On 20 December 1968 at 82 Lutwyche Road, Windsor, a group of unionists held a meeting to establish a trading cooperative – the Union Cooperative Society. In 1969 the coop was registered and began trading. The UCS founders had a vision to take responsibility for bettering their own economic circumstances and their communities. They wanted to establish a business to supply goods and services to union members and the broader community at fair prices. By 1980, the UCS was supplying household goods, groceries, fuel, and running a credit union from six locations around Queensland - Brisbane, Ipswich, Redcliffe, Maryborough, Gladstone and Moura. A cooperative of this kind was a rarity in the Australian Labour Movement, even though cooperatives, mutuals and friendly societies were dominant forms of organisation among working people in industrial societies across the world at that time.
The UCS was established during the days of modest incomes and basic housing. For example, in 1967, only 60 per cent of Brisbane houses were connected to the sewers. UCS members committed to the values of self-help and mutuality to improve their economic and social welfare, rather than look to the church or the State for assistance. Economically, inflation was driving up prices, there was a tightening of the labour market and industrial unrest across the Commonwealth Public Service and the Post Office. Many people found it difficult to purchase the personal items that today we take for granted- stoves, carpeting, washing machines and cars. Banks were not interested in providing personal loans for vehicles and household goods to ordinary workers and hire purchase companies charged high interest rates. There was a lot of incentive for union members to pool their resources to ensure their financial security.
The initial application lodged with the Registrar of Co-operatives and other Societies in Brisbane, sort to establish a Society with the stated goals:
To promote and improve the economic interests of the members through mutual associations in undertakings carried on in accordance with co-operative practice and principles.
To carry on any business trade or industry specified in or authorised by its rules whether or a wholesale or retail nature
Each of the founding UCS members had to purchase five one-dollar shares and pay 5c per week into a common fund. The average weekly wage was around $55. The rules were amended in 1979 to extend access by allowing members of old age or an invalid pensioner to only purchase a single one-dollar share. The cooperative was established not to distribute the profits of the business back to members directly but instead invest the profits into the growth of the cooperative itself.
In the early days of the Co-op such goods and services included groceries, furniture, white goods, petrol, and financial services. It helped families source their day-to-day necessities, banking and other assistance. While the organisation was successful in providing economic benefits and security for members, it also worked to build strong ties within the union movement and between unionists and the broader community. The Co-op provided space for entertainment and gatherings, as well as for discussion and debate of the pressing issues of the times.
In 1969 the Co-op purchased 2 Latrobe Terrace (2L site), Paddington, which was the site of Brisbane’s first Cash and Carry supermarket. Paddington is an inner suburb of Brisbane, Australia. Over the 50 years that the UCS has been part of the Paddington neighbourhood, the area has changed remarkably - from being a traditional working-class suburb with strong Catholic ties in the 1950s and 1960s, to an area where socially progressive youth could afford to live. Thus, a counter-culture of cafes, clubs and share-houses emerged through the 1970s. In the 1980s, Paddington was one of the first suburbs to be gentrified in Brisbane, bringing developments, shopping arcades and a café culture. Reflecting the changes in its surrounds, the 2L site has seen many changes – retail, restaurant, professional offices, the Paddington Workers Club – yet every stage of its history held true to the Co-op’s values of community mindedness.
“I first met Hughie Williams at the Paddington Workers Club in Brisbane. This was a centre for union and Labor activity in the area. As you walked through the front door of the Paddington Workers Club—which is still there, although not as strong as it was in the past—there was a large picture of Hughie in his wrestling gear, in all his finery. It was a remembrance of the spirit and the courage of the man to see the fact that he was such a strong sportsman. But when you moved past Hughie as the wrestler on the wall, you saw his engagement in the trade union movement.”
The UCS has a 50-year legacy of furthering the economic interests of its members and the social agenda of the labour movement, while always keeping true to its values - equity, community and sustainability. While most cooperative enterprises are established solely to benefit their members – typically involving a trading (patronage) relationship where members buy and sell from the cooperative – the UCS has always had bigger social ambitions. The UCS is a multi-stakeholder cooperative, drawing together consumers, suppliers and workers. It is an organisation whose members are committed to the values and benefits of cooperatives and the labour movement. These values are embodied in UCS workplaces and how the UCS conducts its businesses. The cooperative has remained consistent in its vision to promote the economic interests of UCS members while contributing to a better society.