. When the time came they were afraid to take doAvn the shutters. They looked over the poor little pile of things and the feeble lamp, and felt as women feel when they are about to faint. Their hearts failed them: it seemed so utterly lunatic to invite the public to come and inspect two sacks of flour and a handful of oatmeal. It is recorded that they stood about “hafflin’,” as Robert Burns hath it, Joseph Smith trying to get Samuel Ashworth to go out and take doAvn the shutters, and Ashworth nominating William Cooper, or something like that. What added to the terrors of the situation, the street gamins (of Avhom Rochdale had, and has, no lack) were AA7aiting on the outside for a chance to exhibit the acrid wit that, world around, is the symbol of their kind, and a crowd of unsympathetic neighbors stood on the curb ready to jeer. No one knew better than the Equitable Pioneers that there Avas occasion enough for jeering; but at last one of them dashed at it, head down, tore off the shutters, and the thing AATas done.
I suppose it was not so awful, after all, the phalanx of gamins and neighbors. Anyway, the stock Avas sold, more was bought and sold in its turn, and by slowest degrees it dawned upon Toad Lane and environs that the Equitable Pioneers had an idea. At first the Business of the wretched little place was no more than enough to keep it open for a short time on tAvo evenings of the Aveek. Presently it must be kept open three nights, then four, and then five. As fast as the profits
accrued they were added to the microscopic capital, and the stock was enlarged. In the store the Equitable Pioneers Avorked for nothing; hence there was no clerk hire. They were fired Avitli the zeal of propagandists; hence they were never Aveary in the cause. And, finally, they had something at stake besides profits; hence they were bent on bringing in all their neighbors to share the good thing.
Before they kneAv whether their $70 Avortli of flour and oatmeal would not be closed out by the sheriff, they had adopted a code of most solemn rules of business. I told you in the beginning that a sense of humor would have been fatal to the enterprise. Among the ideals to Avhich these business men without business bound themselves were to sell always for cash, not to run into debt, to buy pure goods of the best quality, to set their faces resolutely against adulteration or trickery, to sell at current market rates, and, above all, to oppose the competitive theory of business. They would not enter into competition with any one. They regarded competition as immoral and the great source of the Avorld’s evil, the baleful seed from which came great fortunes and great poverty. Strange, strange people, as you shall see. Finally, they determined to devote a certain percentage of all profits to education.
The attraction for buyers at the little Toad Lane store was not the cheapened first cost of the articles sold there, but something very different. Sales were made at current prices, but every purchaser received a metal tag representing the amount of the purchase, and the promise Avas held out that when the store Avas adequately equipped, these tags would be redeemed with g proportionate share in the profits. In other
words, the store was to be like other stores except that the profits were to go to the purchasers instead of to the storekeeper. The power of this idea was much more tremendous than you would guess. For the first time the patient slave housewives of Toad Lane laid hold of the concept of hope. Every time they bought a pound of flour at the place called in the barbarous dialect of the region “The Owd Weavyurs’ Shop,” they laid by a brass tag that would some day be money. They had never before been able to save a cent; their whole weary struggle had been to make the scanty income spread wide enough to keep the family alive. They had never expected nor dreamed of anything else. And now without their volition, for the first time they had something to look forward to.
Only, to get the benefits of ‘1 The Owd Weavyurs’ Shop” one must join the “Society of Equitable Pioneers” and sign the rules and take out some of the capital stock, to wit, not less than £1 thereof. But this, after paving the trifling initiation fee, could be paid for in Rochdale fashion, with twopence a week ; and meantime all the advantages accrued. The Equitable ship slowly gathered headway. In March 1845, tea and tobacco were added to the stock. At the close of the year there were more than eighty members, the capital stock had grown to $905, and the weekly receipts for goods averaged more than $150. In a few more months the store was ordered to be kept open on Saturday afternoons as well as the five nights, and butcher’s meat was added to the things dealt in.
The boom in the flannel business came to an end, hard times fell upon the Rochdale district, the local savings bank failed with all its de-
posits, and the membership of the Pioneers rapidly increased, for by this time it appeared certain that they alone had hit upon the only plan that provided any security against adversity. The society took a lease of the whole barracks in Toad Lane, three floors and an attic, enlarged its trade, gradually absorbed in its lists the working population, hired clerks, began to deal in whatever its subscribers wished to buy, and spread the foundation of a great business. It had become an institution. In 1850 it had 600 members. In 1857 it had 1,850 and sold $400,000 worth of goods. But by that time its success was acknowledged everywhere, in other towns the like societies were forming, and co-operation was successfully launched.
Not without enough of trouble. The vested interests took alarm, and Parliament after Parliament was petitioned to stop the thing. The ponderous remarks of the grave statesmen of the day that plainly foresaw how co-operation meant national ruin ought to teach us all the true value of statesmanship. Farther, the blunt democracy of the thing alarmed many uneasy souls; it wa> a kind of Chartism. And incessantly the local shopkeepers fought the new idea. They fight it yet, by the way. Within six months the Government had defeated an attempt to wreck co-operation by steering it against the British income tax. But the commonest attack was by underselling the co-operative stores. The managers of the stores invariably remained true to the principles announced by the “Equitable Pioneers” and adopted everywhere by their imitators. They were warring against the competitive idea; they would not be led into competition. They never reduced the price of any
article to meet any cut made by another dealer. They never resorted to any device to gain trade, and never attempted to secure a penny of illegitimate profit. Their first object was to improve the condition of their members, not to sell goods nor to pile up profits; and price-cutting by their rivals they looked upon with a bland and amiable indifference very beautiful to see. Co-operation, by the way, seems to be an amiable business. No one seems to get angry about it, nor flurried nor worried. I would not be too sanguine, but after knocking about a great many co-operative stores, wholesale and retail, I was obliged to admit that the people in them seem to find life comfortable and human. It seems rather foolish and somewhat Utopian, but other persons have noted the same thing; there must be something in it. Clerks in English co-operative stores are not surly nor indifferent nor cross nor tired. They have short
hours, they have a share in the profits, mostly they are members of the society, and have a childlike faith in co-operation as a kind of religion. Strange people, as I said before. There are among them astonishingly good talkers about co-operation and * conditions. I know one of them that goes out almost every night and lectures on these subjects. For nothing, the foolish young person. He sells groceries in the daytime.
There are no strikes in co-operative stores and co-operative factories, no lockouts, no walking delegates, no disputes between labor and capital, no rows, no riots, no police, no militia, no appeals to the governor, no arbitration boards. Whatever a co-operative society is to do is determined by all its members in a meeting in which all have a vote and an equal right to be heard. There is no other business enterprise that has grown so rapidly and so peacefully.