Government Support Is Critical to a Strong Worker Co-op Sector

By Kenzie Love

Co-operatives around the world employ 280 million people, comprising 10 percent of the world’s employed population, making for a significant if still comparatively small portion of the global economy. But co-operatives are also unevenly distributed globally, with worker co-operatives, at least, comprising a relatively small share of the Canadian economy (with the exception of Quebec). In pondering the question of why worker co-ops flourish more in some countries than others, cultural differences are often cited. But Hazel Corcoran, CWCF’s Executive Director, points to another important factor: government support.

“If we look around the world, the places where there are strong worker co-op sectors that are growing fast, they tend to have some government involvement,” she says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Diamond Isinger, Director of Advocacy for Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada.

“Government creates the environment, the regulations, the structures that allow co-ops to thrive or prevents them from thriving,” she says. “We have within our own control, of course, our own human resources, our own ideas. But if government policy is getting in the way and creating barriers, then we need to work to dismantle those barriers so that co-ops can better succeed.”

So what could Canadian governments do to better support worker co-ops? Corcoran believes that jurisdictions where worker co-ops have succeeded have met five criteria: strong co-op legislation; promotion of the co-op model; provision of technical assistance; offering co-ops access to capital; and giving co-ops aftercare to ensure continued success upon their creation. While she commends Canada for its co-op legislation, she believes it continues to lag in the other areas. The good news, she says, is that a significant shift in even one of the other four areas could have an outsized impact on Canada’s worker co-op sector, although it’s preferable to have more than one area improved, and ideally, it would be all of them.

“If the co-op sector, including the worker co-op sector, could convince the federal government to do something substantial to support development, it could be really transformative,” she says.

“And yet it’s very hard to convince them to do something without the kind of clout that we would need.”

The problem, Isinger argues, isn’t that co-ops are controversial from a political standpoint. She notes that there’s broad support for the co-op model across partisan lines in Canada, and points instead to the well-documented issue of a lack of awareness.

“They’re broadly liked,” she says. “They’re accepted by all political parties and players. But the challenge is that most folks don’t understand beyond the surface level.”

Corcoran does point to some recent positive developments, such as the federal government’s Investment Readiness Program, which has provided support to initiatives such as CWCF’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, Decolonization, and Inclusion (JEDDI) Business Conversion Project.  She also notes growing interest in the idea of employee ownership trusts. The challenge, she believes, is to ensure that government doesn’t lose sight of the worker co-op model as another means of achieving the same objective of greater worker control.

Given the huge diversity of co-ops within Canada (including in the worker co-op sector), Isinger notes that the pitch for increased government support will vary with the circumstances. But she believes a strong case can be made in every instance.

“Co-ops are a democratic forward looking model that connects very well to the government of Canada’s inclusive economic growth agenda,” she says. “If we want to create prosperity in a way that includes more people where more can benefit from economic success in our communities, coops are a very strong way of doing that.”