By Tommy Allen
The Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) was an inspiring demonstration of how much engaged citizens and workers care about their community. There were hundreds of participants, and the program was 36-pages long. Canada’s worker co-op community is less than a quarter of the size in comparison, but if you compare that per capita, Canada is doing really great.
The first surprise was that this program was bilingual, but with English and Spanish. Not only was some of the written material available in Spanish, but most of the sessions included live translation into Spanish via headset, and that work was contracted to a local NYC translation worker co-op.
The tour of Brooklyn worker co-ops included a grocery store, a co-op incubator, and a hospital. The Center for Family Life in Sunset Park was a unique place that not only helped immigrants and low-income people to form new worker co-ops (10 have been started, with 221 worker-owners), but could provide ongoing “back-office” support for several years (for phone calls, scheduling, bookkeeping, etc.). The Interfaith Hospital in Brooklyn had a strong story where the employees won the ownership of the hospital from the overpaid administrators. There was also a neat talk on Skyponic Farming, which would create a template of infrastructure in order to facilitate worker co-op hydroponic operations next to urban hospitals, providing employment and healthy food.
The plenary sessions/keynotes were very engaging panel discussions about “Building Power Together” and “Transforming our Cities”. The discussions touched on everything from race, poverty, and how to convince mayors about the importance of co-ops. One things that was never stated explicitly, was that both of these discussions were led and panelled only by women. It was a conscious choice by the conference planners, and speaks to the power of the cooperative model to empower those that work at a disadvantage in the typical white-male dominated capitalist system.
Throughout the sessions, it became apparent that there is a big different between Canada’s cooperative world and that of the United States. Canada has a clear-cut Cooperative Act, which varies from province to province, whereas the United States does not have a very consistent approach to the legal formation of co-ops. Many people, especially immigrants, must register their cooperative as an LLC (limited liability company), as they are not eligible to form as a legal cooperative. Cooperatives are not regulated by individual states, as they are regulated and sometimes financially supported by provinces in Canada. Rather, they receive support from various regional groups (such as The Cooperative Fund of New England), or city-supported organizations (such as New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives, known as NYC NOWC, pronounced “Nick Knock”). I thought that Canada was complicated, but the U.S. approach creates an even more complex relationship between co-ops and their supports. Overall, it seems that the best course of action for a U.S. citizen is to convince their mayor of the importance of co-ops.
A big takeaway from the conference is the idea of incubators. A session led by both Omar Freilla (Green Worker Cooperatives) and Matt Feinstein (Worcester Roots) conveyed how crucial their “Co-op Academy” programs were to the creation of dozens or hundreds of worker co-ops. I drew a parallel with SEED Winnipeg, where my worker co-op was born. I wondered why all cities don’t have a non-profit business incubator that is well trained in the worker co-op model. Brenden Martin (The Working World) led a session about debt and equity, and was an example of how a large international organization can instigate a lot of change in entire countries by providing easier access to resources such as capital. His main challenge was to get capital but without the capitalists owning it.
Some other topics included Platform Cooperativism, engaging youth in co-operatives (Toxic Soil Busters!), and some management strategies to deal with conflict and engaging members.
Probably the most impressive worker co-op that attended the conference was the Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA). Beginning in the Bronx as just 12 homecare workers in 1985, it now employs over 2000 people, and provides free training to over 600 low-income women annually. It’s amazing to see how a small idea gradually grew into something that now positively affects thousands, many of whom do not have many options.
All in all, it was a great Conference! As a relatively new Board member at CWCF, it provided me with connections to the US movement, inspiration, and new learnings to take back to the worker co-op movement in Canada.