Worker Co-ops and the Sixth Principle

By Kenzie Love

The term “solidarity” is often bandied about in co-operative circles, but what does it actually mean? Part of the answer lies in the sixth co-op principle: co-operation among co-operatives. When their interests align, traditional businesses might sometimes collaborate: a temporary joining of forces in pursuit of some shared goal. But co-operatives, as their name would suggest, co-operate. And not just because it serves their interests but because, as the International Co-op Alliance’s (ICA’s) co-op guidance notes state, “it is the clearest expression of our common desire to create a better, more sustainable and equitable economic future for all humanity.”

Matt Adams of Fourth Pig Green and Natural Construction worker co-op agrees that there’s a contrast in this respect from traditional businesses.

“The vast majority of businesses exist in order to make a profit,” he says. “That’s the primary reason for existing, and that’s an important reason for existing for many co-ops, but not all co-ops.  It’s not always of similar weight as the points about community,democracy, and other principles. I think the co-ops are interested in seeing each other succeed, not simply to join forces in order to maximize surplus value (profit); they’re not just trying to maximize their shareholder value all the time.”

For the Fourth Pig, this kind of co-operation takes different forms. Adams is always willing to take a call or answer an email from another co-operative that is looking for advice, help his Co-op has received in turn from others. But the Fourth Pig has also worked directly with other co-ops, such as the Muskoka North Food Co-op, whose store it helped renovate. Indeed, Fourth Pig would like to do more business with other co-ops, but Adams notes this isn’t always possible. 

“Our preference would be to work with co-ops and charities, and nonprofits for the bulk of our work,” he says “but most of our work is still (with) private homeowners.”

Benedict Lau of Hypha Worker Co-operative, meanwhile, sees both practical and ideological reasons for working with other co-operatives. On the one hand, he notes, a worker co-op such as his can only grow so large before it becomes untenable, so working with other co-operatives enables it to outsource those of its needs it can’t meet to others while maintaining a comfortable size. But doing so, he believes, is also a way of strengthening the overall co-op system.

“Building this movement that we feel is the right way for people to organize work, it prevents the extractive relationships that happen so much in tech, namely, having these people who are more short-term profit driven,” he says. “It leads to unsustainability in a lot of relationships between platforms and users in the digital sense. So, I think building the overall movement allows us to have a better environment to grow within.”

Building the movement, Adams believes, isn’t just about celebrating successes. It also involves paying attention to problems within the co-op sector — and the people best equipped to highlight these, in his opinion, are co-op members themselves.

“Our own critique is going to be better informed than an external critique,” he says,  “because most people have no idea what a co-op is or how it works and they don’t understand it. So I’m not so interested in their critique. I am interested to hear from other co-ops, saying, ‘you can do this better or that better’, because they’re informed, generally speaking.”

It is for all the reasons articulated so eloquently by worker co-operators we interviewed for this article that CWCF’s members enacted in 2013 a policy to encourage co-operative procurement.  The emphasis is on supporting and purchasing from worker co-ops whenever possible, but it applies also to other types of co-operatives:  credit unions, consumer co-ops, multi-stakeholder co-ops, insurance (Co-operators), etc.  CWCF follows this policy and reports on it at our annual AGM. CWCF encourages its members to create similar policies and abide by them, for our mutual benefit.  We also encourage members to bring similar policies by resolution to local, provincial and national associations or federations of which you may be a part, whether for co-ops only or with a broader membership.  If we believe in the democratic co-operative model, it’s up to us to bring that message to others – all the while we live up to its values and principles to the best of our ability.  

In conclusion, no single co-operative is going to have all the answers to the challenges the co-op sector faces, just as they may also be unaware of all the opportunities that exist. By working together, however, co-operatives can address not just their own issues but those facing the larger economy as well.  This is what the Solidarity Economy means – and why CWCF’s tagline is “Solidarity Works.”