Worker Co-ops and the First Co-op Principle

By Kenzie Love

When it comes to the first co-op principle, voluntary and open membership, the International Co-op Association’s Statement of Co-operative Identity is quite succinct: “Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.”

This might seem straightforward on the surface, but dig a little deeper and several questions arise. Does the fact a co-op is open to all people willing to accept the responsibilities of membership mean it should be limited to members? What should the responsibilities of membership be? And how can a co-op ensure that its membership policies aren’t just non-discriminatory but actively in favour of diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

These questions, moreover, are likely to be especially significant in a worker co-op. Reba Plummer of Toronto’s Urbane Cyclist, notes that while the co-op strives to adhere to this principle, it also needs to employ the right people.

“We want it to be open and voluntary,” she says, “but it’s not quite the same as a consumer co-op where you’re shopping there to be a member, because we have to work together.”

While a worker co-op demands more of members than, for instance, a consumer co-op, it also asks for more from them than the typical workplace. For Emma Maganja of London Brewing, this means stressing to all prospective hires that working for them won’t be like the average position in the service industry, where employment is often short-term and precarious. 

“It certainly offers a little more investment and we always refer to it as buy in,” she says, “I think that the most important part is everybody, member or not, we do ask for everybody’s opinion and we all sort of work together on big changes.”

But the idea of allowing non-members of a worker co-op to participate in this way isn’t without its critics, such as John McNamara, Senior Cooperative Development Specialist at the Northwest Cooperative Development Center. He believes worker co-ops should follow what he calls the “closed shop” policy, whereby only members are allowed to work for the co-op. Doing otherwise, he argues, allows people to reap the benefits of membership without sharing in the obligations.

“They’re getting the benefits of membership in their job,” he says. “Even if there’s a pay differential there’s still a different focus on safe and humane working conditions, on worker participation, and these are all benefits that come from the co-op. And so, I think in that sense, people who are working in a worker co-op and aren’t members are kind of free-riding.”

McNamara acknowledges that the “voluntary” part of the first principle may be cited as a reason for maintaining what he calls an “open shop”, which allows non-member workers to participate in the co-op’s operations. But this then raises the question, he writes in an article on this topic, as to why workers wouldn’t want to become members.

“If we simply say, well, these workers don’t want to join! Then we must also ask, why don’t they want to join?” he writes. “What is creating the barrier? Is it a gender gap, a racial divide, a class division?”

Maganja acknowledges that barriers to membership do exist in the worker co-op sector, and that these are something worker co-op members need to factor into every step of their hiring process, from casting the widest net possible for job applicants to allowing membership fees to be paid in installments. The worker co-op movement is ahead of the typical workplace, she believes, in ensuring that membership is truly open to all, but there’s still work to be done.

“I think it really needs to be a core value of everybody’s organization and it really comes down to just making an effort and being aware of the biases that exist or the opinions the founders hold,” she says. “Everybody has a different experience, so I think it’s important for everybody, as owners especially, to take a step back and look at what your values are and sort of act accordingly. But I think worker co-operatives especially attract the kind of people who are going to be thoughtful about those things.”