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Workers' co-ops in Canada gaining power, voice and stability

Image from CWCF, used with permission

For the past year few months, I have been following the story of Glitter Bean Café in Halifax. Baristas have helped build a unionized co-operative, with SEIU Local 2 as the union. The Glitter Bean is a café, a safe space for LGBTQ youth in Halifax, and a part of the baristas working to improve their lives and those of others.  

Their struggle started in 2013 when baristas working for Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op, one of Canada's first fair trade workers' co-operatives, started their fight for unionization. In 2017, Just Us! then sold its Halifax locations to another company called Smiling Goat, which was found to have not paid employees and suppliers. After Smiling Goat moved to shut down all six of its cafés, the former Smiling Goat baristas worked with allies and the union to start Glitter Bean. Their campaign is an illustrative story about working with both unions and the co-op model to stand for your values, improve your workplace, save your job and have a voice at work.     

One of the best quotes emerging from the campaign was "people with crappy jobs don't have to accept they have crappy jobs," as quoted in the Halifax Media Co-op. So many of us are grappling with how to improve our jobs and jobs in our communities. Co-operatives are one part of the answer.

So we started investigating how co-ops work and reached out to the Canadian Workers Co-operative Federation (CWCF). As part of our Constructing Change series, I interviewed Hazel Corcoran, who has been the Executive Director of CWCF since 1995. I was surprised to learn that worker co-operatives sometimes emerge from sole proprietors or owners of small businesses retiring and working with employees to transition the business to them. More commonly, they launch as new start-ups.

Activist Toolkit (AT): What is a workers co-op?

Hazel Corcoran (HC): Workers co-operatives are as old as the Industrial Revolution. As the Industrial Revolution and the increasing mechanization of the economy transformed society and threatened the livelihoods of many workers, workers and advocates started to build ways to collectivize in various co-operative models.

A worker co-operative is an employee-owned business which is run according to co-operative principles, such as democratic member control and concern for community. There are millions of people employed in worker co-ops in many countries around the world; they tend to be concentrated in countries and regions with the most supportive environments such as France, Italy, the Mondragon region of Spain, Argentina and Brazil. Here is a more comprehensive definition from the CWCF website. 

More and more people in Canada can't make ends meet and are working jobs which stifle their ambition, drive and creativity without much hope of making enough to meet all their needs; co-operatives provide an alternative. In fact, co-operatives, and tools which help them develop, are now appearing in the gig economy, as groups like stock photographers, cleaners and rideshare workers are building co-operatives to establish better working conditions and more genuine autonomy. A Canadian success story is Stocksy United, based in Victoria, B.C., in which 1,000 stock photographers in 65 countries co-own the platform. They are paid 50 to 75 per cent of sales, as opposed to the industry going rate of 15 to 45 per cent.   

AT:  What does the CWCF do?

HC: The Canadian Worker Co-op Federation started over 25 years ago. As a federation, we bring together our members under a vision "to be a growing, cohesive network of democratically controlled worker co-ops that provide a high quality of worklife, and support the development of healthy, just and sustainable local economies, based on co-operative values and principles." We provide support and tools for worker co-ops to help them succeed. CWCF can help through providing technical assistance on starting and running a worker co-op, through training and networking opportunities notably at our annual fall conference, and through loans from our Tenacity Works loan fund, as well as referrals to the new Canadian Co-operative Investment Fund.    

One recent tool we recently updated is our Worker Co-operative Resource Guide. We have filled it with useful links to information on forming a worker co-operative, success stories, and other tools which help you navigate the process. The CWCF staff and partner network of co-operative developers, CoopZone, have also built up years of experience and expertise. We also provide guidance to co-ops which join our Federation on difficult issues like managing financials, worker co-op governance, and other technical matters and help them navigate the pitfalls inherent in forming any enterprise, and a worker co-operative in particular.

AT: What are some ways you have seen co-operatives come about?

HC: You talked about Glitter Bean emerging out of a potential café closure and in conjunction with a union. The late Lynn Williams, the person the Activist Toolkit is named after, and his union, the United Steelworkers (USW), have been important supporters of this model of union collaboration with worker co-operatives. They built the United Steelworkers Worker Ownership Institute when their members were faced with plant closures across Canada and North America. In fact, in our resource guide we link to a toolkit (developed collaboratively by CWCF, USW and others) which details how worker co-operatives and unions can work together to address the jobs crisis specifically on buy-outs.

There are many great examples of worker co-operatives which have been launched as start-ups. They are often started by values-driven people in sectors such as fair trade, environmental consulting, green building, IT, etc. Two very successful ones to highlight are Sustainability Solutions Group, consulting on climate change mitigation, adaptation and related issues, and La Siembra Co-op, makers of Camino fairtrade, organic chocolates and other foods.

Another major issue emerging in Canada is figuring out business succession, as the many baby boomers who own businesses retire. The majority of Canadian businesses are small businesses which don't always have structures to coordinate their succession. When the time comes to figure out who will take over the business from the current owner of a company, workers are one potential solution. They helped to build the business and may be better equipped to run it than new owners who may carve it up, change the way the company currently runs or close it.  

One of many successful examples of a small business being transformed into a worker co-operative is the Careforce Home Care Worker Co-operative Ltd. in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. It started out as a family-owned business. The owner, Lay Yong Tan, had built a strong home care service company in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. When he wanted to turn it over, he reached out to CWCF to help convert it to a worker co-operative. Its success story is highlighted on our website.

AT: Are co-ops successful?

HC: Small businesses obviously face challenges, but co-ops tend to be more stable than other forms of small businesses and have less income inequality and more job satisfaction than other business forms. They are also an important option we must consider to keep companies going and moving out of the downward spiral in working conditions. Small business owners should consider selling their company to their employees when another buyer is difficult to find and jobs could be lost. There is support available to help make co-ops successful and we need to all work together to make them even more accessible to Canadians.

Because CWCF believes that the worker co-op movement has great potential which has not been fully realized in Canada, especially outside of Quebec, we've embarked this year on an important new strategic planning process. We are looking to learn from around the world, notably the U.S. where the movement has been growing rapidly, as well as from our own members and key leaders, for innovative ways to bring the movement to scale. 

If you want to learn more about the worker co-op movement and to join it, I encourage you to check out our website or contact us.

Image from CWCF, used with permission.

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