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