Campus Co-op’s Legacy

Campus Co-op Residence Inc. was formed by four University of Toronto students who, after seeing Toyohiko Kagama speak at a conference in Indianapolis during the 1935 Christmas break, returned to Toronto determined to start a co-operative of their own. Our first house at 63 St George was leased for a nominal fee from Victoria College starting in October 1936 and was strictly male-only. The co-op was entirely member-run, with all operations managed by students – including our first student general manager, Arthur Dayfoot. General meetings were a monthly occurrence, and kitchen and house committees dealt with all maintenance, food, and house issues, and members were expected to contribute 5 hours of volunteer labour to the co-operative every week. There was also an element of class consciousness to the early day’s of CCRI – the U of T residential colleges were much more expensive, and populated by the children of the elite, and there was a quiet but firm expectation that if a student could afford to live in one of the colleges they would not move into CCRI.

 

CCRI expanded rapidly throughout the 1940s and 50s by leasing many new properties. Leasing properties were seen as unstable, however, as we lost and gained new leased properties on an almost yearly basis. A semblance of continuity was maintained by giving new houses the names of houses we had lost. Some houses were purchased, but it was difficult to balance the desire for cheap rents with the need to build capital to purchase properties. We did purchase some houses in this period which we still own, however, including 95 Willcocks (1950), 582 Spadina (1956), and 596 Spadina (1958).

 

In the 1950s CCRI began its first experiment with hired staff – a “Summer Manager” position, which in 1961 became the position of General Manager when then-Summer Manager Howard Adelman convinced the board to hire him on full time. Adelman spearheaded a campaign for growth within the co-op, buying 14 new houses between 1961 and ‘64. This required raising the rents, which provoked resistance from the membership, but in the end Howard won the day and at a general meeting in 1962 the members voted for a substantial fee increase to make possible the purchase of more new houses. The houses purchased included all of North Division, the former Sussex Division, and in ‘67 Annex Division began to emerge with the purchase of 120 Madison and 614 Huron. The liberal 60’s also saw the decline of gender-segregated housing at CCRI. Also, in 1968, Campus Co-op was a founding member of the North American Students for Co-operation (NASCO), a North-American wide network for the advancement of student housing co-operatives and the student co-operative movement.

 

The now infamous Rochdale College was originally CCRI’s plan to build a modern student residence. However, CCRI’s original vision for Rochdale was precluded when the land we had purchased was zoned high density, turning our modest notion of 4 story residence to an unwieldy 18 story tower block. Also, disagreements emerged over whether the residence would be operated as an educational college, and this led to CCRI separating itself from the Rochdale project, and Howard Adelman leaving Campus Co-op.

 

The failure of Rochdale College cast a shadow over the student co-operative movement, which may have contributed to the beginnings of a material and social decline in CCRI during the 1970s. We suffered problems such as member apathy, inadequate maintenance and legal problems from the City. Worse, a decline in applications led us to eliminate the previously stringent member selection process, and even drop the requirement to be a student to live in CCRI during the school year (this condition would not be renewed until the 90s). There was even a proposal at the April 1974 General Members Meeting to dissolve the co-op entirely. Maybe it was the organizational nightmare that Adelman’s expansion had caused – the now larger co-op lost the cohesive unity of the previously smaller member-run organization with its monthly general meetings. Or maybe it was that the early 60s ethic of building a better tomorrow had fallen way to the late 60s “let’s get high and burn shit”, and the Co-op was paying the price. Either way, the greatest success story of CCRI is that despite hard times, we continued to survive.  

 

The 1980s saw the first major co-op wide renovation project. Partly funded by grants, these upgrades were done by paid staff, whereas previously house maintenance was mostly left to regular members. Between 1976 and 83 we operated a successful hostelling operation which raised significant funds for the Co-op, and was ended only due to legal issues with the city. Like the Toronto Heritage Residences program we operate today, it showed that CCRI can utilize its assets creatively and for the benefit of all its members.

 

In the early 1990s CCRI began to take on the form we know it by today. Financial matters were centralized to the office at 395 Huron (previously, rents had been collected at the division level, and often weren’t). The vacancy rate in Toronto was very low and we took the opportunity to evict our non-student year round residents, who made up about 20% of our membership at the time. However, this was also period of some financial recklessness – the rising property values of our houses allowed us to borrow funds at a dangerous rate, costs ballooned and CCRI ran deficients year after year.

 

In 2004 CCRI adopted “Restructuring” which continued the centralization of our governance structure. Division councils were stripped of their budgets, and the Division Chore member work requirement was centralized and became “Co-op Hours”. We distanced ourselves from NASCO, an organization we had been part of since the 1960s, and focussed instead on building connections between the Ontario student housing co-ops. In 2012 CCRI began hiring “House Managers”, who serve as member-staff in each of our houses. These new hired positions replaced the previously elected “House Representatives”, which meant the formal end of the Division Councils. In 2013 we renewed some ties with NASCO by beginning to send members to their yearly “Institute” conference in Ann Arbour Michigan.

 

In early CCRI we hired Wayne Brandt, our current General Manager. Since then we have seen an upsurge in summer revenue thanks to his Toronto Heritage Residence initiative. We have also embarked on a significant energy-savings plan which will make Campus Co-op better off both in terms of our energy costs as well as our carbon footprint. Our largest challenge for the future, however, is a project to undergo significant repairs to all of our century-old houses. By accessing grants and maximizing summer revenue, we hope to have upgraded all of our houses by 2020.

 

CCRI’s legacy fundamentally pivots around the positives and negatives of Howard Adleman’s expansion of the Co-op in the 1960s. On the one hand, he drove the expansion drive that led us to own 24 houses in downtown Toronto, making up the material basis of our organization. On the other hand, since that expansion we have struggled to maintain the democratic character of the co-op, slowly transitioning to an increasingly centralized organization where the average member has over time been less and less involved in communal work and communal decision making.

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Beamish historical park: a living history of life and class realities in Northeast England

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I’ve always loved living-history museums. Growing up I was lucky enough to visit many in Canada – grand ones like Heritage Park in Calgary and Fort Steele in south eastern B.C., and smaller ones closer to home – Burnaby Village and Fort Langley (both in the greater Vancouver area) come to mind. When I was four I also visited Beamish, a living history museum in the Northeast of England, while on a family trip. Now back in England, visiting the same family, I’ve had the chance to make a second visit.

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I’m not sure if I can sum up in a sentence what museums are for, but in my view living history museums give you a sense of what they should be for – granting you a felt as well as cognitive sense of how people lived in difference places and times. Of course there are limitations – we know so little about ancient times that a living history museum of, for example, Ancient Greece, would really tell us a lot more about ourselves than about the Greeks. This perhaps explains why living history museums tend to be started by people who still have a lived connection to the history displaced, and why they tend to be started only a generation or two after the oldest time portrayed on the site.

Beamish focuses on the Northeast of England during the height of industrialism. The large site, mostly farmland on rolling hills, is dotted with villages enacting different periods and different forms of live. Set in 1900 there is a town, railway station, a mining (“pit”) village, and a coal mine. In the 1820s there is a manor house, a farm, and a steam powered wagonway (early term for railway). There is also 1940’s (wartime) “home farm”. There are plans to add a Georgian area, as well as one set in the 1980s. Since the last time I visited Beamish was in the 1980s, I found that last one a bit of a shock, but really it shows the commitment of the place to be relevant in an ongoing way.

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Because it shows sites from different periods, it’s possible to make comparisons as to how people from different socio economic classes lived in different periods. I was absolutely floored to discover that an average mine worker from 1900 might live with 14 children, his wife, and grandparents in what basically amounts to one room and a loft – and yet, keep a parlor the same size again as the cooking/living area for use only on high days and holidays. Also, there was nothing meek about the way the mine workers house was decorated – if I wasn’t told it was a mine workers house, and I’d seen it only from the inside, I think I would have guessed it was a middle class house for a small family in the city. Decorated with quite ornate goods (both in the living area and the rarely used parlour), it felt aspirational, as if the whole place was laid out to convince (guests? themselves?) that the family was richer than they really were. And they really were not that rich: they did not own their home, and if for any reason no people in the house were any longer working in the mine (including if the workers were killed in a mining accident), they had to be out of the house in five days, so it could be ready for the replacement worker. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Britain if mine workers had put as much effort into organizing against capitalism as they did into pretending to be wealthier than they were. (This insight obviously applies equally, if not infinitely more so, to people today).

There is a standard way to talk about the lives we discover in historical museums: to say “oh dear, their lives were so hard, I can’t imagine living like that”. I used to repeat this kind of talk, and of course, it’s completely true: we are totally dependent on the most modern of privileges, we can’t imagine living without all the consciences of home. Cars, vacations, computers, appliances, these all cost huge amounts of our meager earnings, and yet we don’t want to go without. Living a washing machine, who could imagine? (Besides some hipsters in Brooklyn, who I’m sure have taken up hand washing as some kind of D.I.Y. craze).

Trying to think in a way that is a little more wordly, however, this “oh their lives were so hard” talk starts to feel deeply disingenuous. Why should I pity the life of a mine worker in 1900, a mine worker who could afford to have a parlour which he only used on Christmas and Easter, when the keyboard I’m typing on was made by someone who I’m basically certain is much materially poorer than he was? And as for working conditions, yes industrial age working conditions were bad – but there are still no global standards for industrial labor or resource jobs. Am I sure that the miners who worked to get all the specific metals required for my phone and computer had working conditions any better than miners in Britain in 1900? Or even 1800?

We look at the lives of people who lived earlier in our societies and see the hardship and struggle, and feel good about ourselves because things are so much better today. And they are, for us at least. But this can lead to a vulgar progressivism – to be honest we should think not only about how what is called “development” has made some people’s lives better, but also other’s lives worse. Who gets included or excluded when a new standard of living is achieved?

This hypocrisy in the way we perceive the living museum reveals problem of global capitalism from the perspective of labour is, in a nutshell, that trade and production is global but regulation is local. Coal is no longer mined in the U.K. in large quantities, not because the coal ran out, but because (and I know this isn’t the only reason) increased standards for workers safety and the high standard of living of workers makes U.K. coal production uncompetitive on the global market. The problem is, in essence, that British families have the right to buy coal from workers who work in conditions which would be illegal if their employer subjected them to. This is a real material form of benefitting from the national inclusion/exclusion barrier to legal guarantees of well being. 

Of course, Beamish helps answer this question as well – the presence of ideological content from the different periods helps explain how it was (and how it is) that British workers care more about status aspiration than about their own material oppression, and care little at all about workers elsewhere.

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It isn’t prominently displayed, in fact it feels like there might have been a purposeful downplaying of the Imperial narrative, but you can still find evidence of British Imperial propaganda around Beamish, and in working class contexts. The above banner is from the school house where the children of mine workers were educated (at least until they began to work in the mine). There were no maps of the world displaced anywhere in the school house, but if there had been I can be sure that every British colony would have been coloured red, and children would have been taught that the sun never sets on their empire. In the hallway there were paintings of British imperial battles, and the same in one of the mine workers houses. Some of those children might have gone off to fight in imperial wars. But those who didn’t, those who stayed home to work the mines, in a sense their efforts were equally important to Britain’s imperial-industrialist projects. And while I might be inclined to interpret the worker’s situation as one of being oppressed by the owners of the means of production, it’s also possible to see the British workers as lower status members of the British imperial “team”, members whose efforts were crucial to that “team” continuing to “win”, and members who have, in the long run, materially benefitted from those ongoing victories. After all, the very fact that we look back on those times as hard proves that today’s working conditions have, on balance, improved – and not only historically in relation to earlier British workers, but also geographically in relation to non-British workers. Maybe this is just what “winning” looks like, and the battle between nationalism and socialism is a conflict over which game we interpret ourselves as playing – are we playing the game where we want our country to do better than other countries, or are we playing the game where we want the production of the material needs of a society to be more or less a tool for reproducing the status privilege of wealthier families?

This perhaps helps us define very exactly what class aspirationalism actually is: the desire to improve the economic status of oneself or one’s family, without the desire to overcome the system of domination that allows those with higher economic status to extract wealth from those with lower economic status. And this same dynamic can be discerned on national (both Russian “socialism in one country” and British “socialism not communism” varieties are examples of this), and international (i.e. Trotskyist) levels. In all of these cases the defining characteristic appear to be a combination of seeing oneself as part of a larger group that shares common interests, caring about other members of that group, and distinguishing that group from another group or groups to which your group has either an antagonistic or neutral orientation, and about which you do not particularly care.

Perhaps the only example of socialism in action at Beamish is the presence of the co-op store in the 1900 town.

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The co-op movement started in Rochedale, also in the Northeast of England. Built and run by workers for workers, the co-op movement was a way of avoiding high prices. You had to be a member to shop there, and as a member you had the right to elect the board of directors which hired the workers and ran the shop. As such, everything was done in the interests of the co-op’s members. The co-op sold goods with a lower mark up than other stores, and they also dealt directly with manufacturers and sold goods under their own C.W.S. (co-op wholesale society) brand.

Co-ops are interesting. You can imagine a mine worker in 1900 who cares about his own well being and the well being of other workers, and sees his interests in common with them. He has the choice between joining the co-op society, or joining the union (working in the mine he has limited capacity for organizing). If he joins the co-op, he works for the interests of workers as consumers – improving the access to quality goods at lower prices. Imagine he has been elected to the board, and been enlisted with the task of finding a supplier for a new product which the co-op wishes to offer as C.W.S. (in-store) brand. He finds two suppliers that can offer the product at the same quality, but one supplier can offer the product more cheaply because of a combination of lower wages and less concern for workers safety. Which supplier should he choose? Because he is entrusted to work in the interest of the membership, who are workers but workers as consumers, he will most likely have to choose the supplier that can offer the product more cheaply, unless he can convince the board and membership to adopt some kind of “fair trade” standard for suppliers. This illustrates an interesting paradox: advocating for workers, but advocating for them as consumers, one can end up reproducing (or in some cases increasing) the exploitation of the very workers on whose behalf he is advocating.

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I want to finish this by writing about trains. This might seem like a strange departure from a post which has mostly focused on working conditions and worker’s consciousness, but bear with me. The steam locomotive was invented in the Northeast of England, and the importance of the locomotive to the history of industry in this area is obvious from the fact that there are no less than 3 different and separate steam railways at Beamish: a reproduction of the first railway locomotive ever (pictured above) from 1815, a typical mining railway from 1900, and a passenger railway from 1900. There is also an electric tramway that circles the park, bringing you between the different areas on vintage streetcars. In other words, trains are clearly very important for the history of this region.

But what does this mean for the lives of the people who lived here? The locomotive above only carried coal. It was a good deal better than horses at hauling coal – a horse could pull a half ton of coal along a wagonway, whereas this engine, named “steam elephant”, cold haul 90 tons of coal in a 15 wagon long train. It meant mines could be built farther from canals, which means more mines and more work. At a more general level, the steam engine (and this means primarily the stationary steam engine) was a source of work – work which elsewhere would have needed to be done by men or non human animals. Really what the steam locomotive is is a symbol of the transition to the fossilized carbon economy – where the key fuel transitions from food (from recently deceased plants), and the fact this transition happened here earlier than other places is not only a source of pride, but firstly one of material wealth. The actual mechanization of labour was slow – in 1913, which was the highest production year of the mine at the Beamish site, less than 10% of the coal was taken off the coal face by machine. But at the same time, if locomotives were the reason the mine could be there, and made it feasible to transport all that coal to market, then the workers benefitted deeply from the locomotive. Beamish has an incomplete mock up of a coal mine from the Georgian era. Basically a hope in the ground, topped by a wooden crane powered by oxen to lift the coal out of the mine. It was worked by a whole family, father and son underground, mother and daughter above working the animals. The transition to steam powered industrial mining meant that instead of the whole family needing to work mining, a family could buy their material needs from the labour of the men only. Another impact was the growth of new jobs in railroading. My mother’s grandfather worked for the Stockton and Darlington railway, a good step up from his previous job as Gardner. With that income he was able to buy a stately family home in Redcar, a stroll away from the seaside. And don’t forget the advent of the working class holiday- made possible by the railway as well.

So, perhaps the truth of this story is that what at first appears as false pretention (the aspirationalism of a mine workers parlour), is in the end a real material truth (opportunities arising from industrialism for class ascension). At least for some. And of course today the story is the opposite – young people leaving for want of jobs, pit villages are depressed, many houses deserted. The high street in Redcar, although nicely pedestrianized, does not show signs of economic prosperity. Perhaps this is not something that can be altogether separated from how good the museum is – places whose glories are in the past, it’s not wrong for them to celebrate them.