In this short essay from our latest newsletter, Redgum member Ella Ryan reflects on what it’s meant to her to be part of building and working in our co-operative.
As 2018 draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting a lot on our coop’s growth this year and everything we’ve
achieved. I’ve found one of the great things about last year has been combining my work with my
activism. For most of my 20s, I found the disconnect between my work and activism quite jarring. I always
struggled to be my rather radical self in my past workplaces without feeling alienated or
To help understand just how important Redgum has been for its members, it’s important to distinguish
between a worker cooperative and a consumer co-operative like a food or housing coop. This isn’t a
side project for us. The work we have created through the co-op now provides most members with their
main source of income. We are running a small business, but unlike most small businesses, there are
five of us who share equal ownership and responsibility – we share decision making, we control
our means of production. We now also have three additional worker-members-in-training, totalling
eight of us altogether.
Our main goal is to create stable, secure and dignified work, in a way that minimises harm to our
environment and maximises community cohesion. If you could measure success just by the pay check, then
Redgum has been a success so far for its members. I recently stumbled upon my first ever payslip back in
February last year, which totalled $72 for the fortnight. This fortnight, I will earn about $1000. But Redgum is
not just about the work itself or the money. It is a political project as much as anything else. We are
under no illusions that co-ops will save the world from the merciless capitalists. For that, we’re gonna need a
whole lot more gumption than what we’ve got in our cleaning kit. But we do firmly believe that worker
owned co-ops are one way forward through all this mess. While we hurtle headfirst into climate chaos, the
people’s revolt slowly brews, and we want real democratic structures in place for when it takes off.
Marx sums it up nicely:
“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured
within the framework of the old society.
Mankind [sic] thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer
examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the
material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of
~ Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy
Whether you want to call what we eventually create communism, socialism, anarchism or a new -ism, we know that worker-controlled co-operatives will play an important role in the new, more socially and environmentally just world. The operative word in all of this being co-operation – the antithesis to capitalism’s competition catch-cry. Our work is about slowly but surely changing people’s mindsets about the nature of work, as well challenging the assumption that profit should drive all business
decisions. I can’t tell you how many countless conversations I’ve had this year with friends, family and random people I meet about Redgum and how it operates. They usually go something like this:
“So…how does it work? Do you all own the business
“Yep…we members all own equal shares in the
“…so you have no boss?
“…so do you make money from it?”
“Our wages are decent, unlike most other cleaners,
and that’s how we meet our needs”
“Yeh, but what about like a profit?
“Well we can make a surplus and then we all decide
what to do with that surplus. In a traditional small
business, the owner would take that surplus, or for a
company the CEO would get a fat pay rise and the
shareholders would get dividends.”
The profit mantra is so deeply ingrained, that sometimes it takes a real world, close-to-home example like Redgum for people (including myself) to see that there are other ways of organising workplaces that are much more effective at providing dignity and quality of life to workers (and a superior product!).
The other thing some people struggle to get their heads around is our non-hierarchical way of organising. We don’t have a boss and we make most decisions together. We share responsibility and divide up tasks. This means we have more say in
how and when we do our work. For example, we make our own roster, we decide which clients to clients to take on, what products to use and how to spend money.
It is an understatement to say last year has a big learning curve for me. We’ve made a bunch of mistakes, small and large. We’ve had issues with unsustainable workloads, injuries and a collective lack of business skills, but we’re learning from our
mistakes and we’re working together towards solutions. When I look back on everything I’ve learnt this year, my mind boggles. No wonder I’m always tired. Despite this, I feel so bloody grateful that I get to work with such amazing comrades, colleagues and cleaners.