Strategy Paper Three: Cooperatives and the Case of SLB Barcelona

There must me be something in the water in Barcelona, in our first strategy paper we mentioned the excellent work of Barcelona TEFL Teachers’ Association, in this paper we want to look at the positive work being a carried out by a (relatively) new ELT Teacher Cooperative (SLB – Serveis Linguistics de Barcelona) in the same city. We do, however, want to look at the larger issue of cooperatives and the possibilities and limitations which such forms offer teachers looking to find alternative ways of exercising their trade.

Marxism and Cooperatives

Marx himself can generally seem to be positive towards the idea of workers’ cooperatives:

But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially of the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold ‘hands’. The value of these great social experiments cannot be over-rated. By deed, instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behest of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolised as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. (Marx, 1864)

However, there is generally a suspicion on the part of Marxists towards cooperatives as a form of self-imposed capitalism (democratised exploitation) in a market economy. Indeed some argue cooperatives are a distraction from the struggle.

We do not want to disappear too far into Marxist exegesis but feel it is worthwhile pointing out some key differences between the Anarchist Proudhon and Marx. It is wholly understandable that Proudhon would develop a different view of the remedies towards inequality when looking at the problem from a different reality to Marx. Proudhon saw capitalism via the trade workshops in mid-nineteenth century France where not surprisingly the cost of selling the products were at extreme odds with the wages paid in the workshop. The basis of this was “private property” and the power which that private property (the ownership of the workshop) gave its owners to command the workers and live off their labour. Proudhon’s solution was therefore the abolition of private property, the paying of workers the actual value of their labour (a somewhat contentious phrase) and a network of cooperatives trading their goods on the market.

For Marx, however, he was looking more closely at the growth of the new factory system in Manchester which did not resemble that of the previous workshops. What was interesting internally were the changes this new system brought about, particularly a growing division between mental and labour labour, the increased division in labour of particular tasks, and the growth in supervision of those tasks.

It is important therefore to distinguish between private property as a means to exploit workers and private property as the driver of this this exploitation. Indeed, Marx was keen to point out that it was the regime of capital accumulation, the competition between capitals which led to this intensification of exploitation in the factory system and, therefore, was dismissive of Proudhon’s cooperatives trading on the market (without formal bosses); as exploitation was rooted in both the anarchic market competition over profit rates and the equal need to quantify effort and contribution solely in terms of labour hours expended.

Now, from an extreme and hypothetical perspective, we can imagine a small teachers’ cooperative cutting their own hourly rate in order to compete with a small academy for a contract to teach English File to a group of low-paid hotel workers, the hotel workers giving up their personal time for fear of management retribution should they not show an interest (even though some of them – working in the maintenance or cleaning department- do not actually use English much in their job). We could also add that the same coop teachers might have agreed to provide extra on-line materials, at their own expense in order to secure the same contract, and maybe even have decided to exclude a fellow coop member from participating as their ill health may jeopardise the smooth completion and desired customer satisfaction they require should the contract be renewed. We might properly ask, what is the advantage of being in such a coop, other than democratising our own self-exploitation and ensuring a third party owner does not benefit from our labour. Indeed, the third party owner of an academy (through certain skills, contacts and reputation) could be offering better working conditions to their teachers.

SLB, A Progressive Coop rooted in improving teaching and teachers’ working conditions

Although we cannot claim an intimate knowledge of the workings of this particular coop, it does appear that they are far from the hypothetical example quoted above. Indeed, they have demonstrated a clear record supporting teachers as workers, promoting trade union membership and campaigning against discrimination of Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (Non-NESTs). Despite being a cooperative of freelance language teachers, teacher trainers, material writers and translators (we are not sure of their size) they do no not see them themselves as a panacea for all the problems of teachers and recognise that teachers work in a variety of settings (i.e., non-freelance) and need protection and support tailored to those contexts. It appears they recently ran a workshop for teachers in Barcelona on the regulations covering workers in the sector even though we suspect, as freelance, they are not covered by the same employment guidelines. This is all highly commendable and we can see that solidarity is at the heart of their approach.

Moreover, the cooperative does not only seek to improve working conditions but is clearly committed to promoting, through its lively podcasts and training programmes, a radically different teaching methodology which suits students better and improves the teaching experience of the teaching practitioner. Again, this is highly commendable.

Some areas of comradely concern

We urge readers to listen to the cooperative’s podcasts, they really are extremely interesting and relevant. However, there is a clear conflict between equipping teachers with a new methodology and their own needs to earn a living as materials and course writers by offering an online course to teachers. This not a moral failing but a harsh reality. And we think, “coop guru”, Geoff Jordan (who, incidentally for his lucid writing style, passion for teaching and practical approach, is not a bad guru to have) should bear this in mind before criticising others like Marek Kiczkowiak for doing the same on his TEFL Equity Advocates blog. We have not tried the online course SLB are selling but it seems a very well-supported (academically) course and a welcome relief from the usual ELT fare, but 500 Euros seems rather expensive for low paid teachers and especially, given that in a quite magnificent interview with tutor and Second Language Theorist Mike Long on Podcast 3, the course providers confess to there being very little institutional support to put such ideas into practice. This is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, only to highlight the weakness of attempting to promote change through individualistic initiatives lacking wider institutional support networks which would make such actions relevant.

Rebuilding the House From the Inside

The late great great István Mészáros perhaps put it best in his analogy of “the house” and the problems of transition:

As in the case of Goethe’s father (even if for very different reasons), it is not possible to pull down the existing building and erect a wholly new edifice in its place on totally new foundations. Life must go on in the shored-up house during the entire course of rebuilding, “taking away one storey after another from the bottom upwards, slipping in the new structure, so that in the end none of the old house should be left.” Indeed, the task is even more difficult than that. For the decaying timber frame of the building must be also replaced in the course of extricating humankind from the perilous structural framework of the capital system.

In many ways we can see how this cooperative is attempting to build a new ELT inside the old. In that sense, the cooperative is a great example of Marx’s: “The value of these great social experiments cannot be over-rated”. However, as per Mészáros, we do need to attend to “the rotting timber” and not deceive ourselves that such timber is salvageable. We say this in relation to a bright and entertaining discussion of our own piece (“The meaning of Scott Thornbury”) on the cooperative’s second podcast. We believe the presenter and Geoff Jordan, were being far too soft on the phenomenon which is Scott Thornbury. We were particularly concerned to hear Geoff Jordan argue that now Scott Thornbury (the person) had “made it”, he should be more critical of the institutions via which he had become a success (indeed by all evidence Scott Thornbury is being just so). This is almost like Bill Gates donating his fortune to charity or the “philanthropic” work of George Soros. The issue is that the phenomenon (the reception and impact) of Scott Thornbury is about individualism (sometimes referred to as a network of individuals but nothing approaching a true collective), the self as entrepreneur, climbing hierarchies to achieve status and material comfort through the entertaining quality of their speeches and books. Thornbury the phenomenon can appear both “radical” and successful but it is ultimately about “making it”. This is indeed a comfortable warm vision for liberals who do not want to think of those that don’t “make it” or the obstacles put before others (maybe they couldn’t afford a Masters – neither having the time nor the fees).

No, we have to build the new house from below, thinking of students who can’t currently afford classes, the way English teaching legitimises and spreads inequality, the rank of file teachers trying their best to meet student needs, it is from this base we must rebuild the house and not put our faith in reading one more book by one more expert or doing one more course to put on our CV.

In conclusion

The fourth podcast by SLB is an interview with the incomparable Paul Walsh concerning his work on precarity in ELT. Again, we urge readers to listen (and we hope ourselves to add to the discussion on this particular topic at a later date). However, the podcast ends with a survey (conducted by coop members) into working conditions of English teachers in Barcelona (repeating a similar and excellent similar initiative undertaken by the TEFL Workers Union in London). Provided they maintain this focus, the SLB will continue to be a shining light in the world of ELT, attempting to find practical solutions to the everyday lives of teachers and bringthat about permanent change. Let’s hope they keep up the good work.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Strategy Paper Three: Cooperatives and the Case of SLB Barcelona

  1. Neil McMillan

    Thank you for supporting our cooperative with this post. I am glad you recognise the type of co-op we are trying to be, and as for the ‘comradely concern’, your points are fair and well taken. I’d just like to respond to a couple of them if I may.

    I agree that 500€ is a lot for low-paid teachers to fork out for our TBLT course and that this is a contradiction in terms of our campaign to support teachers forced into precarious work by the industry. (At the same time, the price is calculated so we can pay our trainers and course designers the fair rates we advocate for others.) The model of TBLT that we promote on the course is not one we expect low-paid teachers to implement by themselves, however. Our course is aimed more at those in a position to effect change at an institutional level (if not now then in the future), and we expect institutions to fund it. The knock-on effect for chalkface teachers, we hope, is that institutions will supply the right (paid) CPD and preparation time to make the introduction of TBLT a workable reality. I entirely accept that this is largely a top-down way of looking at things.

    On the other hand, we do see a lot of ordinary Ts who want to do something with TBLT, often against the grain of the institutions they work for—indeed some of them scrape the money together to do our course as it stands, and we try to give them the tools they need to effect change by themselves. But we recognise that this move from below needs to be supported more. We are therefore looking to offer a more accessible/affordable version of our course next year. We are also building a bank of TBLT materials which will be available for free, open to collaboration, and which we hope will be a vital support to ‘the rank and file teachers trying their best to meet student needs’, as you put it.

    On the topic of Scott Thornbury, we have invited him on to our podcast in the hope we can have a productive dialogue about some of the contradictions you mention, and he has agreed in principle. We’d also like to extend an invitation to one or more of your group to appear on a future episode. If you are interested, please send us a message via our contact page and we can take it from there. https://www.slb.coop/contact-us/

    Thanks again and I hope we can collaborate in the future.

    • Thank you for your comments and it is our pleasure to share your exciting initiative with others.
      On the issue of the course your coop offer, we recognise that it takes time to create and run a course and this time could be spent doing something else and, therefore, it is difficult to offer it free or at very low cost. However, decommodification is our goal. This is not a unique problem for the cooperative but for all of us who work on solidarity intitiatives. Even if we were to offer many things free it would probably mean partipating in rather dodgy commercial projects which free us up financially (ie pay the rent/buy food) to offer such time. This is a difficult area to navigate and it is clear your organisation remain focussed and aware of these issues (that said the first podcast does come over to us as a bit hard sell without the necessary qualifications). It was only right that we raised this issue, but we really don’t expect any simple magical solution to the problems you face.
      On Scott Thornbury, we really think he has little to explain apart from this CELTA book (which does appear rather contradictory to other pronouncements). We have found that when he is challenged by us over “burning books” or Nicola Prentis over female representation, he can quickly reformulate and change his position. Indeed, he is probably the most outspoken ELT leadlighting now on the issue of trade union representation (well done Scott Thornbury). The problem is that the “phenomenon of Scott Thornbury” is the creation of the ELT industry and us as a community of teachers. If he is superficial and “fake-radical” it is because we have allowed him to be, we have done little to challenge him because we live in a TED talk world of superficial ignorance (style over content / easily digestible ideas). As said, if pushed, Scott Thornbury can be a much better version of himself. However, such a version may not be as attractive to the new “would be Scott Thornburys” (too much hard work and personal risk).
      And I suppose what this is all about is mimickry!! We sincerely hope that people out there try and mimic your cooperative (or the other strategies we have or will feature) rather than present a 30 minute paper at IATEFL about how “mumblecore ELT” can liberate students from oppressive teaching, referencing Tony Blair, Ghandi and Paulo Freire
      We wish you the all the very best and will keep a close comradely eye on what you are doing.

  2. geoffjordan

    A few points arise from this “Strategy Paper”.

    First, it’s written in the tired, wooden voice of the worst Marxist preachers and penny pamphleteers. You yourselves “do not want to disappear too far into Marxist exegesis”. Teachers “exercise their trade”. Proudhon’s view of “the remedies towards inequality” look at the problem “from a different reality to Marx”. Things finally collapse into incoherence in the discussion of Proudhon’s and Marx’s political views. We read: “Marx was keen to point out that it was the regime of capital accumulation, the competition between capitals which led to this intensification of exploitation in the factory system and, therefore, was dismissive of Proudhon’s cooperatives trading on the market (without formal bosses); as exploitation was rooted in both the anarchic market competition over profit rates and the equal need to quantify effort and contribution solely in terms of labour hours expended”. Does that make perfect sense to you and your comrades?

    Equally badly written is the bit directly relating to SLB. You say “There is a clear conflict between equipping teachers with a new methodology and their own needs to earn a living as materials and course writers by offering an online course to teachers”. The sentence is a terrible mess. I presume you mean that our TBLT course runs the risk of being unrealistic and failing to appreciate that teachers, materials designers and coursebook writers can’t just do and write whatever they please. If that’s what you meant, well it’s a fair point; one that we’re well aware of, and one that Neil has replied to.
    What I don’t think is fair is the suggestion that I should bear in mind “the conflict between equipping teachers etc. etc., ….. before criticising others like Marek Kiczkowiak for doing the same on his TEFL Equity Advocates blog”. I criticised Kiczkowiak for using a blog devoted to defending the rights of NNSTs as a platform to advertise his own teacher training courses. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the matter, what Kiczkowiak did is quite simply, and very obviously, not “the same thing” as using the SLB website to advertise an SLB training course.

    Finally, you criticise Neil and I for being “far too soft on the phenomenon which is Scott Thornbury”. Your argument is typically tortured and badly-expressed, and I’m not at all sure what point it’s trying to make. Is it that by suggesting that Thornbury has made it, I’m celebrating inequality? Is it that Thornbury typifies “individualism, the self as entrepreneur, climbing hierarchies to achieve status and material comfort through the entertaining quality of their speeches and books”? Or is it somehow related to your general cliché about the need to discard rotten timber before building “the new house”? Whatever it is, in my opinion, Scott’s work has already done more to promote a progressive approach to ELT than your or my blog is ever likely to achieve.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. We fear, however, you may have got the proverbial wrong end of the stick. The purpose of our article was to inform our readers about an intitiative in Barcelona to set up a cooperative for teachers. We chose the SLB because it had a clear implication with the industry generally with improving all teachers pay and conditions and also wanted to make the classroom experience more satisfactory for both the student and practitioner. We were not writing an article about a course Geoff Jordan was a course tutor on. Nor were we submitting an essay to the Geoff Jordan school of preferred writing genres.
      We hear from the podcast that you believe too many people (I guess you mean working class) go to university and it should be restricted to people only as intelligent as yourself, but really it is for our readers to decide whether they want to explore the differences between Proudhon’s version of capitalism or Marx’s. You mention “capitalism” a lot, we wonder what you mean by it rather than just repeating the word a lot.
      Furthermore, we are genuinely sorry if you don’t understand why an organisation committed to decommodification (ie free education/free teacher training) should write “There is a clear conflict between equipping teachers with a new methodology and their own needs to earn a living as materials and course writers by offering an online course to teachers.” We fear the fault may lie with a reader who doesn’t understand decommodifaction ( indeed in favour of commodification) rather than ourselves.
      We quite understand teachers have to feed and clothe themselves and it is difficult to live a decommofied existence in a commodified world. That’s why your continued hypocrisy towards Marek Kiczkowiak is so unpleasant. Marek Kiczowiak promotes a co-authored book about teaching English as a Lingua Franca and training courses around this approach (what could be more related to the idea of Non-Nest / Nest equality than that?) and you accuse him of exploiting others. We are aware you defended some silly “vanguardists” way back in 1960’s London but since that time you have worked (if our contacts in Barcelona are correct) 25 years for an elite private business school (of course rich fee paying students are welcome to go to university but lumpens not) in Barcelona from where you flogged MA TESOL courses with the then manager. Where is your campaigning for equality? It appears you have dedicated your teaching life to promoting inequality. Morever, perhaps a hard up teacher from Gdansk (actually we are not sure where he is from) hasn’t got a nice middle-class home to invite rich people to stay over to do immersion courses (as per your CV/sales pitch on your website). People in glass houses, Geoff??
      So, is there really any point replying on the phenomenon (not the man – the phenomenon) which is Scott Thornbury. Given your track record on equality and your elitism, we feel our discourse would be too wooden and tired for you to understand.
      We really hope this young promising cooperative does not become Dorothea to your Edward Casaubon (See Middlemarch)

  3. geoffjordan

    I didn’t say that university entrance should be restricted to people only as intelligent as me.

    Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit.

    As to my “continued hypocrisy towards Marek Kiczkowiak”, let’s get it straight. Several years ago, I questioned his advertising tactics. Marek made suitable adjustments to his website and I’ve said nothing about it since. I’ve never accused him of exploiting anybody.

    You, an anonymous group, reply to my comments by accusing me of dedicating my teaching life to promoting inequality. That’s a despicable lie and I demand that you retract it.

    • Oh dear!! We really thought that was it on the matter but Mr Jordan continues to vent his anger elsewhere. So, just in case a visitor to these pages is mildly sympathetic to the bruised ego of an incredibly minor academic we will close the matter by saying:
      Mr Jordan’s view on university education can be heard on the second podcast of the current SLB podcast series.
      Mr Jordan’s comments on Marek Kiczowiak can be seen above and in an (as yet) unammended article on his website.
      We have always made it clear on our blog that whilst we recognise the value of education in general and ELT teachers in particular, we also recognise that neoliberal education in general and ELT in particular has served to strengthen inequality not combat it. So, yes, extra curricular English classes are great, homestays abroad are marvellous, as are one to one classes and all kind of things but…the fact that they are not available to all means those with access have an advantage over others (we thought this quite obvious). It should be particularly obvious when you teach at a private university for 25 years where the fees are over 33,000 a year. I am very sorry Mr Jordan but teaching Task Based learning to rich Catalonians on how to instruct their Nigerian maid, is not socialism nor anarchism. Similarly, we are very much in favour of further education for teachers and being able to study a Masters is wonderful. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford the expensive fees or the time, meaning they not only miss out on the opportunities but also certain jobs (thinking here of EAP).
      We do not seek to moralise on this subject and it is difficult to navigate earning a living with doing something positive in life. However, we did expect a little more humility and self-reflection on Mr Jordan’s part.
      That said we will put the fragile ego of a minor academic to one side and continue to suppport the excellent work for teacher’ rights of SLB coop (despite the aggressiveness and uncomradely nature of one of its members)

  4. geoffjordan

    On reflection, that “demand” sounds like something the Rev. Casaubon might say, so forget it. Say what you like.

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