2010 CWCF Conference Review by Hillary Lindsay

2010_Conference_PosterNewsletter_100x100_0

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.

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