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Over 50 Co-operators Gather for Summit in Quebec City

by Hazel Corcoran, CWCF Executive Director

With the theme of “Meeting Worker Co-op Challenges of 2019”, over 50 co-operators gathered for the Worker Co-op Summit in Quebec City on June 17 (photos are available here).   It was a rare and special opportunity for members of worker co-ops belonging to the Quebec Forestry Co-op Federation, Quebec Paramedic Co-op Federation, Réseau COOP and CWCF to be able to meet and learn from each other.  Guest speakers included US FWC Executive Director Esteban Kelly by live video conference; Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC) Executive Director André Beaudry; Conseil de la coopération et de la mutualité (CQCM) Executive Director Gaston Bédard; and (on pre-recorded video), Noam Chomsky. 

The main themes explored via panels were worker co-op governance; the motivations to join a worker co-op; and federation services, with guest speakers covering other topics. 

To kick off the day, the three Quebec Federations (Forestry, Paramedics, and the Réseau COOP) and CWCF brought their perspectives on worker co-op governance.   Interestingly, the Forestry Co-op Federation explained that their members had previously voted that that the Federation require that member co-ops meet certain obligations.  For example, forestry co-ops that are Federation members must have an external director or advisor on their board of directors. All new board members must take training on the roles and responsibilities of a director, and every three years a co-op must undergo a diagnostic process called CoopFOR.  The Quebec federations offer training and direct support on worker co-op governance, whereas CWCF provides training through Conference sessions/ webinars, and can assist its members to work with co-op developers with the support of a technical assistance grant. 

All federations spoke to the importance of members understanding the different roles that worker co-op members have, and to know when they should wear which “hat” – as worker, as member, as board member, and (especially in the case of the paramedic co-ops), as a union member.  Board members must understand that when acting as a board member, they are legally obligated to look after the co-op’s interests. Speakers also stressed the importance of open communication,  noting that when a person is a worker in a co-op, it does not necessarily follow that they know how to govern, and hence training and outside support are important.  Following the Federations, Alain Bridault of Orion Co-op spoke to the particularities of governance in a self-managed worker co-operative, then three individual co-ops (La Siembra, Productions 4 Eléments and the Grand Portage Paramedic Co-op) communicated some of their experience.

Six different worker co-op members shared briefly regarding the motivations of people to found or join a worker co-op, at different points in time.  The longest-serving member, of the North Coast Forestry Co-op, had been a member for 40 years; the most recent (of the same co-op), for one year – with the remaining members serving terms of varying lengths.  Other co-ops represented were Just us Coffee Roasters Co-op, the Montéregie Ambulance Co-op, the Quebec Ambulance Co-op, and Cirquantique.  Some spoke to joining based on passion for what the co-op does (e.g., fair trade, circus work), others because they wished to have a voice and not “just be a number.”  There was a sense that worker-owners from a couple of decades, or more, ago were more willing to work long hours whereas younger workers tend to put a higher value on work-life balance.   In sum, the attraction to found or join a worker co-op was based on one or more of the following:  to have a voice / a vote, to be part of a values-based business, to work in an area about which one is passionate, and to obtain the financial rewards from operating the co-op. 

Each Federation briefly presented its services.  The Forestry Co-op Federation provides governance services to members as described above, as well as in management including financial and operations.  The Paramedic Co-op Federation is able to call on a variety of staff members to provide services to members, including in bookkeeping, legal services, human resources, and communications.  The Réseau COOP offers advisory services at preferential rates to its members, in the following areas:  human resources, governance, marketing, and financial management; it also offers a training program to start-ups called the Parcours Co-op which has successfully supported the launch of new worker co-ops.  CWCF provides annual Conferences, webinars, a technical assistance program for members including a granting pool, the Tenacity Works Fund, and an RRSP-TFSA program.  All federations offer government relations services.   One important question, raised by one of the federations, was how to handle the situation where a member co-op clearly needed some outside support which the federation could provide, but which the co-op would not accept.  There was no clear solution to this dilemma. 

CWCF also presented its strategic plan, with its focus on (1) Engaging / Strengthening Members (Worker Co-ops & Regional Federations), (2) Building the Solidarity Economy, and (3) Building Awareness and Scaling up Worker Co-operatives.  Some important points were raised in the discussion around the strategic plan.  In terms of what types of actors in the solidarity economy CWCF should seek alliances with, suggestions included fair trade organizations and environmental organizations.  A worker co-op member noted that it would be very helpful if CWCF could provide referrals to experts of various types (not only developers) who understand worker co-ops, e.g. lawyers and accountants. In addition, one of the Quebec Federations noted that it is not yet clear enough what CWCF wants to offer the Quebec federations; more work needs to be done around this issue but possibilities include help with federal lobbying, conferencing/ networking opportunities such as at this Summit, and focusing on worker co-operative identity as opposed to only sector focus (e.g., forestry, paramedic industries).

CMC’s André Beaudry spoke about the member consultations that CMC will hold over a six-month period starting in July with a goal to reframe its value proposition, as well as a series of research studies that CMC would soon be publishing.  CQCM’s Gaston Bédard spoke about CQCM’s focus on bringing out more strongly the impact of co-ops to the public.  To this end, CQCM will convene a large event for the entire Quebec co-op sector on October 22- 23, 2020. 

Noam Chomsky’s intervention was thought provoking (video is available here).  He notes that we need to get away from what Gramsci called “hegemonic common sense” which ignores workplace democracy among many things; “if something doesn’t come to mind in the culture, nothing can happen about it.”  He spoke knowledgeably about Mondragon, and the role of the IWW in the early part of the Industrial Revolution during which this union advocated for workers to own the factories that employed them.  His advice in our times, all the while understanding that there will be pushback, is to organize and agitate to seek to have workplace democracy more known. 

Esteban Kelly was the closing speaker.  Although he was not able to be present physically, his intervention was inspiring.  The worker co-op movement in the US is growing quickly.  Demographically, 2/3 to 3/4 of worker co-op members are women, and 60% are people of colour.  There is political support, notably in a variety of cities but also federally with the passage last year of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act.  There is a sense of growing interest in this model.  In response to a question about how they’ve done their base-building work, he said that at the USFWC, they have “dissolved their egos” and don’t necessarily lead with worker co-ops.  They speak out in support of other groups, and encourage them to include employee ownership.  E.g., they focus on being about climate resiliency, renewable energy, economic resiliency; they can tap into work that’s been done by other groups on these issues over the long haul. “We are meeting the community where it’s at.”  Important food for thought as CWCF and worker co-ops in Canada embark on partnering within the Social and Solidarity Economy. 

We ended the day with a reception where the participants had a chance to network with each other over wine and cheese.

CWCF greatly appreciates the efforts of all the following who made this Summit possible:  

  • The Quebec Paramedic Co-op Federation, notably Benoît Caron and Olivier Mercier,
  • The Réseau de la coopération du travail du Québec, notably Isabel Faubert-Mailloux, Mathieu Dionne and Erika Gaudreault,
  • The Quebec Forestry Co-op Federation, notably Jocelyn Lessard,
  • Official Languages Support Program of Heritage Canada, which helped to support the simultaneous interpretation,
  • Coop L’Argot which provided simultaneous interpretation,
  • The Ian MacPherson Legacy Fund which sponsored one participant,
  • Noam Chomsky, with technical team Crystal Zevon, Steev Hise, Raquel Mogollon, and Pan Left Productions who assisted in the making of the video;
  • Luc Audebrand for morning facilitation, and Mathieu Dionne for afternoon facilitation,
  • all presenters, panelists, and participants,
  • and all others who helped in organizing and delivering this Summit!