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A Magazine for Sheffield

Agency in the Workplace: The Canary

Writer and editor Maryam Jameela tells us how the popular online publication was taken over by its workers in 2022 – and how worker-led organisations can help people be their whole selves in their work.

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Founded in 2015, the Canary is one of the UK's most popular politics news sites. In mid 2022, after its directors left the organisation, Canary writers discovered evidence of financial misconduct and decided to take matters into their own hands by setting up the Canary Workers' Co-op.

Maryam Jameela started as a writer at the Canary and now also acts as an editor, as well as a worker-member. Maryam told us more about the experience of converting the company into a worker-led collective and the reasons behind that decision.

Hello Maryam, and thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Okay, so straight into it. How has having ownership and control in your workplace changed your life?

In quite an alarming way, I think. Because initially, we wanted to become a co-op before any of the details emerged about the previous directors’ activities. We write about other co-ops, we write about taking control from bosses. But it's weird that we hadn't done that ourselves.

The thing that accelerated the process of us actually becoming a co-op, and the workers actually having control of the whole organisation, was when the directors left. What they left behind was the full financial records, which the workers had never seen before.

So when we saw all of that, we realised that there had been some things that were illegal, that broke the law in relation to Companies House and the directors interactions with shareholders, and there were some things that were not illegal but [that] the team had a big problem with morally.

We were always told that our jobs were at risk and if we didn't work harder, we were going to lose our jobs. That wasn't true, and we were actually making a lot of money. The thing was, directors would keep that money themselves via bonuses and directors dividends. Again, some of that was legal, some of it was illegal.

Maryam Canary

Canary writer and co-op member Maryam Jameela.

When we uncovered this information, it was never really a question that we were gonna have to reckon with this in some way. It wasn't an option to cover that up... The thinking behind the co-op was something that seemed to be the logical next step, but also the next best step, emotionally and morally. It was the check and balance system that we needed, because these were our colleagues, these were people that we thought were our comrades.

There was a big sense of betrayal, and a lot of anger and hurt, because these people weren't who we thought they were. I think naturally, it's very human within that to be like, ‘We can never let this happen again.’

Thinking about it from solely your perspective, why would you say that having ownership and control is particularly important?

I think that sometimes having hierarchical structure and having bosses for me has clouded ownership of my work.

I also think I hadn't realised how much that hampers what you feel able to do creatively. A lot of the writing that I do is political, and it's about dismantling certain structures. Having taken ownership of the Canary, I feel much more comfortable in doing the work that I actually want to do, rather than doing the work that I feel like I should be doing, because it's what a boss might want.

I feel like I've been able to check myself and not do things because it's the conventional way to do it, or because it's the established way to do it.

On the point of the co-op, it strikes me that the success or failure of that is predicated on collective understanding and mutual appreciation. So on that point, what commitments do you hold that are important for you to honour in your work?

I think disagreement is really important in a collective structure. You have to be really open to disagreement, because I think otherwise it's very easy to replicate a more corporate structure.

I think that knowing that we're all in it together has allowed me to lean on my colleagues emotionally, maybe more than I would have felt comfortable doing if we weren't a co-op that hadn't been through all this stuff in the last couple of years. And I think that that is sometimes the only reason I'm able to keep writing about the things that I write about.

I realised that it's really important for me to be with people who are going to seek out those questions and those answers, because it's something they believe in, because it's something that is part of their outlook. They're not waiting for me to go, ‘Hey, maybe we should care about this, right?’

But I also know that if I get stuck with something… there are people who I work with who understand the processes so much that I don't need to explain myself, I don't need to account for myself. Sometimes the conversation has already happened hundreds of times, so it's easier when it needs to happen again.

This sounds utopian.

I promise you it's not! [laughs]

But that shared outlook of mutual coordination and cooperation – that is the essence of how it's got to work, right? Again, slightly utopian lens on this, but I'm just going to come straight out and ask it: what’s the best thing that can happen?

I think I would like to feel comfortable enough to have a break. I think I've been involved in a lot of projects where there's no separation between my life and my work because it's very much together. I think when I started doing that type of work, I felt obligated to continue doing it without a break, because it was the feeling of: if I don't do this I feel like I'm doing a disservice to the things that I care about, and I'm not doing enough.

I think the longer I do the work, I feel like the question that people ask me the most is: what makes you hopeful? The only answer I've roughly been able to muster up over the last decade has been to know that when something fails, there's something to learn and you put it down, and you leave it. If you can't do something, there's a good reason why you can't.

I think the thing that would make me happiest is knowing that I could step away from something and my internal sense of self and how I see my place in writing about anti-racism wouldn't just completely cave in on itself.

Sounds perfectly sensible to me. It also perhaps begs the question: what do you need, what conditions are required or what inputs are needed from the community or from the team, or even from yourself, in order to make that happen?

I think it's really hard to blend together people of different political stripes. There's so much nuance in it because a lot of the time... these conversations will be described in terms of left wing and right wing, and I think in practice it's not really a useful way to think about it.

In practice with people that you work with, for something that is overtly political as the Canary it's really hard to blend those things together.

I think that there should be disagreement. And sometimes it needs to be okay that that disagreement means that there's no way forward, whether that's in terms of a specific article or a direction of content or the entire co-op.

I think there is a tendency amongst people in co-ops, because they're so difficult to set up and they're relatively rare, to scramble to preserve it at any cost. ‘At any cost’ often means the emotional, mental, physical wellbeing of the cooperative members and that can't be acceptable, because that is exactly what a capitalist structure is, where you're supposed to chip away at yourself in order to sustain this machine that is bigger than you.

Assuming for a moment that this kind of movement does continue to spread as it is demonstrably already doing, and if worker controlled organisations actually became the norm, how do you think communities, specifically in South Yorkshire, would change as a result?

I feel like it's become more apparent over the course of the pandemic, but it feels like people in general are more panicked and hurt and grieving, and there's a lot of loss. And I feel like worker co-ops are about bringing forward the connections that are already there without necessarily tying those connections to formal structure.

Within that, I very strongly feel like I've been in other situations with cooperatives or collectives where the fundamental point of the workers co-op is understood to be that we get rid of hierarchy. I think there's a difference between hierarchy and responsibility. In practice, it doesn't work for everything to be flat, because people are different and people have different experiences.

Canary banner
The Canary

At the Canary, for example, our current editorial team is made up of two brown women, a couple of trans people. We're all working class, we all have different sexualities… That's pretty rare for an editorial team. But all of us have different needs and different experiences and different interpretations of those things.

Somebody's identity on paper is different from how those identities work in practice. For example, whilst we have a majority brown editorial team, we have a majority white newsroom. If you leave these things to chance, naturally there will be more and more white people. We've all agreed that's not what we want, so it's our responsibility to check in on that.

I think that it makes sense within workers’ organisations that there are going to be people who take on more of a leadership role and I don't think that's something we should shy away from. Because I feel like the point is more to give everybody the best chance, and the difference between something that is ‘fair’ and something that is ‘equitable’. I think equity is something you work out and ‘fair’ is something that is more on paper. It might make sense on paper, but it doesn't work in reality.

People will often talk to me about how Sheffield and South Yorkshire have a tradition of trade union activism and activism in general. And we do, but even within that activism history, there's racism embroiled in it. We can't understand trade union history in Sheffield, in South Yorkshire, without understanding that it was a white supremacist goal in some way, because white supremacy always seeks to maintain itself. It does that by reaching for what it knows, and what it knows is other groups of white people who end up shutting out communities of colour.

You could use the example of trade union activism in South Yorkshire as an example of fairness, but we know that it wasn't. So I feel like ideally, collectives in Sheffield and worker-led organisations should give people the tools that they need to be like: What am I missing here? What am I missing in my experience? And through my identities, what can I literally not see, that could be in front of me, that somebody else could point out to me?

I feel like worker-led organisations are an opportunity to be your whole self in your work.

Hopefully, the idea of worker-led organisations should be that you can bring forward the connections that are already there, but also give yourself the time and the space to nurture those connections, so you don't fall into the conventional way to do things.

Next in series

Agency in the Workplace: Airmaster

Managing Director Lisa Pogson details how the local heating and cooling company moved to being owned by its workers – and what the future holds for Airmaster.

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