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2010 CWCF Conference Review by Hillary Lindsay

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Peter Robinson is skeptical of the green economy.  “The green economy was constructed by capitalists,” says the CEO of the

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Robinson spoke at the  Canadian Worker Co-op Federation’s 2010 Conference, Worker Co-operatives and Sustainable Development, held in Vancouver from October 28 – 30th.

“Beware of the green economy,” said Robinson,  “It’s just a proxy for business as usual.”

Robinson’s warning was probably not necessary.  Attendees of CWCF’s conference were interested in anything but ‘business as usual.’

Eric Tusz-King works with EnerGreen Builders Co-operative in New Brunswick.  “As a co-operative our task is not just to build passive solar homes but also affordable homes,” says Tusz-King.

EnerGreen is different from most construction companies: The Co-op of 7 members is made up of both men and women; uses mostly renewable and recycled materials; aims to build affordable, energy efficient homes; and pays everyone the same living wage – no matter the role.

“Whether you’re a labourer, carpenter or manager, everyone gets paid the same,” says Tusz-King.  “The criteria we use for compensation is: Are you the same value to the co-operative?”

Carpenters are in short supply in the Maritimes, many have migrated to Alberta.  Tusz-King believes that a co-op that cares about its workers and community can help keep young people at home.

“When you have a co-operative, you have local ownership,” agrees Chris Diplock, with Vancouver Renewable Energy Co-op.  He says a co-op’s connection to the community can strengthen the community as a whole.   “You start seeing connection between what you’re manufacturing and what you’re purchasing and how that affects your local environment.”

A reoccurring theme of the conference was connection: connection between co-ops and the environment, co-ops and the community, and co-op members.

“At my co-op, the best thing we ever did was increasing our capacity to build relationships with each other,” said Rebecca Kemble, a cab driver with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative.

“Change doesn’t happen from information,” agreed Robinson.  “Change happens from relationships and networks.”

Lee Fuge works with the International Women’s Catering Co-op, which she describes as “underresourced in a financial sense and highly resourced in a community sense.”  The co-op’s website describes the membership as women from different cultures who were brought together through a co-op development project initiated by South Island Women for Economic Survival (SIWES) in 1995.  Although the co-op is not wealthy, it is supported by the community in a variety of ways, such as having access to a community kitchen for food preparation.

“I think there’s an opportunity to take back what the green economy means and make it something that’s more about justice,”  said Lindsay Cole, a director with Sustainability Solutions Group, a worker co-op with a mission to work with clients and collaborators to meaningfully integrate social, ecological and economic practices in their organisations and work.

Many conference participants were optimistic about the role worker co-ops could play in a more just, sustainable world.  “I think the co-op model really speaks to the transition to a more sustainable economy,” said Diplock.

It is therefore not surprising that conference participants were also interested in making the co-op movement more sustainable as a whole.  Part of that discussion was a debate about the case for indivisible reserves.

An indivisible reserve in a worker co-op is property owned by the co-op/ the co-op movement which can never be divided among members, and is created by allocating a set percentage of annual surpluses.

One of the arguments for an indivisible reserve is to prevent members  from privatizing a co-op once it becomes financially successful.

A co-op often takes years to develop, pointed out Alain Bridault of the Coopérative de travail Orion. After a couple decades – once the co-op is earning some money – it will be the current members that profit if the co-op privatizes.  “After 30 years, a capitalist organization comes and buys it up,” said Bridault, meaning it’s new members that benefit and the co-op disappears.  Thus, he said, “It’s impossible to build up the [worker co-op] sector because anytime there’s success it will disappear.”

In Quebec, it is legislated that 20% of a co-op’s annual surpluses is allocated to indivisible reserve, as a bookkeeping entry.

There are many arguments against the reserve, including the importance of members having autonomy over their own co-op, but several at the conference were keen on the legislation expanding outside of Quebec.

Bridault pointed out that the reserve could play a critical role in funding new co-ops.

Mark Goldblatt, past president of CWCF, described the indivisible reserve as a “critical movement-building tool.”

After all, Kemble pointed out, “We’re not worker co-operatives because we want to make a short-term profit.”

The case for indivisible reserves will be discussed throughout the year by CWCF members and a motion will likely be brought forward at the Federations’s next AGM, in Quebec City in 2011.

Hillary Lindsay is the editor of the Dominion Newspaper and Media Co-op